Dog Whistle Politics and Worker Power
In 1964, on the day he signed the most momentous civil rights act in a century, President Lyndon Johnson confessed to an aide his fear that “we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”2 Johnson recognized that the civil rights movement’s success in improving black lives was simultaneously increasing white anxiety, and he expected a significant but temporary political backlash. He failed to anticipate that the GOP would purposefully construct a strategy around covert racial appeals that would last into the present and encompass the whole country.
Through 1960, Republicans and Democrats were roughly equally committed to civil rights. In the rising racial insecurity, however, the GOP thought it saw a wedge it could drive with a sledgehammer. The New Deal coalition that kept returning Democrats to power was made up of working-class whites in the North and South, African Americans, and Northeastern liberals. The GOP realized it could use race to shatter that coalition. Coming out of a meeting of the Republican National Committee in 1963, the conservative journalist Barry Goldwater attempted this new attack in 1964, saying “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 or 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” Outside of the Deep South, the tactic failed and LBJ won in a landslide. By the new decade, however, racial panic was more widespread, and Richard Nixon opted to build his 1972 campaign around racism. Using terms like “law and order,” “forced busing” and “the silent majority,” Nixon embraced dog whistle politics. As Nixon’s special counsel, John Ehrlichman, explained: the “subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.” That year, Nixon won 70% of the white vote—including the vote of many workingclass, unionized whites. Just eight years after it seemed unassailable, the New Deal coalition had been broken. No Democratic candidate for president has won a majority of the white vote since.
Robert Novak reported: “A good many, perhaps a majority of the party’s leadership, envision substantial political gold to be mined in the racial crisis by becoming in fact, though not in name, the White Man’s Party.”
Notwithstanding the energy Nixon poured into scapegoating minorities, stimulating racial hatred was never his main goal. Instead, his agenda was simply to win elections. From other politicians, though, and with the backing of big money conservatives, a new goal soon emerged: use dog whistle tactics to break popular support for government efforts to ensure a strong working class.
Government is essential to a broad and shared prosperity. Laws help protect the rights of working people to speak for themselves; regulations guard against marketplace fraud and abuse; government pays for the public goods like education and infrastructure that provide routes of upward mobility and that boost the whole economy; and the state provides a safety net in times of individual hardship or structural economic dislocation. From the New Deal through the Johnson administration, this version of activist government aimed at helping people was broadly popular.
Yet some among the rich hated these government efforts. More than anything, they loathed the taxes they had to pay to support liberal programs. In addition, they bristled when government regulated their business practices to protect workers, consumers and the environment. For all their anti-government rhetoric, though, the financial titans didn’t desire to actually do away with government: they wanted to control it for themselves. For the super wealthy, government is both an enemy and an opportunity: an enemy to be defeated and an opportunity to be seized, by bringing government’s power and dollars under their sway.
More than Nixon, Ronald Reagan masterfully exploited dog whistle politics to trash good government. There’s a racial story Reagan liked to tell that illustrates his method. Looking out to his overwhelmingly white audiences, Reagan would explain how he sympathized with their frustration when they waited in line to buy hamburger, while “some young fellow” ahead of them used food stamps to buy a T-bone steak. When he first tried out that story, he didn’t say some young fellow buying steak; instead, he said it was a young “buck”— a Southern term for a strong black man. This language was dangerously explicit, and many criticized Reagan for racial pandering. Rather than abandon the story, though, he simply dropped the racial term, leaving the racial imagery clear to his audience: blacks were lazy and larcenous, ripping off society’s generosity without remorse; whites were hard workers who played by the rules, and as a reward were struggling to make ends meet.
Then as now, there was dire need in working-class communities for better jobs, schools, transportation, parks, health care and, in general, for more economic security, and Reagan tapped into this sense of workingclass panic. But instead of offering actual solutions, he offered a scapegoat—and then, he pursued policies that were mainly good for the very rich.
Again, racism was not the point. The point was to use racism to weaken government as an effective counterweight to the power of private wealth. In Reagan’s telling, government was the real enemy, showering people of color with welfare giveaways funded by tax dollars taken from white pockets. Reagan also picked up Nixon’s law and order theme, constantly criticizing government for weakly enforcing criminal law. The combined message was venomous: government coddled nonwhites with welfare and slap-on-the-wrist policing; meanwhile, government victimized whites by taxing their paychecks and refusing to protect them from marauding minorities.
Having peddled this poison, Reagan then hawked a supposed antidote, ultimately selling working families the policy preferences of the plutocrats. If government is the real culprit, Reagan said, then strike back: cut taxes; slash government spending; get government out of the ›marketplace. Over the course of two administrations, Reagan pursued these policies with the support of many Democrats, including many union members. But when he cut taxes, it was for the rich; when he slashed government spending, it was on social spending, while he increased corporate subsidies; and market deregulation meant corporate capture of the regulators, leading to market fraud and workplace abuses.
These are the years when wages stopped rising with productivity, when economic growth stopped driving better lives for average Americans, and when surging inequality began shoving the economy out of whack— and these trends have continued ever since.
Economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich and Paul Krugman are all crystal clear on the main drivers of crippling economic inequality: weak unions, minimal government spending on education and infrastructure, tax cuts and trade policies set up for corporations, and regulations written by industry.3 Where they falter is explaining why so many voters—including union members—support these policies. Dog whistle politics helps answer that question. Popular support for the policies serving the rich has its roots in culture war politics, and mainly in race-baiting.
Bipartisan Whistling and New Enemies
If the basics of dog whistling were set in the Reagan years, three big changes have occurred since.
First, dog whistling became bipartisan. Bill Clinton campaigned and won on the following themes: ending welfare as a way of life; cracking down on crime; and curbing government spending. In other words, Clinton defeated GOP racial politics by imitating it. To be sure, Democrats have been less aggressive than Republicans in serving the interests of corporate elites.44 But even so, for the last three decades the fundamental pattern in American politics has been a dog whistle competition with both parties appealing to the racially anxious. The result has been an overall tracking to the right on key liberal markers. We would not have the pervasive cuts to the safety net, the dramatic rise of mass incarceration, the highest sustained levels of deportation the country has ever seen, or the shift to corporate-friendly market re-regulation had Democrats not frequently decided to adopt rather than oppose racial politics.
In the second big change, the racial boogeymen conjured by dog whistle politics expanded beyond African Americans. From Goldwater through Nixon and Reagan, blacks were the main targets.
After 9/11, new racial fears took hold nationally, one involving Muslims and another Latinos. Both were increasingly presented as dark-skinned foreign invaders, crossing our borders and threatening our way of life.
Fox News is full of dire warnings about radical Islamic terrorists penetrating the heartland. Simultaneously, almost no warning about the mortal dangers associated with “illegal aliens” sneaking across the southern border—they’re drug smugglers and rapists!—is too extreme for politicians to trumpet.
Third, as the 2012 election showed, dog whistle frames that once applied to nonwhites increasingly brand the working class generally. Mitt Romney’s infamous 47% video caught him explaining to his wealthy backers that he had given up on those in the bottom half of the country by income. These were people, Romney declared, who “are dependent on government”; “believe that they are victims”; think that they are “entitled” to health care, food and shelter and that “government should give it to them”; and refuse to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Dog whistle politicians sold the country these narratives by applying them to blacks—but here was Romney, using them against working-class whites, too.
Romney lost, of course, and this may suggest to some that dog whistling, even as it has evolved, is losing power. But this ignores how Romney did among whites. Blowing his whistle, Romney carried three out of five white voters, not just in the South but all across country, including a majority of men but also of women, with Romney winning majorities in every age cohort, even among the youth.
At 59%, Romney’s percentage of the white vote has only been significantly exceeded twice in the last 50 years, by Nixon in ’72 and Reagan in ’84.
Yes, Romney lost the election, but if he had won just 3% more of the white vote, he would have won the popular vote nationally.5
And then in 2014, GOP candidates for Congress won that additional 3% of the white vote. Meanwhile, among whites without college degrees—the group once seen as the backbone of unions and Democratic power—64%, or nearly two out of three, voted Republican.6 Today the GOP draws well greater than 90% of its support from white voters, even as its elected officials are 98% white. From Reagan to Romney and now Trump, Republican politics depends on using race to scare fearful voters into supporting policies primarily geared toward helping wealthy elites.
Whites Aren’t the Problem
The constant talk of whites—of white voters, of white anxiety—might make it seem like all white persons are vulnerable to dog whistling, and by extension, that nonwhites are immune. Both notions are false. Susceptibility to dog whistling is not determined by ancestry: it does not afflict only persons of European descent, and minorities can be fooled by conservative racial appeals, too.
Dog whistling depends on “whiteness.” Rather than being a matter of biology, whiteness is a social orientation, a worldview. Those who believe in whiteness see lightskinned people as decent and deserving, and dark-skinned others as deviant and dangerous. To subscribe to whiteness is to believe that fair features make you a good person while darker color renders you less than fully human. This worldview may be openly held, as it is among Klan members and skinheads. Or it may be deeply internalized, a product of routine racism (more on the different forms of racism in the next part). Either way, it is not ancestry or features, but whether people tend to see the world around them in terms colored by racial stereotypes, that makes them prone to dog whistle manipulation.
Obviously, among those of European ancestry in the United States, many adhere to whiteness as a worldview. For example, the Fox News viewership is almost exclusively made up of whites (or more accurately, of those who uncritically accept the notion that they are white). These viewers tend—and are encouraged—to have a deep commitment to whiteness, to the belief that race reveals something important about human worth. That said, the overlap is only partial. Only about one in four whites is an avid Fox fan, and even if one includes every white person who votes Republican—and surely not all are driven to do so by racial anxiety—this is only three in five whites, meaning that at least 40% of whites cannot be readily manipulated through appeals to whiteness.
Meanwhile, whiteness is a problem among people of color, too. Even among minorities, large numbers adhere to the belief that color defines those who are makers vs. takers. One dynamic is racism between minority groups; another is racism within nonwhite groups. Not infrequently, the more privileged—in terms of color, education, social position and wealth—give credence to routine stories of racially coded worth and worthlessness. These people, too, can be convinced to vote their racial position against their economic interests.
Demography Will Not Save Us
Many seem to think that dog whistling is losing power simply because the number of whites in the country is falling. If whites are 62% of the population today, the Census Bureau tells us, they will become a minority nationally in less than three decades. Does this spell a natural end to racial manipulation in politics?
No. For starters, the social science is clear: as whites become aware that they are losing numerical supremacy, they generally become more racially anxious and shift rightward politically.7 This may be contributing to the Trump phenomenon. Richard Spencer, the head of a right-wing think tank, offers this explanation for Donald Trump’s popularity: Trump reflects “an unconscious vision that white people have—that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon. I think he is the one person who can tap into it.”8
Far from convincing whites to get past race, constantly emphasizing changing demographics may perversely increase white racial resentment and thus create even more fertile grounds for dog whistle politics.
Also, the color line will likely shift. “White” in the United States expanded from those of English descent to include Germans and then the Irish, and then expanded further to include Italians, Poles and Jews. Today, the white category includes anyone of exclusively European descent. This is a story about a dynamic social category, not a fixed biological one, and we are likely in the midst of another rapid expansion in who counts as white. White identity is quickly becoming available to those of non-European descent, provided they are sufficiently light, with Anglicized names, excellent English, and high economic or professional status. Those who can now claim a white identity increasingly include light-skinned Latinos, East Asians and South Asians as well.
The current expansion of whiteness matters. To take just the case of Latinos, while the census predicts that whites will be a minority in less than 30 years, this is only true if the census excludes the large number of Hispanics who identify as white. If the census counts these white Hispanics, then the white population is expected to grow to 72%. Recall, the country is 62% white today. Instead of being in a period of contraction, we may be in the midst of a surge in the “white” population.
Notwithstanding rapid demographic change, we cannot sit back and wait for dog whistle politics to die a natural death. Dog whistle politics is a strategy. Power is the game, and those who stoop to demagoguery could not care less about recruiting some nonwhites or blurring the boundaries of white identity.
Dog Whistling Unions
Playing one race against the other long has been a foul tradition in the American workplace.9 Dog whistling carries this into the present, and expands it into the electoral realm, with right-wing politicians from Nixon to Trump winning support from union members through coded racial appeals. In addition, since the 1990s, unions themselves have become targets of dog whistle attacks. Business interests and their reactionary allies have tried to trash unions by tying them to people of color and government.
Public-sector unions have been especially vulnerable because they involve government workers, many of whom are minorities—a result of historically limited opportunities for blacks and browns in the private sector, as well as of government integration efforts.10 The right has seized on the confluence of state work by people of color to cast public unions as yet another example of the government subsidizing nonwhites. In this telling, (minority) public workers are lazy, incompetent and uncompetitive in the private marketplace, making public-sector union jobs just like food stamps—more government handouts to undeserving minorities.
Private-sector unions have not escaped taint, for the right repeatedly ties even these unions to government. Conservatives pillory private-sector unions as special interest groups that use the power of government to extract higher wages than they deserve. In this rendition, trade unions use laws requiring prevailing wages to shake down employers, making them “big government special interests” run by “big government union bosses in Washington,” to use Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s verbiage.
Conservatives are demonizing public- and privatesector unions the same way they once demonized poor black women on welfare. Unions and union members are the new welfare queens—painted as undeserving, scheming, irresponsible and larcenous.
And dog whistling is not just a problem in how the public sees unions. It also creates debilitating cleavages within the labor movement. For instance, private-sector unions have fallen for some of the rhetoric attacking their public-sector allies. When Wisconsin’s Walker went after public-sector workers using anti-government rhetoric, he simultaneously praised private-sector unions and workers and thus gained some of their support. But back in 2011, when a billionaire donor asked “Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state and work on these unions,” Walker responded “Oh, yeah.” Then he explained: “The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.” And so he did, eventually turning on the trade unions, too.11
Perhaps the greatest split in labor today involves public safety unions such as those representing the police, prison guards, firefighters and border agents. Partly, tensions between these and other unions arise because the former remain disproportionately white, a legacy of past discrimination. More importantly, the conflict stems from how they are positioned with respect to dog whistle politics.
Dog whistle politicians constantly drum out a message of danger from “criminals” and “illegal aliens,” and over the last few decades both political parties have competed to show who is tougher on these supposed threats. As a corollary, politicians frequently celebrate the police, prison guards and border patrol agents as heroes doing dangerous jobs that protect the heartland. But without taking away from the real dangers and stresses of public safety work, the dog whistle narrative about first responders is fundamentally racist: it’s a tale of saviors protecting white society from dangerous minorities. It’s one thing to talk honestly about the genuine risks faced by public safety workers; it’s another to constantly bolster racist stereotypes.
Beyond the rhetoric, in an era of otherwise falling wages and high unemployment, the massive build-up of police forces, prisons and border control facilities also has produced solid jobs. For unions representing workers in these areas, it can be difficult to look critically at the larger political context that is behind some of this. In the end, however, the truth of who benefits and who loses from dog whistle politics wins out. While with one breath they “support the police,” with the next conservative politicians endorse prison privatization and rail against government pension benefits previously common among all workers. Public safety workers should “think hard about where their better interest lies and who their true allies are,” warns Roger Toussaint, the former president of Transport Workers Union Local 100 in New York. He cautions, “Having worked to isolate them from the communities they serve as privileged and singing them praises as ‘the finest,’ ‘the bravest,’ ‘first responders,’ [the politicians] switched up on cops and firefighters, declaring their pensions to be ‘unsustainable’ and depicting them as undeserving recipients of welfare.”12
Sexual Orientation and Gender
Race isn’t the only dog whistle out there. Instead, race is part of a larger culture war that urges voters to resent other working people rather than focus on corporate power.
For decades, the right channeled fear and anxiety around sexual orientation into resentment of liberals and big government, for instance in campaigns against state-imposed “gay marriage.” The Supreme Court’s endorsement of marriage equality in 2015 reflects the power of social movements, and signals increasing social acceptance around sexual orientation. But it will not end anti-gay dog whistling. Instead, as in other areas, we should expect to see evolutions in the seemingly neutral terms used to mobilize gay panic. Two contenders already are emerging: the tried and true language of “states’ rights,” which pretends that the issue is the excessive power of the federal government rather than prejudice; and “religious liberty,” which insists that religious principle rather than anti-gay bias drives hostility toward sexual-orientation minorities.
Beyond sexual orientation, gender is another major culture war front. When Hillary Clinton backed health care reform in the 1990s, the right savaged her for promoting a nanny state—thereby casting good government as an overbearing woman that infantilizes men by presuming to take care of them. Similar gendered themes will proliferate in this election cycle, sometimes presenting Clinton as too feminine (weak, emotional, volatile), sometimes as not feminine enough (cold, uncaring, ambitious), and sometimes as feminine in the worst ways (domineering, manipulative, castrating).
Gender also will be a prominent subtext to the GOP campaigns against abortion and reproductive services. Couched in religious terms about the sanctity of human life, the abortion debate plays into narratives of Christians under attack and liberals as uncaring, immoral urban sophisticates. In addition, though, the raging debates about Planned Parenthood and abortion bans with no exceptions for the life or health of the woman call into question the place of women in society. Do virtually all women belong at home, serving as mothers and wives? Is it wrong for women to work outside the home, to pursue financial independence, or to be primary breadwinners? By politicizing women’s access to reproductive choices, the GOP stokes resentment against women who work— our sisters in the labor movement.
Gender also figures prominently in the workplace, making it easier for employers to devalue the work of women, especially women of color. Racism and sexism are not merely additive, each contributing its own independent quotient of burden. Instead, racism and sexism often combine to rationalize especially intense exploitation and dehumanization. From subminimum wage restaurant positions to domestic work and home care, from garment industry jobs to underpaid labor in fields and factories, many of today’s most vulnerable and exploited workers are women of color.13
Moreover, as terms like “crack babies” and “anchor babies” demonstrate, dog whistling frequently targets women of color as depraved or opportunistic mothers, and their children—even their infants—as criminals in training. The normal cultural reverence for mother and child often is reversed for nonwhite women—innocence replaced with guilt, celebration with condemnation, protection with persecution. In this context, unions must give special attention to the ways that gender and race structure unfair working conditions, and unions must strongly contest race- and gender-based dog whistling.
With union density at century-long lows, unions must look beyond their own borders and work on behalf of and eventually seek to organize broad swaths of unrepresented workers, many of whom will be people of color and women. Unions can do this successfully only by deeply engaging with how gender in addition to race has been used to erode worker solidarity.
- 2. Quoted in Ian Haney López, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, 211 (2014). Other unattributed quotes and statistics in this paper are from this source.
- 3. Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal (2007); Robert Reich, “Inequality for All” (documentary), http://inequalityforall.com; Joseph Stiglitz, The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them (2015).
- 4. Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (2008).
- 5. Chris Cillizza, “How many more white votes did Mitt Romney need to get elected in 2012? A lot.” The Washington Post, Aug. 4, 2014.
- 6. Thomas Edsall, “The Demise of the White Democratic Voter,” The New York Times, Nov. 11, 2014.
- 7. Maureen A. Craig and Jennifer A. Richeson, “On the precipice of a ‘majority-minority’ America: Perceived status threat from the racial demographic shift affects White Americans’ political ideology,” 25 Psychological Science 1189 (2014).
- 8. Evan Osnos, “The Fearful and the Frustrated,” The New Yorker, Aug. 31, 2015.
- 9. David R. Roediger and Elizabeth D. Esch, The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History 5 (2012).
- 10. Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor 182, 260 (2013).
- 11. Jason Stein and Patrick Marley, “In Film, Walker Talks of ‘Divide and Conquer’ Union Strategy,” Journal Sentinel, May 10, 2012; Dan Kaufman, “Scott Walker and the Fate of the Union,” The New York Times, June 14, 2015.
- 12. Quoted in Sarah Jaffe, “Black Labor Organizers Urge AFL-CIO to Reexamine Its Ties to the Police,” Truthout, Aug. 13, 2015.
- 13. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, Tipped Over the Edge: Gender Inequity in the Restaurant Industry (2012).