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Author Describes How Dog-Whistle Politics Drive Harmful Policies

March 3, 2017

Dog whistles produce a sound so high-pitched only dogs can hear them.  Dog-whistle politics works in much the same way, said UC-Berkeley Professor Ian Haney Lopez. Haney Lopez gave the Robert R. Wilson Distinguished Lecture at Page Auditorium on March 2, and focused on the history of racially coded language in presidential campaigns.

“It is a metaphor for political speech that on one level is silent and on another triggers an emotional, race-based response,” he said.



For the past 40 years, the country has been electing politicians who use dog-whistle language, Lopez said. They have been dismantling the New Deal, which had helped create the greatest expansion of the middle class ever seen, helping create levels of wealth inequality not experienced since before the Great Depression.

The result of this way of thinking about race is not only bad for people of color, but it is “structuring society in a way that is bad for whites” as well, bad for anyone except the one percent, he said.

Dog-whistle politics emerged during the 1964 presidential race between incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater. Running on a “Great Society” platform, Johnson won decisively, with more than 60 percent of the popular vote. America appeared to be a fundamentally liberal country.

But Goldwater’s campaign won him several Democratic Southern states and showed that “the most committed New Dealers would vote Republican if appealed to in racial terms,” Haney Lopez said.

Since then, dog-whistle politics has been “a strategy, a cold, calculating strategy, of stoking racial fears to get votes,” Haney Lopez said.

In 1972, Nixon campaigned on law and order, and against forced busing. “It was the Southern strategy taken to the nation as a whole,” he said. “Did Nixon know he was dog whistling? Did he do it purposefully? You bet.”

Dog whistles today

In 2017, some people explain Trump’s victory as due to whites who have been suffering financial hardship, which led to scapegoating minorities. “But in 1972, white people were doing fine,” said Haney Lopez.

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  • Ian Haney Lopez speaking at Duke

    Ian Haney Lopez explained the role of "dog whistle politics" in the dismantling of progressive policies in the U.S. over the last 40 years. “Racism is a divide and conquer weapon that hurts us all,” he said.

Instead, he said, the cycle goes like this: white resentment first, which leads to changing government that is increasing favorable to the rich, then increasing hardship, then scapegoating and more resentment.

“I don’t think we are fundamentally conservative. I think we are fundamentally racially fearful,” he said.

Ronald Reagan perfected the narrative of “welfare queens” and “government is the problem.” The story was about hard-working, decent whites who are struggling because of government spending on lazy, undeserving people. The message was “hate government, trust the market,” Haney Lopez said.

That allowed Reagan to cut taxes for progressive programs by about $1 trillion during the 1980s.  Politicians have made cuts of similar size each decade since, he said.

Dog whistles were not used only by Republicans, he said, pointing to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.  In promising to end welfare as a way of life, Democrats walked away from black citizens and then the working class and turned to Wall Street for donors.

Then, “a new racial bogeyman was created after 9/11,” Haney Lopez said.

Racial fears were transferred to Muslims, with politicians saying they are not like us, they look different, have a different religion and culture. Those differences are presented as permanent and unchanging.

“That rhetoric was easy to transfer to Mexicans,” and to other illegal immigrants, he said.

Trump used dog whistling throughout his campaign, Haney Lopez said. He used provocative terms, but never explicitly referred to color, instead talking about inner city crime, illegal immigrants and terrorism. 

Cause for concern?

Haney Lopez believes Trump is a danger to the country.

“Trump is not committed to business, which needs stability, or to Republican or conservative values. He is committed only to his own wealth and adulation,” he said.

He raised alarms about several possible “worst outcomes” from Trump’s presidency, including war and climate collapse. Presidential advisor Steve Bannon has a “12th century mindset,” seeing Christianity and Islam in a war to the death, and Haney Lopez fears “Trump will see the advantage of war,” to keep power.

Regarding climate change, “The Trump administration is doubling down on practices that will make the problem worse,” he said.

He also predicted Trump’s need to feed from the “energy of a crowd when he promises to destroy their enemies will lead him to punish people as a spectacle,” he said, shredding the “social fabric of the U.S.”

“Racism is a divide and conquer weapon that hurts us all,” Haney Lopez concluded.

Haney Lopez did hold out hope. “The ideals of our nation are the way forward, that ‘we the people’ can govern ourselves for the benefit of all,” he said. “We will be a multi-racial society. But will we survive as a multi-racial democracy?” he asked.

Haney Lopez’s talk was also part of the Sanford PhD Distinguished Lecture series and co-sponsored by the Sanford School of Public Policy and POLIS, the Center for Politics, Leadership and Service.