The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Everything Old is New Again: Dog-Whistle Politics

June 26, 2005

There’s another mention of “dog-whistle politics” over at Political Wire. Taegan Goddard quotes from a recent Congressional Quarterly article by Craig Crawford:

Dean and Durbin were trying to rally their faithful with the harsh, red-meat language that partisans enjoy, but they have a lot to learn about how to deploy the stiletto instead of the assault rifle.

One reason Republicans keep Democrats on the defensive is how effectively they speak to their partisan ideologues and still manage to avoid a backlash from moderates. Speaking in words that the faithful understand — while sounding innocuous to the uninitiated — is how the modern game of niche politics is played.

Bush is a master at this time-honored practice. He showed his expertise again at the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville last week, which got little attention from the national media but still allowed the president to achieve maximum impact with a core constituency.

…. [S]o many reporters and producers missed Bush’s revival of a plan he had seemingly abandoned: to ban gay marriage by constitutional amendment. “Because marriage is a sacred institution and the foundation of society,” he told the throng of 10,000, “it should not be re-defined by local officials and activist judges. For the good of families, children, and society, I support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage.”

But another reason for the paltry coverage was how Bush couched his language. He never mentioned the word “gay” or anything close to it. Instead, as he has done before, Bush phrased his call to action purely as an effort to support marriage.

It does not take an NSA code breaker to interpret Bush’s words as support for banning gay marriage. But in the linear world of news wire reporting and the primary colors of television coverage, you can see how this slipped by. Most mainstream news coverage, including the Associated Press story, did not mention it.

The religious press, meanwhile, wasted no time heralding Bush’s renewed interest in a gay marriage ban. The Christian Post, an online news outlet, led its story on Bush’s speech with his statement “opposing gay marriage.”

Stygius also provides a good summary of the argument.

One can find discussions of this sort of political strategy at least as far back as Machiavelli, but one of the most important accounts is in an oft-quoted American Journal of Sociology article by John Padgett and Christopher Ansell: “Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400-1434” (1993, 98:6, pp. 1259-1319). According to Padgett and Ansell, the capacity for robust action involves “multivocal” (or “polyvalent”) signaling:

the fact that single actions can be interpreted coherently from multiple perspectives simultaneously, the fact that single actions can be moves in many games at once, and the fact that public and private motivations can be parsed. Multivocal action leads to Rorschach blot identities, with all alters constructing their own distinctive attribution of the identity of ego.

Padgett and Ansell’s work has been very important to my own research on the logics of empires, particularly in terms of the dynamics of imperial legitimacy. Empires often have segmented network structures, in which imperial peripheries are isolated from one another or, at the very least, lack cross-cutting governmental and institutional ties. Thus, they feature heterogeneous audiences that are not densely or strongly connected to one another, but are linked indirectly through a central actor.

For example, the British ruled India and Kenya as distinctive entities. Each involved a different set of audiences with different identities and interests. Empires have, I argue, an easier time managing the difficult tradeoffs inherent in imperial rule if they can signal different – and sometimes even mutually exclusive – identities and purposes to different peripheries. A very ‘rough-draft’ version of this argument can be downloaded here.

When I give my generic talk on empires and imperial dynamics, I always illustrate the advantages of multivocal signaling by talking about the 2000 election in the US. I’ve long believed that Bush’s success in the 2000 election was a product, in part, of his strategy to signal “true conservativism” to the faithful while signalling moderation to swing voters (think of all those images of him with minority children, for example). In this light, Nader’s run was so costly for Gore not just because of the votes Gore lost, but because Nader’s “republicrat” rhetoric reinforced the main goal of the Bush campaign: to blur his differences with Gore vis-a-vis mainstream voters.

George W. Bush ran in 2000 as a “compassionate conservative.” The term was carefully designed to signal different identities and values to different audiences. To conservative Christians, the most important interest within the Republican party, “compassionate” and “conservative” are redundant: to be a “compassionate conservative” is to be a hard-right conservative. To moderates and swing voters, however, the addition of “compassionate” presented Bush as a softer, less hard-line conservative, i.e., the exact opposite of what the slogan signaled to hard-right conservatives. Multivocal signaling is most effective when the two audiences either cannot or do not communicate with one another. If they do compare notes, they may demand clarification from the signaler.

The big question when analyzing these sorts of strategies is whether the success of multivocal signaling is:

1. Connected to the particular characteristics of the speaker.

2. Driven by carefully crafted rhetoric and thus a function, in essence, of good public relations.

3. Primarily influenced by the structure of social relations, i.e., depends on manipulating, creating, or increasing audience segmentation.

Democrats have focused a good deal on the first and the second lately. There’s always an impulse to find the Presidential candidate who can magically connect up core Democratic constituencies, yet also reach out enough to the “center” to win the White House. On the other hand, we’ve seen a lot of talk about proper “framing” over the last year or two. Indeed, an increasing number of commentators worry that Democrats and Democratic activists are getting “drunk on frames”.

My own view? The attributes of individuals are always going to be important to successful “robust action,” but they are likely to be useless without the right rhetoric. Yet it can be dangerous to focus too much on either of these factors, particularly if one does so without recognizing the essential structural preconditions – the relations and interactions that exist, or do not exist, between different audiences – for “dog-whistle politics.” These structural factors can be shaped by political strategy; indeed, they are likely to be shaped by the interaction of the rhetorical, mobilization, registration, and campaign tactics of both sides. Yet they are not as mutable as many of the Democratic bloggers and pundits who brainstorm “new frames” believe.

Filed as:, , , , and

website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.