Saturday, September 29, 2012

Dog Whistle Politics and the Age of Angry White Men

Way back in 1980, right after his successful anointment at the Republican convention, Ronald Reagan chose to give the first kickoff speech of his campaign in Philadelphia. Okay, sure, makes sense – large seaport city steeped in history, birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, and home to Star-Spangled Banner seamstress Betsy Ross. Yeah, Philly's a great idea.

Wait, what? Wrong Philadelphia?
It was Philadelphia, Mississippi??!!
Philadelphia is a small town in central Mississippi that had fewer than 7,000 citizens in 1980. What would possess Reagan and his campaign handlers to give his first speech there, of all places?
Well, let's turn the clock back again, just an additional 16 years, to June of 1964, when three young civil rights activists, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Cheney, were brutally murdered by white supremacists. In Philadelphia, Mississippi. Does that ring a bell? It might. The story was made into a gripping 1988 film called Mississippi Burning.
[click here to see a larger version]
In that speech Reagan went out of his way to state that he was a supporter of "states rights". States Rights means that the Federal government has no right to interfere in the running of the government of a state; in case you've were home-schooled, that was the reason the South cited as their justification to erupt from the Union, try to form their own nation, and start the Civil War.
To the neo-Confederates in the South and Racist Republicans everywhere it could not have been clearer that Reagan used this opportunity to let white citizens know that he was on their side and wouldn't tolerate any "uppity Negroes" demanding things like, I don't know, being able to vote, for example.
States Rights was regularly trotted out over the 20th Century whenever those black people wanted to go to integrated schools, wanted to get paid a decent wage at a job with safe working conditions, wanted to walk down the street without fear, wanted to vote. The good ole boys in the South would get outraged and scream that supporting and encouraging those actions violated their sacrosanct concept of States Rights.
This speaking in code is called "Dog Whistle Politics", and the Republicans have elevated it an art form. You know how dog whistles operate: You blow in it and only dogs can hear it. The science of psycholinguistics can identify phrases and words that are used as a kind of secret code to let the inner circle know that what you are saying perfectly feeds into the world view that you are trying to create. That's how their use of coded words and phrases work.
Remember the Chicago Welfare Queen? She was routinely trotted out by Reagan, her with her numerous children (all of them "illegitimate", of course) which she popped out regularly in order to cash in on generous AFDC payments and increased Food Stamps, cruising around in her brand new Cadillac, all paid for out of the hard-earned taxes of "real" Americans. It didn't matter that she never really existed – all that was necessary was for the racist portion of the American public to picture her, an overweight black woman with a dozen kids, a new El Dorado, and an overinflated sense of personal entitlement.
It's older than Reagan. Richard Nixon's call for Law and Order came on the heels of the media's sensationalistic coverage of rioting blacks in America's inner cities. It's newer than Reagan. The 1988 campaign of George HW Bush against liberal Democrat Michael Dukakis was epitomized in the infamous Willie Horton ad, which according to Lee Atwater, its architect, put a murderous black prison escapee into America's living rooms and frightened people into voting for Bush. And it worked. Sadly, these things generally do work, which is why they keep doing them.
At the Republican convention, Mitt Romney said "…when the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American", was that a not-so-subtle dig at Obama for being somehow "foreign", not one of us, someone not even born in the USA, someone who was – gasp –  black? You be the judge.

1 Comment:

the yellow fringe said...

"Take back our country" is another. This is nostalgia politics, a fantasy they have of fewer minorities and whites only bathrooms.
Obama's people play the game a little bit too. "Forward" is if not a dog whistle an opposite that some recognize and a more positive overall statement, forward not back. For many of these old racist this election or the next is their last. Maybe we won't have too many taking their place.