The power of political dog whistles

The 2016 and 2018 elections were the headiest of times for dog whistles, but we might be about to say goodbye to them.


Politicians sometimes attack “globalists and “the global special interests.” My husband had always understood them to be staking out a position on economic policy – tariffs and Made in America versus free trade and global supply chains. Recently he learned another, wholly reprehensible meaning of these terms. To some people on the far right (and far left), globalism conjures up the false idea that there is an international Jewish conspiracy, loyal to no country, that is manipulating the world economy for its own profit. The word globalism, it turns out, is a “dog whistle.”    

Before the 1980s, the term dog whistle was pretty self-explanatory and perfectly innocent: It was a whistle used for training dogs. These were ordinary whistles at first, but Francis Galton, who happens to be Charles Darwin’s cousin, invented an ultrasonic one in the mid-1800s. Galton was curious about the limits of human hearing, so he designed a device that could produce very high-frequency sounds and went around blowing it at people and animals. People under 25 could hear up to 20 kilohertz, while dogs reacted up to 45 kHz, and cats to 64 kHz. As people aged, he found, their ability to hear the higher frequencies declined. This disparity has resulted in useful technology, from the whistle itself, which can call your dog without annoying your neighbors, to a so-called teenager repellent that prevents loitering by blasting noise that teens can hear but their elders cannot. 

It has also given English a powerful metaphor: a dog whistle is “an expression or statement that has a secondary meaning intended to be understood only by a particular group of people.” A select few hear and respond, but others aren’t even aware that a second meaning exists.

Usually dog whistling involves communicating something that society as a whole disagrees with or finds repugnant – something racist, anti-Semitic, or misogynous, for example – that only those in the know can hear. When a politician says that “we need law and order in the inner cities,” many people understand him or her to be making a statement that on the surface is hard to disagree with. The phrase’s target audience, however, hears it as something else, a suggestion that people of color (who are perceived as more likely to live in inner cities) are lawless and need a police crackdown to save them from themselves. Such racist arguments can be hinted at, according to the logic of the dog whistle, but not said aloud in political discourse.

The 2016 and 2018 elections were the headiest of times for this rhetorical trope, but we might be about to say goodbye to the dog whistle. Pundits have argued that during the current campaign cycle, many politicians are not bothering to cloak objectionable beliefs but rather shouting them with a bullhorn for all to hear.

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