Dog-whistle politics

DogWhistleBy S. M. Hali

“Politics”, a derivative of the Greek word politikos, meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens”, is the practice and theory of influencing other people on a global, civic or individual level. “Dog-whistle politics” is a term used for sending political messages in a coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific meaning for a targeted subgroup. It originated from a “dog whistle” which is used by dog trainers to send messages to canines, who have the capability of receiving high frequency signals, which are inaudible to human ears.

“Dog whistle politics”, a derogatory term, entails communication by politicians to masses during election campaigns or in the parliament, but may have racist, revolutionary or other distasteful connotation, only comprehended by the intended target. International and domestic politics is replete with examples of this deplorable practice. Ian Hanley-Lopez, renowned US law professor, in his book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, presents the case of Ronald Reagan as “blowing a dog whistle” when Reagan, while campaigning for the presidency, told stories about “Cadillac-driving “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps”.

In his book The fall of the house of Bush: the untold story of how a band of true believers seized the executive branch, started the Iraq war, and still imperils America’s future, where the title itself is self explanatory, distinguished journalist Craig Unger reveals thatPresident George W. Bush and his Senior Political Adviser & Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove used coded “dog-whistle” language in political campaigning, delivering one message to the overall electorate while at the same time transmitting quite a different message to a targeted evangelical Christian political base to win the vote from the US “Bible Belt”.

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Another illustration from more recent times from the above quoted book by Professor Lopez is that during the 2008 Democratic Primaries, several political pundits found fault with Hillary Clinton’s campaign’s reliance on code words and innuendo seemingly designed to frame Barack Obama’s race as problematic, saying Obama was characterized by the Clinton campaign and its prominent supporters as anti-white due to his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright; as only able to get black votes; as anti-patriotic; a drug user; possibly a drug seller; and married to an angry, ungrateful black woman. Obama himself was accused of dog-whistling to African-American voters by using a blend of gestures, style and rhetoric, such as fist-bumps and walking with a “street lope,” that carefully affirmed and underscored his black identity.

Closer to home, in our domestic politics, we find our own parliamentarians indulging in dog-whistling. On the floor of the house, they fight, joust and attack each other tooth and nail, hampering legislation aimed at bringing relief to the masses. Contrarily, whenever a bill favoring the parliamentarians’ personal perks and allowances comes up for approval, dog-whistling to set aside antagonism, the entire house unanimously approves it in the twinkling of an eye.

During the ongoing political tussle between the ruling PML (N) and the protesting PAT/PTI duo, numerous instances of dog-whistling come to light. Despite the fact that the opposition and the ruling dispensation do not see eye to eye on numerous issues and would have liked to see the government fail yet again, yet they chose to tether together. Not since they wanted to rescue the apple cart of democracy from being toppled over but apparently they considered an alliance with the ruling junta to be the lesser of the two evils. The protesting duo is breathing fire and brimstone threatening with punitive action against corruption in a milieu where everyone has skeletons in their cupboards, which best remain under wraps. Thus their closing ranks!

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More dog-whistling became apparent after the verbal duel between Chaudhry Nisar and Aitzaz Ahsan, when both exploded on the parliament floor leveling serious charges against each other of corruption as well as treason against the party leader. In any other democratic institution, the grave allegations by both protagonists would have merited judicial inquiry but the PM swallowed a bitter pill and apologized on behalf of his estranged senior minister and everything became hunky dory because clash of interests was neither on the cards, nor chinks in the armour permissible in face of the protesters’ onslaught on the parliament.

Similarly, the alleged Trojan Horse of PML (N) in PTI, Javed Hashmi exposed his true colours by pointing fingers at the Armed Forces being behind the political impasse. All politicians jumped at the opportunity to discredit the defenders of Pakistan and unite in the whispering campaign against the military, in another bout of dog-whistling. The military spokesperson has categorically denied any role by the Khakis but the reprehensible dog-whistling persists.