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line drawing of a dog whistle
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dog-whistle politics. The communication of a political message intended to affirm solidarity with a particular constituency without catching the attention of other constituencies, especially those that might be offended.

As readers of comic books and boys' magazines of the 1950's and 60's know from reading the ubiquitous ads for them, dog whistles are magical. When you blow in one, its pitch is such that dogs can hear it, but humans cannot. The classic Acme Silent Dog Whistle, invented in 1935, produces ultra high frequencies in the range of 5800Hz. to 12400Hz.—well outside the range of the human ear.reference 1commareference 2With this knowledge, the meaning of the phrase was—to me—immediately apparent.

In these times, the U.S. President's annual State of the Union address contains dozens of phrases which strike most ears as mundane, but which are deliberate clues about the President's commitment to one agenda or another. In the 2008 Republican primaries, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was given to including obscure Biblical references in his stump speeches with the intention of catching the ears—and hearts—of evangelical voters.

In reviewing President-elect Barack Obama's past stands on education policy as an indicator of whom he would choose as Secretary of Education, columnist David Brooks used the term in its hyphenated form. “Sometimes, he flirted with the union positions. At other times, he practiced dog-whistle politics, sending out reassuring signals that only the reformers could hear.”reference 3 That he includes an explanation suggests that he is not confident that his readers are familiar with the turn of phrase.

The origins are not especially clear, though they appear to be recent. William Safire traced it back to an Australian journalist, Mike Steketee, who wrote in 1997 that it is a term “where a subliminal message, not literally apparent in the words used, is heard by sections of the community.” At the time, Steketee attributed it rather generally to “the Americans.” Safire followed up, but apparently the best the Aussie could recall was that he had not coined the phrase himself.reference 4

1. Wasser, Bernie. 2005. Whistles - Acme Dog Whistle. The Music House. Accessed Apr 25 2005 from http:// www.musichouseshop.com /store/ iw-11006.html.

2. Strain, George M. 2003. How Well Do Dogs and Other Animals Hear? School of Veterinary Medicine. Louisiana State University. Accessed Apr 25 2005 from http:// www.lsu.edu/ deafness/ HearingRange.html.

3. Brooks, David. 2008. Who Will He Choose? New York Times, Dec 5. Accessed http:// www.nytimes.com/ 2008/ 12/ 05/ opinion/ 05brooks.html.

4. Safire, William. 2005. Dog Whistle: 'Code Word' Gets Its Code Word. New York Times Magazine, Apr 24, 38.

The phrase has several spin-off terms:

dog whistle effect. In polling when responders hear something in the question that the pollsters did not intend.reference 5

dog whistle issue. An issue referred to in the process of dog whistle politics.reference 6

5. Barrett, Grant. 2005. Citations: Dog Whistle Effect. Double-Tongued Dictionary. Accessed Jan 8 2009 from http:// www.doubletongued.org/ index.php/ citations/ dog_whistle_effect_1/.

6. Barrett, Grant. 2005. Citations: Dog Whistle Issue. Double-Tongued Dictionary. Accessed Jan 8 2009 from http://www.doubletongued.org/ index.php/ citations/ dog_whistle_issue_1/.

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About the illustration: I looked high and low for an old advertisement from my youth without any luck. So I found a couple of photographs of an actual dog whistle and drew this one so you could see what one looks like.
cf: attack dog politics Last updated: January 11, 2009
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