Republican dogwhistle politics explained

19 mins read

Republican dogwhistle politics explained

Republicans use dogwhistles to send racist messages that many can’t hear.

How are dogwhistles used to persuade people to vote against their own self-interest? What are the top 20 common Republican dog whistles?

This Google Doc has the full list. Please share other Republican dogwhistles to add to this list here.

What is a political dog whistle?

A dog whistle, as in a pitch so high only a dog could hear it. When politicians say national populism, or illegals, or in the right context States’ Rights, or super predators, or tough on crime, or law and order, they don’t always mean the words they are saying. Instead, they are offering a “dog whistle” to their base. Dog whistles are code words that turn what is supposed to be a good thing into a dirty word like “welfare” and “tax cuts.” For example “Hollywood, liberal, Jews” is a placeholder for the American left.” – Fact Myth

“Just as an actual dog whistle is heard by canines but imperceptible to the human ear, political dog whistles are understood by one group of voters but missed by everyone else. Politicians use dog whistles to make promises to their supporters but hide their position from others.” – Washington Post

How dog whistles work

As explained by Lee Atwater, former Republican Party strategist:
“You can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you. Backfires. 
So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. 
You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes. 
And all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is that blacks get hurt worse than whites. 
And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. 
But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. 
You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” – HandWiki

Dog Whistle politics

“Dog whistle politics persuades people that minorities are the enemy, supported politicians who promised to curb illegal immigration and crack down on crime. This gets them to vote for policies that favor the extremely rich, such as slashing taxes for top income brackets, giving corporations more regulatory control over industry and financial markets, union busting, cutting pensions for future public employees, reducing funding for public schools, and retrenching the social welfare state. These same voters cannot link rising inequality which has impacted their lives to the policy agendas they support, which resulted in a massive transfer of wealth to the top 1% of the population since the 1980s.”

Dog whistles push middle-class white Americans to vote against their self interests. “Reagan was ‘blowing a dog whistle’ when the candidate told stories about “Cadillac-driving ‘welfare queens’ and ‘strapping young bucks’ buying T-bone steaks with food stamps” while he was campaigning for the presidency. He argues that such rhetoric pushes middle-class white Americans to vote against their economic self-interest in order to punish “undeserving minorities” who, they believe, are receiving too much public assistance at their expense.” explains Ian Haney López, explains in Dog Whistle Politics.” – HandWiki

How dog whistles are used

States’ Rights refers to “the right of the state” to not follow the same rules as the Federal government. Pre-Civil War that debate was central to “the right to own slaves” and “the right for new states to be slave states.” (Fact Myth). After the Civil War, it became the right to:

  • Deny Civil Rights
  • Trample Voting Rights
  • Deny social welfare programs
  • Deny rights to poor people
  • Not expand Medicaid

Plausible deniability

“Covert dogwhistles are not bound to the regular meaning of an expression allowing the speaker to plausibly deny the covert appeal.

Newt Gingrich: “Over here you have a policy which, with Reagan and me as speaker, created millions of jobs—it’s called paychecks. Over [t]here you have the most suc- cessful food stamp president in American history, Barack Obama.” (Dogwhistle: African American are lazy)
Journalist: Are you implying that African Americans are lazy?
Newt Gingrich: I don’t have anything against African Americans. Why do you think that?

The veiled nature of covert dogwhistles sharply contrasts with the transparency that their conventional character gives to semantic presuppositions and conventional implicatures. Plausible deniability isa powerful features of covert dogwhistles. It allows the dog-whistler to reverse the accusation, for instance, by accusing the opponent of playing the race card.” – Academia

20 Republican dogwhistles

Personal Responsibility

“It’s not your conditions but rather your actions which are responsible for where you are. This is said despite Republicans passing legislation which gave away 270 million acres of land, for free, which jolted the U.S. economy, created personal opportunity, and wealth that could be passed down, creating, well, better conditions for white people.”

Big Government

Code for federal assistance — such as grants, SNAP benefits, unemployment, health insurance. It is also used to describe federal protections — such as regulation and civil rights. It claims government being too big and too involved in the lives of “individuals.” 

Job Creators

Means people who own businesses that employ other people. For conservatives, this really means rich people. When 10% of the population controls 76% of the wealth, the last thing the Republicans and their rich donors  need is even the slightest, burdensome tax increase.

School Choice

Means students shouldn’t be bound to attending schools in their local neighborhoods, but rather should have the freedom to attend any school that fits their needs. School choice for Republicans is a code word for segregation and allowing discrimination. It is a code word for the privatization of public schools. Rather than federal dollars going to public schools for teaching improvements or community learning, Republicans believe those dollars are better spent in the form of a voucher, which can be used toward tuition at a private or charter school. 

The real game: Invest in cheap property in an under-served area, build a charter school on one of your properties, use public funds as vouchers to increase enrollment, purchase supplies and services from the companies of board members or donors, and hire and fire as you please with no teacher’s union involvement. Then, see your investment pay off over several years as the area is gentrified, your property values go up, and you receive 39% tax credits on your initial investment. So desegregation is now a good thing as long as we make money off it.

Activist Judges

“These are judges, usually appointed by Democratic presidents, who uphold any law passed with a Democratic majority or rule against any law passed with a Republican majority. On the contrary, judges appointed by Republicans who uphold conservative laws or strike down liberal laws are referred to by conservatives as, “originalists,” or, “defenders of the constitution.” It’s cool if we do it. Just not you.”

States’ Rights/Leave it up to the states

“Means that states should be free to implement discriminatory, racist laws without the federal government intervening. Because it took executive orders, literal acts of Congress, and federal intervention to end racist laws, conservatives intellectualize their defense of these issues by invoking terms such as individual liberty, government overreach, or, unconstitutional. So in other words, “We don’t think the government should tell you that you can’t discriminate, so we’ll leave it up to the states which will turn a blind eye to protect your individual liberties, such as the right to discriminate.”

Critical Race Theory

Code to derail efforts to promote talks about racial diversity, equity and inclusion in the public schools there. Black students complained about being the victims of racism and microaggressions. By ignoring these complaints, the White parents attending school board meetings to blow the CRT dog whistle have proven to us that they believe their fears and resentments about a manufactured CRT controversy are more valid than Black students’ actual grievances. –

Illegal immigrants

Republican code words for undocumented aliens referred mainly to Latinos and especially to Mexicans. – History Network

Islamic terrorism

Used to offends millions of Islamic people in America who view massacres with the same disgust as Christians, Jews, and others in the United States. ‘Radical Islamic terrorist’ associate decent individuals and families with people who engage in crimes against humanity.” – History Network

America first

Claims that America’s legal immigration system should be curtailed to those that can contribute not only economically, but have demonstrated respect for this nation’s culture and rule of law. It calls for infrastructure that “reflects the architectural, engineering and aesthetic value that befits the progeny of European architecture.” It states that public infrastructure “must be utilitarian as well as stunningly, classically beautiful, befitting a world power and source of freedom,” specifically citing the example of the ancient Romans. – MSN

Real Americans

Code for white right-wing Christians. Treating “evangelical White Christians” as a synonym for “right-wing conservatives” does no justice to the millions of evangelical white voters on the Christian Left or those who are not political.” – HandWiki

Minimum Wage 

“We aren’t going to pay you a living wage “because of socialism.” We are sending half the family to jail where they will work for even less. When we say “lazy minimum-wage workers,” we aren’t just talking about teenagers entering the workforce.” – FactMyth

Tax Cuts

“Tax Cuts.” Don’t worry, we are going to cut welfare, but we’ll also give you liberty and freedom from the welfare state. As you know, rich white people love creating jobs for poor black people. Just think about all the black people who have worked for white people in the past and how empowering it was.” – FactMyth

Moochers & Takers

Moochers and Takers. A moocher is someone on welfare. If welfare isn’t enough of a clue, let’s add in a word that sounds suspiciously like the N-Word. To this I say, “Yes, genius, poor black people took everything, that is why they have so much. It couldn’t possibly be those whose wealth increases every year, who collect interest payments and profit off debt. Let’s just keep blaming black people.” – FactMyth

Law & Order

Law and OrderNixon, Reagan and Trump have all called for “Law and Order.” Are they trying to rally the base innocently? Did someone forget to tell them this is code for the N-word? We know they don’t mean “Law and Order” on Wall Street or K Street. On which streets do they want Law and Order? Do they mean Law and Order as it was used to give “The United States the world’s highest incarceration rate and (it) hosts more prison inmates than all other developed nations combined” – HandWiki

Supreme Court Justices

“President George W. Bush and Karl Rove used coded “dog-whistle” language in political campaigning, delivering one message to the overall electorate while at the same time delivering quite a different message to a targeted evangelical Christian political base. Bush’s criticism during the 2004 presidential campaign of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision denying the U.S. citizenship of any African American. To most listeners the criticism seemed innocuous, Safire wrote, but “sharp-eared observers” understood the remark to be a pointed reminder that Supreme Court decisions can be reversed, and a signal that, if re-elected, Bush might nominate to the Supreme Court a justice who would overturn Roe v. Wade.” – HandWiki


“Trump released a closing ad for his campaign repeating offending lines from that speech, this time illustrated with images of prominent Jews: financier George Soros (accompanying the words “those who control the levers of power”), Fed Chair Janet Yellen (with the words “global special interests”) and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein (following the “global power structure” quote). The ad shows Hillary Clinton and says she partners “with these people who don’t have your good in mind.” – Washington Post

Shariah Law

“Claims that brown Muslim people are infiltrating our country, so be afraid, and vote for politicians who will support the right wing… We first started hearing about this alleged threat to American justice in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, says López, when the Bush administration became intent on linking the war in Iraq to hijackers who were from Saudi Arabia. It claims that new brown immigrants who are threatening the heartland,” he says. “A prime example is Kansas prohibiting courts from drawing on Shariah law—it’s not a threat at all. The point isn’t the reality; it’s the racial frame.” – The Root

Illegal Alien 

“Phrase that triggers fears about immigrants as criminals, taking advantage of welfare and disrespecting the American way of life. But somehow the concerns are always pointed at the Mexican border instead of the one we share with Canada. “It’s racial rhetoric about Latinos that is now being couched in this seemingly racially neutral language, and harnessed to support fear to get people to support conservative policies.” – The Root


“We aren’t going to pay you a living wage “because of socialism.” We are sending half the family to jail where they will work for even less. When we say “lazy minimum-wage workers,” we aren’t just talking about teenagers entering the workforce.” – FactMyth

Dog Whistle resources

Dog whistle database

List of dog whistles

  • Anti-crime
  • Black menace
  • Drug war
  • Save-our-automatic weapons
  • War-on-Christmas
  • Have-prayer-in-schools
  • Increase-military-spending
  • Anti-UN
  • Anti-immigration
  • Fear-of-terrorism
  • Anti-Muslim
  • Anti-China
  • Anti-feminist
  • Anti-abortion
  • Anti-LGBT
  • Anti-Obamacare

TakeAway: Help people see when they are being conned by Republican dogwhistles and culture wars into voting against their own self-interest.


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