Just A Comma: Dog Whistle Politics

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A lot of people have been slamming Bush for his comment that Iraq is “just a comma”. As an e-mail correspondent pointed out, this is another case where Bush is using code words to speak directly to his Christian right base.

The phrase is: “Never put a period where God has put a comma.” Which is to say – it ain’t over yet, and God may well make it better. So Iraq’s bad, but if we trust in God, he’ll make it better.

This is the thing about Bush – he is constantly littering his speeches with code words and phrases meant for the religious right. Other people don’t hear them, but they do, and most of the time it allows Bush both to say what those who aren’t evangelical or born again want to hear, while still reassuring the religious right wants to hear.

For example, one of the most famous episodes of this was Bush’s reference in the 2004 debates to the Dred Scott decision. Most people couldn’t figure out what the heck he was talking about – it seemed like a non-sequitur. But, as Paperwight pointed out at the time, anti-abortion activists see themselves as similar to anti-slavery activists. And they take heart that eventually Dred Scott v. Sandford was overthrown.

So when asked about Supreme Court justices, Bush was reassuring his base that he would appoint justices prone to overturn Roe vs. Wade. And as far as that goes, both Roberts and Alito are very likely to do so.

The other name for this is dog whistle politics. When you blow a dog whistle humans can’t hear it, but the dogs sure can. It’s a pitch higher than humans can hear. When you speak in code like this, most of the time the only people who hear and understand what you just said are the intended group, who have an understanding of the world and a use of words that is not shared by the majority of the population. So it allows you to send out two messages at once – one pitched for the majority of Americans, the other pitched for a subgroup. This goes on all the time, and usually it isn’t caught – most people don’t hear it, and the media is made up of people who can’t make the connections because they don’t belong to these subgroups. So they can’t point out the subtext either.

It’s very effective, and it’s one reason why Bush still has his hard core of support – he’s constantly reassuring them, at a pitch the rest of us can’t hear.

 

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Ian Welsh

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