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Dog-Whistle Politics: It’s a Tradition with the GOP

Leaders of the Republican Party are in a state of panic. They are worried that Donald Trump’s controversial proposal for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration will severely damage GOP prospects in 2016. Jeb Bush succinctly identified the concern when he said Trump was making “dog whistle proposals to prey on people’s fear and to consume the news.” But Jeb Bush is placing too much blame on Donald Trump when complaining about language that promotes hate and suspicion. GOP politicians have been sounding dog whistles for decades in order to stir the anxiety of white voters. Often those soundings helped the party to win elections.

Donald Trump did not step way out in front of Republican voters when he made the controversial statement about Muslims. He expressed sentiments that were already held by many in the party. A Bloomberg Politics/Purple Strategies PulsePoll released on December 8, 2015 revealed that nearly two-thirds of likely GOP primary voters back Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. While some of that support reflects worries about terrorism, said Doug Usher, head of the polling, some may be reflective of religious bigotry.

Republican strategists have been capitalizing on white Americans’ racial, ethnic, and religious sensitivities for decades. Dog-whistle politics often stoked worries about African Americans. In the Twenty-First Century many politicians added Latinos to their semi-concealed appeals, and recently their attention has turned to Muslims.

During the 1964 presidential campaign, GOP candidate Barry Goldwater did not make direct racist appeals (and, arguably, he was not a racist), but Goldwater’s rhetoric drew white Democrats away from their party. Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, complaining that it allowed federal intrusion in local affairs and that business people had a right to deal with customers as they wished. Occasionally, Goldwater offered more obvious appeals to whites’ anxieties. He told the Georgia State Republican Party, “We ought to forget the big cities. . . . I would like our party to back up on school integration.”

Richard Nixon won the 1968 presidential election by promoting a “Southern Strategy.” That, too, was an example of dog-whistle politics. The Republican candidate blamed many of America’s problems on blacks, but not through specific language. H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s close adviser, said “The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Rather than refer directly to blacks, Nixon promised “law and order” and respect for “states’ rights.”

Many elements factored in Ronald Reagan’s presidential victories; indirect references to race were only part of the mix. Reagan defended his positions on principle, not prejudice. He had opposed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, arguing against federal intervention in states’ affairs. Reagan launched his 1980 campaign for the White House near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the place where three civil rights workers had been slain years before. During his visits around the United States, Reagan spoke often about an exploitative “welfare queen” in Chicago, and listeners understood that the lady was a black woman. Reagan convinced many white Democrats, including southerners, to abandon their party and register as Republicans.

Lee Atwater, a master at dog-whistle politics, assisted Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and proved very helpful to George H. W. Bush. In the 1988 presidential contest Democrat Michael Dukakis had a strong early lead in the polling. Then Atwater’s strategy took effect. Lee Atwater’s most noteworthy contribution to Bush’s campaign was the Willie Horton ad. It reported that Dukakis, when governor of Massachusetts, allowed a furlough for a murderer. Horton attacked a couple. He beat the young man and raped the woman. Lee Atwater said he was going to make Willie Horton the “running mate” of Michael Dukakis. His strategy worked. Interestingly, George H.W. Bush’s son, Jeb Bush, now blasts Donald Trump for engaging in dog-whistle politics.

By the early twentieth century, American demography was changing in significant ways, and political leaders needed to adjust their campaign strategies. The new electorate included more Latinos, more Asians, and more people from the Middle East, India, and other regions. The electorate also included more young voters, single women, and Americans who rejected traditional religious affiliations. Yet the GOP did not go after these emerging constituencies as aggressively as the Democrats. Republican leaders continued to concentrate on whites , including many evangelicals.

Evidence of demography’s electoral impact appeared in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. Minority voters supported Barack Obama by 80% in both elections. Latinos backed Obama in 2012, 71% to 27%. Obama carried the women’s vote by 55-44 in 2012 and won the single women’s vote that year by 67-31. He won 60% of voters from 18 to 29 years of age.

In the 2012 presidential contest a large field of Republican contenders tried to rally partisans by criticizing “illegal” immigrants. Voters understood that the candidates’ references to undocumented aliens referred mainly to Latinos and especially to Mexicans. Mitt Romney signaled appreciation for issue in a televised debate. He called for “self-deportation” of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Romney’s impractical idea drew laughs from the audience.

Now we have Donald Trump arguing for a temporary Muslim ban, and a substantial majority of likely voters in the GOP primaries agree with his proposal. Lots of Republican leaders have denounced Trump for promoting a policy that appears racist. They say Trump’s recommendation conflicts with American values. It also undermines the GOP’s prospects for victory in the 2016 elections.

Yet many of those same Republican leaders continue to sound the dog whistle. A notable example is their oft-repeated demand that President Obama acknowledge “radical Islamic terrorism.” Presidential candidate Ted Cruz invoked this popular argument when he said, “As long as we have a Commander-in-Chief unwilling to utter the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ we will not have a concerted effort to defeat these radicals . . .” The many Republican leaders who back this demand appear unable to understand President Obama’s reluctance. Including the word “Islamic” with each reference to terrorism offends millions of Islamic people in America who view massacres with the same disgust as Christians, Jews, and others in the United States. The three words, when combined, associate decent individuals and families with people who engage in crimes against humanity.

Over recent decades Republican leaders should have been helping their constituents to adjust to momentous demographic and cultural shifts. American society today is quite different from the America many adult whites remember from their youth. Currently a majority of our public school students are non-white. A majority of our population age zero to five years is non-white. For the first time in our nation’s history, white Christians are less than half of the national population. Understandably, some Euro-Americans find these changes unsettling. They are susceptible to emotion-laden appeals from politicians.

Democrats have responded to these demographic and cultural shifts, turning their party into what Ronald Brownstein (National Journal, Atlantic, CNN) calls a “coalition of transformation.” The party offers a broad tent that accommodates millennials, minorities, upscale, college-educated whites, women, and various others. But Republicans favor a “coalition of restoration.” They appeal to nostalgic longings for an idyllic American past.

Movers and shakers within the GOP could have aided their constituents’ adjustment by encouraging a positive response to America’s social evolution. Instead, too many of them have exploited fears and promoted wedge politics. They’ve told listeners that the nation’s black president is not like them, that perhaps he does not even have a legitimate birth certificate. In slightly concealed but influential ways, they have heightened the fear of immigrants among us. And now, playing on a legitimate fear of terrorism, they have magnified distrust of Muslims.

Not all Republicans are pleased with these developments. Many Republicans find the loaded references to race, ethnicity, religion, and nationality abhorrent. But their voices are lost in the din of political rhetoric that stokes anxiety and loathing.

Donald Trump is not the lone promoter of this divisive rhetoric. He is its product. With more directness than those who preceded him, Trump has benefited from a long history of dog-whistle politics.