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Election 2016

'Dog whistle' tactics as old as American politics

Coded racial language makes 2016 campaign comeback


The use of coded racial language in American political campaigns is nothing new. However, with the Republican Party’s nomination of celebrity businessman Donald J. Trump as their 2016 standard-bearer, an emboldening has unquestionably occurred — and it’s made its way from the top of the ticket to the down-ballot campaigns.

A prime example just last month made the rounds online when an apparent Republican organization on Long Island, in going after 7th Senate District candidate Adam Haber, manipulated an image of the candidate into a likeness of Tevye, the titular character from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“Adam Haber — Tax Cap Fiddler,” the ad proclaimed, alongside a Newsday editorial headline.

Haber, who is Jewish, was not amused by the ad.

“Many people have contacted me to express how shocked and upset they were by this image,” Haber said in a statement. “I’m thankful for the outpouring of support from our community, people of all faiths, equally appalled by the revelation of this factually incorrect and anti-Semitic attack. We continually see on the news the hateful and divisive vitriol from Donald Trump, and it’s even sadder those same tactics are being used here on Long Island.”

This so-called “dog whistle” language is intended to cause a reaction in a certain subset of voters who may harbor resentment towards minority communities, without expressing racist views outright.

Here’s infamous Republican strategist Lee Atwater, in 1981, explaining best practices when it comes to the tactic to political scientist Alexander Lamis:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N****r, n****r, n****r.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n****r’ –– 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 … blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

With terms like “forced busing” and “states’ rights” now relics of a different political era, the new dog whistles include the terms “inner city” and “criminal alien,” and even Trump’s campaign slogan, according to Lawrence Levy, of Rockville Centre, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

“That phrase, ‘Make America great again,’ might seem innocuous, but when you put it in the context of the immigration issue, the ‘birther’ issue, it takes on a different meaning,” Levy said. “What was America like, back when it was supposedly great?”

Atwater, who died in 1991, might have approved of the “birther issue,” a manufactured scandal that dogged President Obama for years of his presidency before being definitively debunked and relegated to the columns of fringe “alt-right” conspiracy sites.

“Where’s the birth certificate?” members of some right-leaning media crowed until the question of the U.S.’s first African-American president’s legitimacy nearly attained status as a serious campaign issue.

There was never any evidence suggesting that the president was born anywhere other than the U.S., but the perpetuation of the conspiracy theory that Obama was actually a Kenyan-born Muslim with sinister designs on American global influence was enough to suggest an “otherness” to susceptible voters.

According to Levy, ads such as the one apparently targeting Haber’s faith are not new to Long Island, where connecting a candidate with New York City can also serve as a way of “othering” them.

“I remember county elections back in the 1970s and 1980s. You’d hear phrases like, ‘Candidate-X is going to turn Nassau County into the 6th Borough,’ or, ‘Watch out for the Queens-ification of Nassau County.’ I can leave to your imagination what that was supposed to convey,” Levy said.

Levy, who has closely studied the suburban “swing “ voter for years, said that the efficacy of dog whistle tactics might be waning, at least in places like Nassau County, however.

“They don’t work nearly as much as they may have … The suburbs are much more diverse now. People are living with or near folks that once were not their neighbors, that they didn’t know anything about or might have had more cause to fear,” he said. “It’s very hard to get away with something like that in a countywide election in Nassau, where 35 percent and counting are non-white … It rallies your base, but it might cause a backlash that’s even stronger.”