I must have been busy late November last year, and missed this Australia Institute paper, Under the Radar: Dog Whistle Politics (pdf), by the appropriately named Josh Fear. It did get a little media coverage, eg here.
It defines dog-whistle politics as
the art of sending coded or implicit messages to a select group of voters while keeping others in the dark.
Fear clearly thinks that dog whistle politics is bad, but the reader is left a little unsure as to exactly why. The conclusion summarises his reasons
* dog whistling undermines democracy by working against clarity and directness
* dog whistlers have sought to ‘create and inflame paranoia about minority groups and outsiders, and to taint the politics of immigration and Aboriginal affairs with parochialism and suspicion’
But these two criticisms seem to at least be in tension, if not contradiction. If messages so subtle they need decoding inflame paranoia (which they certainly have in Fear’s case), how much paranoia would they create if they were stated with clarity and directness?
According to Fear, when Howard talks about national security and Australia’s record in taking migrants from 140 countries but then says ‘but we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’ he really means ‘people from Muslim background who seek asylum in Australia constitute a terrorist threat’ and therefore we need tough refugee policies.
But surely directly associating would-be Muslim migrants with terrorism would be more likely to ‘inflame paranoia’ against Muslim migrants already in Australia, particularly given the inevitable hysterical reaction would secure saturation coverage, and is completely out of proportion to the point Howard, on the most cynical interpretation, was trying to make: that people who arrive without any checking are more of a risk than those who arrive after being approved for entry, and that people from Muslim backgrounds are more likely to be terrorist sympathisers than Buddhists or Christians?
Euphemism actually serves useful purposes in avoiding ‘inflaming paranoia’ or offending sensitivities, a point Fear misses most clearly when he quotes Republican pollster Frank Luntz recommending the term war on ‘radical political ideologies’ rather than mentioning religion. Because Luntz notes that in using this term you ‘inoculate yourself from criticisms that you are motivated by religious bigotry’, Fear assumes this confirms his thesis. But Luntz’s point is that he doesn’t want to offend Muslims, not that he wants to use code to do so.
Politically obtuse academics have long criticised the term ‘war on terror’, but that term (and the less memorable ‘war on radical political ideologies’ ) are far preferable to the more accurate war on Islamist militants, the difference between ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamist’ being too subtle for mass communication, and liable to offend and endanger the very people the West needs to keep on side. Major military and security operations can hardly occur without discussion in democracies, but the language has to be very careful.
In Howard’s case, if there is a problem with a lack of clarity, who is being deceived? It’s actually not the people who didn’t hear the dog whistle, but those who did. After all, Howard did not decrease migration, he increased it, and he did not decrease the refugee intake, but kept it the same. By not saying what he was actually doing, did he con them all to the point that they actually increased support for the migration program? Or as I pointed out in my quasi-debate with Irfan, maybe they weren’t inflamed by dog whistles or anything else?
Perhaps these days it is only Hanson supporters and the cultural left who get inflamed by race.