Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence is apparently really, really fond of the term "broad-shouldered," and other creative ways to speak to the importance of strength in government, policy and leadership.
It's possible, of course, that this is just a favored phrase or something the Trump campaign cooked up to convey in a memorable way the strength, they argue, the Trump-Pence ticket would bring to office. That is what Pence basically said when asked directly by CNN's Dana Bash if his constant references to "broad-shouldered leadership" was really a subtle way of referring to masculinity.
In fact, more than a few reasonable people are wondering if Pence's constant references to "broad-shouldered" leadership and strength amounts to gendered code speech — a dog whistle he's blowing to draw certain voters' attention to the difference between the Republican all-male presidential ticket and the Democratic Party's female presidential nominee. "Broad-shouldered leadership," is just the kind of subtle reference to widespread cultural notions about men being uniquely capable of managing the responsibilities of the presidency that would appeal to people who consciously or unconsciously think just that. And it would speak to these beliefs without the risk of political blowback that might follow if Pence came right out and said something like: Trump is a man, Clinton is not, so he should be president.
Now, there are some who hear phrases like "dog whistle," "coded speech," and "implicit bias," and immediately dismiss it. Pence appears to be one of them. As the New York Times put it this week, "One of the newest chew toys in the presidential campaign is 'implicit bias,' a term Mike Pence repeatedly took exception to in the vice-presidential debate on Tuesday." Back in July, the Chicago Tribune said that Trump's convention speech marked the candidate's transition from the overtly racist, sexist and xenophobic language that helped him prevail in the crowded Republican primary to more subtle, coded speech aimed at general election voters.
There really is a lot of evidence to suggest that Pence is the kind of American who not only does not believe in the existence of things like coded speech or implicit bias, but would prefer, strongly, that we all just stop talking about them. On the campaign trail, in court filings and several times during Tuesday night's vice-presidential debate with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Pence basically said just that.
When Kaine brought up the discriminatory effect of an effort by Pence, as governor of Indiana, to unilaterally ban Syrian refugees from the state and a court's damning rejection of that effort for those reasons, the essence of Pence's response was, "We should focus upon danger, not upon discrimination."
When asked about the role that institutional racism and implicit bias may play in creating the disproportionate risk of injury or death that black men face in encounters with police — one that the data tells us is absolutely real — Pence described such discussions alternatively as a waste of time and a type of cudgel selectively deployed by Americans whose rights are most often violated. He's all but said the same thing on the campaign trail numerous times.
Here's the truth. The nature of language, particularly our favored phrases, is such that it does often convey more than one thing at the same time. There is a subtext and symbolic meaning in much of what we say and do not say that can reveal what we consciously and subconsciously think, believe or suspect. And sometimes those things escape in ways that we may not realize or even be able to really control. Many psychologists and psychiatrists have dedicated years to helping people better understand themselves by dissecting what they do and do not say.
And dog-whistling — saying things in a semi-coded way that will be understood by a subset of people who share the same, often discriminatory, beliefs and ideas — works. It allows people to express publicly that which may no longer be socially acceptable to say in an explicit fashion. It galvanizes people and can prompt particular voting patterns and political action. Those are the very reasons that dog whistles are so often deployed in politics.
So, there's good reason to doubt that Pence is aware that his favored phrase, "broad-shouldered leadership," sounds a lot like a coded way to remind voters of their conscious and unconscious belief that leadership should rest with men or that men are strong and therefore the country's rightful leaders. Pence may have not given that idea much thought at all.
But this is 2016, a year in which a woman is at the head of the opposing presidential ticket. So, perhaps it's time that he did.