But here’s the reality: There are no more dog whistles in American politics. And this race shows why.
Youngkin has no secret agenda here. He isn’t using subtle hints to appeal to a subset of the electorate while everyone else remains blissfully ignorant. We all know what he’s doing.
Let’s remind ourselves of the origins of the term: Just as an actual dog whistle is heard by canines but imperceptible to the human ear, political dog whistles are understood by one group of voters but missed by everyone else. In the past, politicians used them when there was a position they were taking, a promise they were making or an appeal they were using that they wanted to keep hidden.
For instance, when George W. Bush was asked in 2004 what kind of justices he would appoint to the Supreme Court and he answered the kind who wouldn’t issue decisions like Dred Scott, the 1857 case that ratified slavery, to most listeners it seemed like just a weird non sequitur. Unless, that is, you were deeply immersed in the world of antiabortion activists, who believe that Roe v. Wade was the moral equivalent of Dred Scott. By just mentioning the latter, Bush was sending them a signal: I’ll give you the justices you want. I just can’t say it out loud.
That was a dog whistle because the whole point was that most people wouldn’t understand it. And it’s why Republicans use dog whistles most often: Their positions on policy, such as overturning Roe, tend to be less popular than those of Democrats, so they find dog whistles more useful.
But dog whistles are a thing of the past, and there are three reasons for that.
The first is that polarization has made base mobilization a more appealing strategy than persuading voters in the middle — and if you’re less concerned with persuading anyone, you’re also less worried about alienating them. Mobilizing the base requires generating excitement. You don’t generate excitement with subtlety; in fact, that’s the last thing the Republican base wants.
The second reason is the Internet and the explosion of political news and commentary, which make it nearly impossible to send a hidden message to anyone that will not be immediately noticed, dissected and decoded.
The third and most important reason is that Republicans have transformed themselves, adopting Donald Trump’s political and rhetorical style as their own.
This was one of Trump’s key insights about Republican voters: They wanted to be loud and unapologetic, especially when saying things that are unpopular or simply offensive. And they want their politicians to be the same way.
In a previous era, a potentially suspect candidate such as Mitt Romney, who had been a moderate governor of Massachusetts before running for president in 2008 and 2012, would have to demonstrate their ideological bona fides to the party base by hewing emphatically to conservative policy positions. But the party no longer concerns itself much with policy. Now you demonstrate your reliability as a conservative by showing that you don’t care what liberals think of you.
Or more precisely, you care deeply about what liberals think of you; it’s just that you want them to loathe you, and the more they hate you, the more you’ve proved you’re a real conservative.
Here’s another example, which some mistakenly understand as a dog whistle when in fact it’s the opposite: The colorful political/cultural artifact that is “Let’s go Brandon.” It began a month ago when NASCAR driver Brandon Brown was being interviewed in front of a crowd that began chanting “F--- Joe Biden!”; the interviewer, either mishearing or sanitizing for TV, suggested they were chanting “Let’s go Brandon.”
It quickly became a meme on the right, slapped on bumper stickers and T-shirts and repeated endlessly by Republicans, even on the House floor. But while reporters sometimes say the expression is “code for a vulgar insult at the president,” it isn’t “code” at all.
The people saying it aren’t trying to hide what they mean. They want everyone to know. They think it’s clever and funny, but they aren’t trying to fool anyone. Because of the speed of social media, the meaning of the phrase was hidden from the broader audience for just a brief moment; the fact that it’s now widely understood is precisely why it thrills the right-wing trolls who shout it.
That’s how Republicans operate now, and they aren’t going back.