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The looming mid-term elections and Dog Whistle politics

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Recently journalist and PBS contributor Bill Moyers interviewed “Ian Haney López who is now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, after teaching at Yale, New York University and Harvard. Dog Whistle Politics is his third book.”

Professor López states that “We have to understand the way in which something has fundamentally changed in American politics. We used to understand that the biggest threat in a political life was the power of concentrated money. The power of big money and of corporations to hijack the marketplace and to hijack government.

But now, Republicans for 50 years have been telling voters, the biggest threat in your life is that minorities are going to hijack government. That government has been taken over and now serves them. So when white voters vote against the government, they think they're voting against minorities. But in fact, they're voting to give over control of government back to the very rich, back to the big corporations.”

That sadly, is the reality in which we find ourselves. It doesn’t matter where you live, there’s no escaping dog whistle politics. Once you have learned to listen for the dog whistle you will hear it all day long, especially in a mid-term election year.

I hear dog whistle politics in the vitriolic political commercials that up to the recent primaries in Texas seemed to get more air time than anything else you happened to be watching.

In the interview Moyers asks;

BILL MOYERS There are some assumptions in society, a general proposition, unexamined, that blacks prefer welfare to work, that undocumented immigrants breed crime, and that Islam spawns violence. Those are dog whistles, are they not?

“IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: I think they’re absolutely dog whistles. They’re dog whistles in the sense that they’re stereotypes.

A stereotype is a sort of cultural presumption of minority inferiority: blacks are lazy, Latinos are dirty or filthy, Muslims don’t respect human life. Those are stereotypes. Dog whistles are when politicians use coded language that try and trigger those beliefs. But they’re not the stereotypes themselves. And, it’s important, because dog whistling is not about bigotry. It’s about the manipulation of bigotry. It’s about the manipulation of stereotypes.

BILL MOYERS: So you make it clear in the book, that this is sort of an old sport, politicians communicating with small groups of impassioned voters and a kind of code that only kindred spirits understand. Nothing especially troubling about that. But it's when it comes to the issue of race that you see a real injury.

The members of the majority population has disproportionately been involved in politics from day one. Minorities are much less tuned to listening to and participating in the social forces that control them.”

“IAN HANEY LÓPEZ: So we know Ronald Reagan used to talk about welfare queens. But he also had this other stump speech that he would give. He would speak to his audiences and he would say, I understand how frustrating it is for you when you're standing in line at a grocery store waiting to buy hamburger and there's some young fellow ahead of you buying T-bone steak with food stamps.

Now the first time he told that tale, it wasn't some young fellow. He said, some “young buck." And a young buck was a racially-coded term that stood for a strong African American man. And so that term, that moved from being a dog whistle to an outright racial provocation. Reagan backed off and he started talking about, some young fellow buying a T-bone steak with food stamps.

Think about the characters in this story. The first character is the person buying a T-bone steak with food stamps. And that's conjuring the image of the lazy minority who's strong, who could work, but who doesn't want to work, and prefers to be on welfare. But the other image is the you in that story, who Reagan's talking to. And the you is ostensibly the voter, the hard-working taxpayer, the law-abiding American. That voter, that hard-working American implicitly has a racial identity. And that's white. So there you can see this racial narrative. You, Reagan is saying to white audiences, you're being taken advantage of.

There's a third character here. Government. It's government ostensibly that is taking advantage of whites, that is taking their money through taxes, and then giving it to these undeserving minorities. So what did Reagan suggest? He suggested tax cuts. We shouldn't, you shouldn't have to pay taxes to a government that's just taking your money and giving it to minorities. And indeed, what did he do? He enacted tax cuts. In the first year of his tax cuts, $164 billion went to American corporations. Over the 1980’s, the Reagan tax cuts transferred a trillion dollars to America's top 1 percent. Yes, voters got the tax cuts they thought were aimed at cutting off undeserving minorities. But in fact, it was a politics that was showering money on the very richest Americans.”

As bad as that is it is even worse. The recent special election in Florida for a congressional seat “suggests trouble ahead for Democratic candidates who backed Obamacare in swing districts. Republican David Jolly claimed victory last night in a congressional district that includes part of St. Petersburg, beating a strong Democratic candidate, Alex Sink.”

With that in mind recall the book written decades ago by George Naisbitt that was a massive best seller. It was titled, Megatrends. In it Naisbitt identified what he termed “bellwether states.” Those are states in which trends begin. The difference between a trend and a fad, the author explained, is that fads start at the top, spread down and out and fade. A trend starts at the grassroots level and spreads, horizontally and vertically and creates the known reality.

One of the states identified by Naisbitt as a “bellwether” state was Florida.

So the question to be answered decades later is, “Is that still the case?”

Listening to the egregiously racist, bigoted, xenophobic diatribe that makes up the bulk of the political ads on the Internet in general and in local television gives me little hope for the outcome of the November elections across the nation.

Texas red is always predictable. The majority population of Texas red given a choice will usually vote for the candidate spewing the most egregiously, hateful, racist, bigoted, xenophobic diatribe. Just listen to either of the state’s two US senators.

Before the mid-term elections approach learn how to identify the dog whistle and figure out what all those office seekers are really saying. If you happen to be a minority, they’ll be talking about you in not too flattering terms.

From Texas Red: a cratered landscape of for profit prisons, deplorable apartheid public education, lack of healthcare and politicians and majority population intent on keeping it that way…

Hasta Siempre,

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