Commentary Magazine

Press Man: The Dog Whistle & Other Liberal Tropes

Like an idiot, I wrote something complimentary about Michelle Obama not long ago, and when the article was picked up and re-posted on a well-trafficked conservative website, boy, did I catch hell. Some of the comments were frankly racist: “It’s time to call a spade a…” Others simply carried the stink of the racial obsessive: “Why make excuses for the Obamas? Is it just because they’re black?” No doubt about it: There are lots of haters out there. 

But the vast majority of the complaints were merely factional: “Whose side are you on?” The commenters reasoned that because we agree Barack Obama has been a disastrous president, none of us should say anything that might deflect attention from the disaster and dilute the purity of our disapproval; otherwise we betray the cause. This habit of mind is trans-ideological. The Internet swarms with gumshoes of both the left and the right, alert to signs of deviationism and quick to call the traitors out. You could dismiss the tendency as narrow-mindedness. Just as likely, it’s a sign of ideological seriousness, the fuel that makes democratic politics go, for better or worse. Creepy, yes; but serious. 

So as I clicked my way through the outraged comments, I was grateful for yet another occasion to congratulate myself on my moderation and large-heartedness. Such occasions seldom last long, however, for very often the admirable intensity with which partisans treat politics tips into antagonism, and they begin to imagine that their opponents are not merely mistaken but depraved. While I was still glowing from my Michelle backlash, a columnist for a website called Bloomberg View, Jeffrey Goldberg, probed the question of whether people whose political views differed from his were racist dogs. His conclusion: yes. 

As a mainstream journalist, Goldberg is a devoted Democrat, so he took his evidence from recent comments made by Republicans. Newt Gingrich has repeatedly called President Obama “the food stamp president” and said that schools “in poor neighborhoods” should hire “local students” as janitors, both to save money and introduce the kids to the world of work. “They would have cash,” Gingrich said, “they’d have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”

And then there was Rick Santorum, who said—you might want to send the kids out of the room—“I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” Herman Cain said that Obama was more “international” than American. Allen West, a congressman from Florida, said the Democratic Party’s insistence on enlarging the welfare state made it a “21st-century plantation.” 

As an argument—meaning it would require reasoned inferences from good evidence—Goldberg’s was less than ironclad. Both Cain and West, for example, are black Americans. I know all about self-haters (you should hear me go on about the Scotch-Irish), but when you accuse two accomplished black men of hating black people on racial grounds, your evidence has got to be better than this. It just does.

As for Gingrich and Santorum, look again and you’ll notice their comments are not belittling, of African Americans or anyone else. Gingrich didn’t even mention race. 

The two candidates have made the same diagnosis of chronic poverty and its relation to government policy—that generations of poor blacks, and not only them, have been placed in a self-perpetuating cycle that is difficult to escape. Not long ago this view was widely shared by liberals and conservatives alike, which is why the welfare reform of 1996 won overwhelming approval.

It’s an odd sort of racism that Goldberg has sniffed out. It uses no racial epithets, it has no apparent racial intent, it comes packaged in pleas for economic progress, and it bears no suggestion that their genes or melanin count make African Americans different from other Americans. What are we to make of a duck that doesn’t look like a duck, walk like a duck, or quack like a duck? Goldberg’s answer is to call it a duck, dammit. He and his ideological fellows have invented an ingenious tool for divining the kind of racism that shows no sign of racism. They call it the “dog whistle.”

It’s one of the “darkest political arts,” Goldberg explains: “the use of coded, ambiguous language to appeal to the prejudices of certain subsets of voters.” Here’s how it works. When Newt Gingrich mentions food stamps, he sends a signal to racists—toot, toot!—telling them that he dislikes black people as much as they do. The signal is received even though, as many observers have pointed out, white food-stamp recipients outnumber their black counterparts by a good stretch. The pitch is so rarefied that only white racists and liberal Democrats can hear it. When somebody says “food stamps,” both Jeffrey Goldberg and David Duke immediately think of black people. Don’t ask me why.

You don’t learn much about racist politics from Goldberg’s article, but you can learn a lot about liberalism. It makes a good companion piece to a new book by Thomas Edsall, The Age of Austerity. Edsall is a liberal reporter now laboring in the more distant reaches of the vast digital tundra that is the New York Times website. One of his propositions is that conservatives and liberals are different kinds of people, and largely incompatible. “There is a different worldview held by liberals and Democrats from that held by conservatives and Republicans,” he said in a recent interview. Liberals “are very concerned with compassion and fairness.” Conservatives, not so much. 

Edsall’s book offers pages of research to support his claim. According to surveys, conservatives and not liberals tend to agree with statements such as “Respect for authority is something all children need to learn” and “War is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict.” They score lower on questions on which liberals score high: “How close do you feel to people all over the world?” or “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” and “I see myself as someone who… is original, comes up with new ideas.” Conservatives agree and liberals disagree that “employees [who] contribute more to the success of the company [should] receive a larger share.” Liberals agree that “it’s morally wrong that rich children inherit a lot of money while poor children inherit nothing.” 

Edsall understands that much of this research is nearly worthless as science—some of it comes from a large online survey at that has no statistical safeguards—but that doesn’t keep him from drawing large conclusions from it. And even then, he misses what makes the responses illuminating. The questions don’t get at how people actually behave or what they do in the wider world, but only how they see themselves. We cannot assume, as Edsall does, that liberals are “fairer” or “more compassionate” than non-liberals; all we can assume is that they believe themselves to be so. Announcing your empathy, after all, is not the same as having empathy. In my experience, truly empathetic people tend to be reticent about their “tender, concerned feelings,” much as men who have shown great courage in battle seldom talk about it. Saints protest they’re the greatest sinners. What Edsall’s data measure is vanity, and in this category, liberals triumph over conservatives. It’s not even close.

You could draw several conclusions here. You could conclude, for example, that liberalism has descended from a political philosophy into an empty assertion of moral superiority, a pose of indignation struck toward the people who dare to disagree with liberals. Vanity and untethered arrogance would account for why Jeffrey Goldberg can find evidence of racism among his political opponents even where it doesn’t exist. 

As I say, you could conclude this, but I won’t. Those we disagree with deserve the benefit of the doubt, always. Democratic courtesy requires us to assume the best of our opponents. But the bastards really do make it hard sometimes.

About the Author

Andrew Ferguson is the author, most recently, of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. He wrote last month about Christopher Hitchens.

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