If you’re likely to listen to any political advertising and media coverage this campaign season, you better keep your dog nearby.
The Pied Pipers of our political life have traded their flutes for dog whistles, and you will need Fido to help you discern the notes that are really being played.
An editorial by Robert Parham got me to thinking about dog-whistle politics.
The dog whistle is hardly a new instrument in the political orchestra. Politicians who want to appeal to certain features of their base, but who also do not want to appear extreme, employ it to send coded messages that appeal to prejudice and fear without being explicit.
For example, southern politicos concealed their resistance to federal legislation and court orders dismantling racial segregation in the language of “states’ rights.”
“Restoring America as a godly nation” is a thinly veiled appeal for a restoration of practices that violate the First Amendment’s protection of the separation of church and state.
Ironically and conversely, “religious freedom” is the rallying cry for persons (especially “corporate persons”) desiring that their religious values be imposed on others.
Equally ironic is the silence of those voices who cried the loudest about federal judges “legislating from the bench” when rulings declared certain practices unconstitutional, now that the Supreme Court has offered Citizens United and the Hobby Lobby cases.
I guess you don’t need a dog whistle when Fido is snoozing comfortably on your own porch.
Few would be so bold as to say publicly, “Let’s keep certain people in their place,” “Let’s deprive some citizens the rights that others enjoy,” “Let’s make certain religious beliefs standard for everyone” or “Let’s close our borders to those who are diluting and contaminating our communities.”
But there seem to be enough people who feel that way to make dog-whistle messages effective in rallying those attitudes to respond a certain way in the voting booth.
Since the days of Socrates and the Sophists, there has been an approach to leadership that finds out what people already think and then sells them reasons for why they think it.
The early church apparently had this problem as well, as the writer of 2 Timothy 4:3 observes: “Be careful to be on a good foundation in your guidance, for the time is coming when they will be drawn to teachers who tell them what they are itching to hear.”
It seems that in recent years people of faith have been particular targets of dog-whistle appeals.
Changes in our culture that have challenged time-honored ways of thinking and behaving have unsettled many traditional customs and patterns of thought.
This leaves many with the uneasy feeling, quite understandably, that the familiar and treasured foundations of life are crumbling.
In unsettled times, the opportunity is ripe for a populist appeal to redirect the faith perspective away from being the presence of a stable grace in a changing world toward a piously wrapped costume made of a fabric woven with the threads of fear and nostalgia.
A dog whistle works well in the effort to connect with this uneasy perspective.
Misinformation, innuendo and subtle references to “them” (those connected with whatever change is at issue) flow easily and effectively through the media of choice.
As a result, a culture that honors popular opinion over fact becomes pervasive.
I have found two things to be particularly helpful in dealing with the flood of “information” that comes in regular political ads and in the often well-meaning “FYIs” I receive via email and other social media.
One is simply to ask: What is being appealed to in the communication, and does it square with reality?
The second helps with this question. When some “facts” are offered about people and policies in efforts to discredit them, Snopes.com has become a helpful tool for sorting out fact from propaganda. Try it; you may find it helpful as well.
Contrary to what some want us to believe, “man’s best friend” is probably not the one blowing the whistle who wants us to respond with a vote or contribution, but good ol’ Fido who helps us understand what the song really is.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.