Monday, December 2, 2013
From the Bookshelves: Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Haney-Lopez
The decades-long increase in income inequality has become perhaps 'the' issue in American politics, and scholars have offered many reasons for why the gap between the rich and the rest has widened so much since the mid-1970s. Most of the explanations have been social and political in the broadest sense, and many have keyed on the propensity of middle- and working class Americans to vote against their own interest. Yet given that the greatest income divide is racial in nature, why have so few looked toward racially motivated behavior as a cause? Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Wrecked the Middle Class is a sweeping account of how 'dog-whistle' racial politics contributed to increasing inequality in America since the 1960s. Now a pervasive term in American political coverage, 'dog whistle' refers to coded signals sent to certain constituencies that only those constituencies will understand. Just as only dogs can hear a dog whistle, only a constituency fluent in a subterranean argot can understand that argot when it is used. For instance, attacks on Obama's use of a teleprompter is a dog whistle for racist voters who question blacks' (and by extension, the President's) intelligence.
Haney's book looks at racial dog whistles in America from the 1960s to the present, showing that their appeal has helped generate working class and middle class populist enthusiasm for policies that were actually injurious to their own interests. The dog whistle tactic has been with us from at least the era of George Wallace, but every candidate who has benefited from race-based resentments has used it: Nixon, Reagan (welfare queens), George Bush I (Willie Horton), Bill Clinton (Sister Souljah), and-most recently-Newt Gingrich.
A sweeping reinterpretation of the recent political and legal history of the U.S., Dog Whistle Politics is sure to generate a productive and lively debate about the role of race as a fundamental driver of inequality.