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expressing political ideas in such a way that only a specific group of voters properly understand what is being said, especially in order to conceal a controversial message
'Thatcher's was true dog-whistle politics, a subtle signal rather than the main message.'The Observer 24th April 2005
During the UK election campaigns in spring of 2005, a new phrase entered the Westminster lexicon: dog-whistle politics. A dog-whistle is used to create a special high-pitched sound which only attracts the attention of a particular dog rather than all the dogs around. The analogy then is to put across a political message in such a way that it will only be understood by potential supporters rather than voters in general.
the dog-whistle approach to campaigning is … a good mechanism for concealing true opinions on highly controversial topics
The advantage of the dog-whistle approach to campaigning is that it avoids the possibility of offending those voters who wouldn't find a political message particularly appealing. It is therefore a good mechanism for concealing true opinions on highly controversial topics, such as the Conservative Party leader Michael Howard's treatment of immigration issues in the 2005 election campaign. The Conservatives argued that 'some immigration is essential' and only the large-scale immigration that the Labour government had allowed was damaging. Along with campaign slogans such as Are you thinking what we're thinking? the Conservatives got the attention of those voters opposed to immigration, but at no point could they have been accused of being overtly racist.
The participle noun dog-whistling is sometimes used to refer to the activity of dealing with controversial political issues in a subtle way. The countable noun dog-whistler often describes politicians who attempt to disguise their true feelings on controversial topics such as immigration or asylum. Dog-whistle also occurs independently when used attributively to modify nouns in phrases such as dog-whistle issues/topics. There is some evidence for a transitive verb dog-whistle in the same political contexts, with a related participle adjective dog-whistled as in a dog-whistled message.
The term dog-whistle politics originates from Australian English, and was introduced to the UK by Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby, who was involved in the 2005 Conservative Party election campaign. Crosby had helped Australian Prime Minister John Howard to four consecutive election victories, with the focus of the campaigning on so-called dog-whistle issues, an expression in use in Australia since around 1997. The dog-whistle analogy was drawn from Australian sheep-farming, where a farmer uses a whistle which is only audible to one dog. This idea was taken over into political contexts as a way of describing a message aimed exclusively at one section of the electorate.
This article was first published on 29th August 2005.
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