A Primer on Dogwhistling

Because it’s election season, we’re bound to see plenty dogwhistling in this campaign, (in fact we have already) so I think it’s time to discuss what it is, and just why dogwhistling matters.

Many people less suburban than myself will know that a dogwhistle emits a noise too high-pitched for the human ear to discern. Likewise, a political dogwhistle is a message specialised enough that the general public are unlikely to understand it, but that has some special subtext to the core voters of the politician that uses it. And no, dogwhistling is not just people getting upset that other people aren’t being “PC”, although often dogwhistling is used to disguise a politically disastrous message so that it sounds tasteful to more moderate voters.

At the core of it, a dogwhistle is essentially when you say one thing and mean another- the only complication is that the hidden meaning has to be subtlely implied to those who would support it.

For example, “We should solve women’s pay inequality by increasing women’s access to education and training.” is a dogwhistle. Why is it a dogwhistle? Well, because even when women are equally qualified with men, pay inequality still happens. So either the politician involved is genuinely too stupid to understand the problem involved, (not good) or they’re trying to frame the phrase “I’m not going to address pay inequality at all” in positive language. (even worse) What better way for someone concerned with their image to not solve a problem than to insist that solutions that haven’t worked in the past will be enough? Especially when many men are genuinely convinced that the problem is really that women aren’t working as hard as they are- no surprise, people LIKE to be told they’re working hard and deserve what they have.

So why is this bad? Well, because it means that someone who takes a politician for their word will actually think they’ve got a plan that’s moderate and sensible. It misrepresents their policy, and poisons good debate over what we can do to solve problems in our society by essentially saying they don’t really exist- or even worse, it frames positive solutions as problems like, say, using the DPB to address the fact that men run out on their partners.

Why should we even be worried though? While we know dogwhistling happens all the time in larger countries like America, does it really happen in New Zealand? Sadly, yes, every election is full of multiple dogwhistles from most every party.

For example, National has already dogwhistled all over beneficiaries of various types when the only benefit that at any time allowed an excessive amount of people to stay out of work when they didn’t need to- the unemployment one- has taken incredible dives thanks to Labour’s incentives for people to get into work, and their attempts to create an economy where we have a labour shortage.

What other types of dogwhistles have we seen or might we see? We’ve already had the “influencing our young people” dogwhistle for homophobia used by the family party. (If seeing two women kissing influences young women to be gay, how does all the heterosexual kissing and rubbing and hugging they see on TV affect them, I wonder? Why aren’t the family party coming out against that equally strongly? Because being gay “makes it worse”. Except they can’t say that in public because it makes them look bad)

Then there’s “lower taxes”. How’s that a dogwhistle, you might say? Well, think about it- are these lower taxes for you? Are they fair to people who work hard but don’t get a high paycheck? Do they value people who do volunteer work, or parents? Probably not. Yet lower taxes are being touted as a solution to lower effective wages, to economic downturn, to social inequality- like some sort of magic political fairy dust that solves every problem it touches. In reality, even the most insanely generous tax cuts are unlikely to exceed fifty dollars a week- and that’s if we seriously constrain spending on really important public goods, like trains, buses, hospitals, (and nurses and doctors) education, (and teachers) and more. Hell, I’ve only listed the big stuff- a few dollars a week, you can also subsidise music and the arts, educate the public about health issues, ethical dilemmas, civics, or what have you. Even if that fifty dollars is very useful to you, there’s an enormous opportunity cost to having it. But let’s stop and think about it- will fifty dollars a week help you with rising power prices? Probably not. Will it help you if your job is being shipped off overseas in our free trade deals? Unlikely. Who will it largely help? Those who earn enough to get a significant benefit from a few percentage points of reduction on their tax. And to be fair, I don’t mind that the wealthy get a tax break along with the rest of us. What I mind is that it’s a tax break that scales with how much tax they pay.

We accept that the wealthy in our society generally provide services that are scarce or valuable, and so paying them more so that they can free themselves from money-related stress, or use money to free up their time, can generally be a good thing. But if that’s so, then they also have the responsibility to contribute more to our society with that money. And we trust their judgement in that- people who can afford to donate any money at all to charity are exempted any tax on that donation, and we’re removing the cap on that exemption.

But if a tax break is intended to solve issues with rising food and power prices, then why does one person need more of a tax break than another? Because there’s a hidden message. Because “tax break” doesn’t mean that everyone gets what they need. It means that the people on top get to keep more and more of what they have. It means that people who might, but don’t necessarily work harder or smarter- who have had an education better tailored to them, had a better-connected family, or have simply been lucky- also get a better deal than you, because they already have more.