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.

11 Responses

  1. That’s why I’m voting Green – no dogwhistling there!

  2. Haha, yeah, I don’t want to go into why I support the Greens here because this blog isn’t really supposed to be partisan, but that sort of ethical standard was a big draw for me, too.

  3. Ari, you post too much common sense on this blog for it to be non-partisan…

    Common sense and the Green Party are one and the same

  4. Well, I certainly find a lot of Green ideas to be sensical, (but sadly, not always commonly held) and that perspective is reflected in my writing.

    This blog is very much political- it’s my own take on identity politics, essentially. However, it’s not at all partisan- if the Green Party upsets me on any of the issues I talk about here, they’re in the firing lines. Same principle if, say, National or Act or Labour do something really good.

  5. if the Green Party upsets me on any of the issues I talk about here, they’re in the firing lines.

    I’m not holding my breath for that to happen!

    Same principle if, say, National or Act or Labour do something really good.

    Still less that!

  6. Still less that!

    I’ve actually praised Labour on a few of its initiatives here already. We have a sort of love/hate relationship. 😉

  7. Act or National though…?

  8. And while Labour may sometimes do good things I don’t think they’ve ever done anything good that the Greens wouldn’t have done just as well, if not better.

    It’s really sad that enough people aren’t educated enough to vote Green… if they got into government as Prime Minister we would see some real changes in this country.

  9. This truly beggars belief. You call this a primer and say it is non-partisan, you even say “every election is full of multiple dogwhistles from most every party and yet the post is riddled with your political bias! Some primer!

    #13baby says “Common sense and the Green Party are one and the same”…this must be Annette King’s Law of Common Sense that she said would apply to the Green party supported Electoral Finance Act. Lets have a closer, recent look at that common sense: “the talkback programme hosted by Shane Jones MP and broadcast on NewsTalk ZB was published in circumstances amounting to the commission of an offence for the purposes of section 63(4) and section 65(4) of the Electoral Finance Act 2007”.

    #13baby also said “It’s really sad that enough people aren’t educated enough to vote Green” – try not to be too condenscending… and “… if they got into government as Prime Minister we would see some real changes in this country.” You betcha! Without doubt our standard of living would plummet and we’d eventually end up like Venezuela. Looking that the Green Party’s 10-point criteria for a coalition partner, David Farrar correctly points out that not one of them is about economic growth…backing up my comment on diving living standards should Green Party make the 50% threshold.

  10. It was said in the post above “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.”.

    To me this comment indicates resentfulness, double standards and shortsightedness. Were you also aware the tax the wealthy pay scales with how much they earn?

    You also said “It means that the people on top get to keep more and more of what they have.”. What, people can keep what is theirs? How dare they?!
    My view is that they can keep what is theirs and you can keep what is yours.

    Then in the very last sentence of your post you go on to describe the stereotypical rich person, the one from the movies, to show just how out of touch you are with the vast majority of those receiving tax cuts. Lets hold back tax cuts for the less well off, hold back tax relief for the middle classes also struggling to make ends meet, and lets hold back tax cuts for the hardworking folk who never had any of the attributes you describe, all for the reason of your hatred for the stereotypical rich person. If only you knew how counterproductive your political views are.

  11. Sean- non-partisan doesn’t mean unbiased. This blog is full of my own biases, for example, towards feminist viewpoints, for tough electoral regulation, for LGBTQI equality and understanding, etc… This is why I said it’s “political”.

    And yes, I do find the Electoral Finance Act to be common sense, even if there are a few bits of it that come with tradeoffs. Having completely anonymous donations and third-party parallel campaigns is a lot worse than limiting the amount of money that can be spent saying “vote for those”. Skimming through your link, I see that the MPs on said talkback program did tell people to vote for themselves or their parties. Had they just stuck to the issues, they would’ve been fine.

    Economic growth is indeed a secondary concern, but it’s something that’s likely to be lifted by social policy. I also suggest you’re exceeding worst-case costings for dealing with climate change by implying we’d need to spend so much we’d end up like Venezuela.

    Regarding tax, yes, I’m aware that tax scales with how much people earn. I’m also quite keenly aware that most people who are very successful in life owe a lot, sometimes indirectly, to the infrastructure and social support that relies on taxpayer funding. Those who earn more can more afford to pay a given percentage of their income as tax, because as you earn more, the percentage of your income needed to maintain the necessities such as good food, accomodation, hygeine, and healthcare, will naturally shrink.

    I don’t hate rich people at all. I’m from one of the families I talk about. What I’m saying is that people like me are advantaged, even when we don’t end up as wildly successful business tycoons or investors or whatever, because we’re likely to have had more education, more preparation for success, and that we should be willing to extend those advantages to others- by paying our share of the tax burden. I’m not even talking about the elite who go to private schools and buy tutors and everything- I’m just talking about the fact that we’re likely to have very smart and supportive parents, more books and research skills, more emphasis on study, and lots of subtle factors that incline us to be more successful.

    Why shouldn’t we want something similar for everyone else? Why shouldn’t we be willing to pay for it if we’re successful? It strikes me as unpatriotic, unfair, and lacking basic empathy to say that people don’t deserve the same shot at success as you had.

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