Wikipedia defines dog-whistle politics as “political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup.” It’s a time-honored tactic used by politicians of all persuasions. But, as Indiana governor Mike Pence learned on March 29 under intense questioning by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, sometimes it calls out unintended dogs.
Pence stammered and prevaricated, refusing to answer Stephanopoulos’s simple, pointed, yes-or-no question: Does Indiana’s new “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” protect business owners who claim religious motivations for refusing service to LGBT customers?
Pence’s difficulties stem from the law’s dog-whistle purpose. That purpose isn’t to protect religious freedom, either in general or with respect to a purported obligation of businesses to not discriminate. It’s to signal “Christian” (dog-whistle for “anti-gay evangelical”) voters, donors and interest groups that Republicans are on their side.
Prior to last week, Pence generated continuous, if minor, buzz as a dark horse prospect for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination. If he did indeed aspire to that crown, his klutzy defense of the new law almost certainly put it beyond his reach.
Even the ugly truth — that conservatives think the anti-gay vote is still a major electoral factor which might put Republicans over the top in 2016 — would have served Pence better than his live-on-national-TV meltdown.
Better yet, at least in terms of supporting American values of individual freedom, he might have laid down the libertarian line that business owners should be free to serve, or to not serve, anyone they please for any reason. That might have cost him votes, but it would at least have possessed the virtue of being right.
Personally I find it refreshing when a politician blows the dog-whistle and finds himself (or herself) surrounded by snarling pit bulls instead of the cuddly, eager-to-please puppies he expected.
I’d love to hear the baying of bloodhounds any time a progressive appeals for “access to” (dog-whistle for “I’ll make someone else buy it for you”) contraception, abortion, health care or housing.
When a bought and paid for politician calls for increases in “defense spending” (dog-whistle for “more corporate welfare for Lockheed-Martin and Raytheon”), I long for the appearance of a veritable pack of rabid wolves.
I’ve heard it said that the truth will set us free. I have my doubts. But it’s preferable to dog-whistle politics.
Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.