Saturday, November 3, 2007
Dog Whistle Politics
I like Garance Franke-Ruta's take on the recent accusations that Hillary Clinton tried to play the "gender card" in the aftermath of the last Democratic debate (via Kevin Drum). She frames her discussion in the context of "the secondary conversation" that women have amongst themselves due to the fact that, a) so much of the discourse in the "primary" political arena is controlled by, conducted by or catered to white men; and b) women in positions of mainstream power suffer consequences if they call too much attention to their status as women. Hillary has been a master of what Franke-Ruta calls "dog whistle politics", basically shout-outs that are only heard by their intended audience. If she got called on it this time, it's mainly due to the intense scrutiny her opponents are placing on her every word these days.
On the other hand, I'm not so sure about this:
For example, Barack Obama took on Clinton on television this morning for slipping into secondary conversation talk, something he himself almost never does, even though he's been offered plenty of opportunities to do so. And, to the extent that he avoids embedding himself within or evoking the common tropes of an African-American secondary conversation, it's actually part of his cross-racial appeal. (Emphasis and links in original.)
I'm thinking about his appearance on 60 Minutes when, in answer to the question "Are you black enough?", he responded, "When it comes time to catch a cab, I am." Or more recently, when he danced his way onto the set of Ellen De Generes' show and, in answer to her comment that he was the best dancer of the candidates she'd seen, joked that "It's a low bar." Then there's his South Carolina Gospel Tour, which wasn't very subtle to begin with, but ended up more closely resembling a foghorn than a dog whistle, due to the flap over Donnie McClurkin.
Granted, these are tropes that have perhaps "crossed over", but they definitely resonate differently for a black audience than for a white one. Same goes for his "Rocky/Apollo Creed" quip at the last debate. It's true that given the historical stereotypes of black men, Obama probably has to be more careful of what he lets slip, as demonstrated by the extreme restraint he showed (hardly) getting his groove on with De Generes. But I'd argue he's been doing the same thing as Hillary.