Code Words

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Much of political discourse in the United States is conducted in a code designed to express a particular point of view to supporters, while being able to deny that implication to the rest of society.

Contents

Southern Strategy

"All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind."--Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

In the context of the Republican Southern Strategy of White Supremacy and bigotry, Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained it most clearly.

As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry Dent and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he's campaigned on since 1964 and that's fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.

You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."

Next bad is Nixon political strategist Kevin Phillips. In an interview included in a 1970 New York Times article, he touched on its essence:

From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

The practice of coded speech is generally felt to be necessary when there is wide public agreement that the point of view in question is evil and unAmerican, as with slavery in the 19th century, and racism today, or with Capitalist Robber Barons, who have a separate set of Economic Code Words. No such restraint is required yet on the issues of gays, abortion, the mentally ill, the homeless, or immigrants.

Talking in code has been called dog-whistle politics, after the high-pitched whistles that dogs can hear but not people. This can be construed as Liberal/Progressive code for

Racist
Dog, i.e. non-human.

In Black culture, talking in code can be called "signifying", as illustrated in the song Signifying Monkey. "What he said about yo' Mamma made me mad." "Signifying monkey, stay up in your tree. You are always lying and signifying but you better not monkey with me."

Newspeak

The above is included in the definition of Orwellian Newspeak, as described in the novel 1984. The key code words in the novel were

Peace
War
Freedom
Slavery
Strength
Ignorance

The idea of Newspeak as a language is that its structure allows it to substitute for thought. One of the most important words in Newspeak is "doubleplusungood". "Ungood" roughly means "bad", "plusungood" "worse", "doubleplusungood" "much worse than that". In the Republican and White Supremacist contexts, we would have, approximately,

  • ungood = Democrat; N*****; Obama
  • plusungood = Socialist; N*****-lover; Obama!
  • doubleplusungood = AntiChrist; Black Supremacist; OBAMA!!!!

See also, If It Quacks Like a Racist…

Any resemblance to any actual political regime or ideology is purely intentional.

Democratic Glossary

Contrary to all of the conspiracy theories, Democrats don't have that much of a hidden agenda. When a Democrat calls a far-Right Republican such as Rep. Michelle Bachmann or talking head Glenn Beck a Wing-nut, that means pretty much what it says: a Right-winger saying crazy things. "Echo chamber" is a metaphor for the proud Dittohead followers of Rush Limbaugh and others like them endlessly repeating the talking points of the day, but not secret code.

But there appear to be a few important instances, and a common theme in some of them. What if the Republicans carry through on any of their major threats? States aren't actually turning down stimulus money (though a few Governors went through a charade of trying), and Texas isn't really going to secede, for all the talk, but a recent book, In the President's Secret Service, by Ronald Kessler, says that Barack Obama faces 30 death threats a day, four times the number for his predecessor George W. Bush, and that the Secret Service is greatly overstretched. Four out of 44 US Presidents (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy) have been shot and killed. Ten to one odds are half as bad as one round of Russian Roulette (five to one with a six-chamber revolver).

Bipartisan effort
Enough rope for Republicans to hang themselves if they won't cooperate—Barack Obama
Dog-whistle politics
Republican code words, with the implication that racist Republicans are the dogs
George “W.” Bush Jr. III
Tyrant King George III of England, who inspired many clauses in the US Constitution—Dave Barry (W was the third US president named George, and the son of the second one)
Inflame anti-American opinion
(said of abuse photos) Inflame Republican opinion—Barack Obama
Move forward/Don't look back
Don't prosecute Bush Administration crimes, for fear of provoking racist paranoia to the breaking point—Barack Obama
Opt-out
In Health Care, lock-in
Reaching across the aisle
To Blue Dogs.—President Barack Obama, Sen. Evan Bayh D-IN; The Republican Party was fun while it lasted, but it is over now. It's hangover time.—Rachel Maddow, GOP in Exile
Repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell
Change DADT in a sensible but undefined manner at some unspecified future date, but allow dishonorable discharges of gays in the military to proceed in the meantime. This is to avoid provoking Christian Right paranoia further and possibly derailing larger initiatives.
Shrub
George W. Bush being strictly Bush League—Molly Ivins
Summit of All Fears
Values Voter Summit; They're afraid. They're very afraid.—Rachel Maddow

Republican Glossary

When said by a Republican, these words and phrases commonly have the real meanings shown. For some of them, a particularly egregious or otherwise notable user is noted, or in some cases the source of the observation.

See Also

External Resources

Mokurai has been Diarying Translating Dog Whistle Code on Daily Kos. Disclosure: Mokurai wrote almost all of this page.

  • Hastily Composed, by Adam Goodheart. Unlike [Confederate President Jefferson] Davis’s farewell speech to the Senate a month earlier, his inaugural speech included no clarion call to defend slavery and white supremacy. Even the South’s favorite euphemism, “our domestic institutions,” was left unuttered. The closest he came was in attesting that the desire to form a new nation was “actuated solely by the desire to preserve our own rights, and promote our own welfare.”

Frank Luntz is the principal architect of Republican code language. He has publicly claimed to be Orwellian, but in a good way. See

  • Words That Work, Revised, Updated Edition: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear
  • What Americans Really Want...Really: The Truth About Our Hopes, Dreams, and Fears
  • Candidates, Consultants and Campaigns: The Style and Substance of American Electioneering

George Lakoff has written extensively on this subject on the Democratic side.

  • Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate—The Essential Guide for Progressives
  • The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain
  • Metaphors We Live By
  • The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist's Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics
  • Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision
  • Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think, also available as Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't
  • Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea Words Matter, by Ralph Nader

The language used to discuss this subject is often intemperate on all sides. Not all of the following sites are objective or reliable sources, but they demonstrate the nature of the controversy.

None of this is new. Many of these demagogic practices are described in Aristotle's Politics (numerous modern translations), and in Prophets of Deceit: A Study of the Techniques of the American Agitator, by Leo Lowenthal and Norbert Guterman. Harper & Bro., January 1, 1949. ASIN B001P08ZEC (Out of print)

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