Beyond ‘Dog Whistle Politics’: An interview with Ian Haney López

Beyond ‘Dog Whistle Politics’: An interview with Ian Haney López

Ian Haney López is regarded as one of the nation’s leading thinkers on how racism has evolved in the United States since the civil rights era.

Currently a professor of law at the University of California Berkeley, he is the author of three books, most notably “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” which showed how decades of subliminal racial language have systematically dismantled programs and policies that benefit lower- and middle-income Americans. His writings have appeared across a range of sources, from the Yale Law Journal to The New York Times.

Haney López will discuss his work and how to rebuild support for a government that helps people realize their full potential and achieve enduring economic security at Colorado Center on Law and Policy’s Fourth Annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast, Oct. 6 at Embassy Suites Denver Downtown Convention Center.

Days before the violence in Charlottesville, CCLP Communications Director Bob Mook talked to Haney López about the themes explored in “Dog Whistle Politics” and where to go from here.

The views expressed by Haney López don’t necessarily express those of Colorado Center on Law and Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization which addresses poverty-related issues through research, advocacy, litigation and education.

CCLP: Why do you think there was a resurgence of interest in your book, “Dog Whistle Politics” after the elections?

Ian Haney López: The book provides a framework to understand what happened to our country. It takes a larger historical perspective. It’s not just about understanding 2016 or growing political polarization, but about what we’ve done over the past 60 years and how it fits within the arc of two of the most pressing problems the country faces. One: how we can move from racial oppression and toward racial equality. Two: how we as a democratic and capitalistic society deal with the distribution of wealth—whether wealth is fairly distributed or concentrated in the hands of a few.

These are two of the most pressing questions the country faces. It’s something we’ve struggled with throughout the 20th Century. “Dog Whistle Politics” as a book explores the relationship between those two questions over the last 50 years. In this context, the 2016 election epitomized two of the worst trends: Increasing racial hatred and increasing concentrations of wealth in the billionaire class.

CCLP: You point out throughout the book that neither Democrats nor Republicans have been above dog-whistle messaging. How have you seen that play out since the publication of the book?

IHL: Clearly, Donald Trump took the Republican strategy and amped it up. Indeed, he used it against the Republican party itself. He out dog-whistled the dog-whistle party. And it turned out that (mainstream) Republicans did not have an adequate response. They could hardly call Trump out for race-baiting. So he ran the table on the “establishment” Republican candidates by being even more of an aggressive racial demagogue than anyone else in a party that has built its identity around White anxiety.

On the Democratic side, I don’t think you see dog-whistling in the sense of purposeful efforts to manipulate people racially. What you do see is a repeat of purposeful racial evasion. This is something that Democrats have been doing for 50 years. In the wake of Trump’s election, it seems they’ve doubled down on it.

The politics of racial evasion has two components: One is the recognition that race is being used against you. Two is the conclusion that it’s being used so effectively that you have to deny that race is actually playing any role. The end result is a public silence about the role of race.

You can see that this is where the Democratic party has settled in the recent rollout of their “Better Deal.” A Better Deal is a collection of different policy proposals that hammer away at the idea of economic populism and concern for the working class. Yet, it’s studiously silent on questions of racial division, and social divisions more generally. At a time when Donald Trump is tweeting out about a ban on transgender people in the military and lecturing the country about the police being too nice on “thugs,” or railing against the savagery of immigrant killers, the Democrats are saying they can respond effectively by talking about economic policies alone.

This silence about race is purposeful. They know that race is a weapon in politics today, but they’ve also concluded that it is such an effective weapon that they don’t dare mention race because they fear if they do mention race, it will turn away the White working class voters that they seek to recapture. The result is a Democratic response that talks only in the dry language of public policy without addressing the fire that’s raging through American society of fear and division and people feeling threatened.

The Democrats have made a decision that they’re going to ignore racial dynamics. It’s not dog-whistle politics per se, but it’s definitely part of the pattern of dog whistling in which the right wing manipulates racial anxiety while liberals respond with racial evasion.

CCLP: It sounds like the Democrats are almost in a position that they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t in regards to addressing race. Is it more complicated than that?

IHL: The Democrats definitely think they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. That’s the conclusion they’ve reached. But that rests on a misunderstanding of how race is working in society and how to engage with it. Race is being used as a divide-and-conquer weapon. And once you’ve seen that clearly, it opens up the possibility of addressing race as a divide-and-conquer weapon.

Instead, progressives too often mistakenly presume that race only affects communities of color. Then they worry that if they address racism, doing so will antagonize Whites who’ve been conditioned to believe that Democrats care more about communities of color than they care about White voters.

That’s where the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t trap comes from. The root of that trap is the mistaken belief that race is only a concern for communities of color. This dramatically misunderstands the harm that racism is doing. Racism is being used as a divide-and-conquer weapon by the very rich against the rest of us. And with that understanding of racism, it becomes immediately apparent that you must have a conversation about race that is targeted toward Whites and that explains how racism hurts their families.


CCLP: A lot of middle Americans – a few of whom are related to me — seem to believe that racism went away with the civil rights movement and after we elected a Black president. How do we convince those people that we have a problem?

IHL: Having these conversations within family can be challenging, no doubt!

In my experience talking about divide-and-conquer politics, though, people understand it. They’ve seen this dynamic in their lives and their workplaces, maybe using race, maybe using other forms of division. From there, it becomes something that’s pretty easy to see in our politics.

The deep social divisions that bedevil our society don’t reflect the American people. They reflect a strategy among our politicians. That strategy is fundamental to this other thing that we see but don’t understand: how the rules get rigged to help the economic titans. If we start with a narrative about divide-and-conquer politics that ultimately favors the greedy corporations, then we can make clear that social divisions hurt all of us and only help the 1 percent.

Look at all of this administration’s attacks on people of color, Syrian refugees, and undocumented immigrants. And also transgender rights, sexual orientation, gender, abortion and Planned Parenthood. These things are part of the strategy: Rile people up with warnings that other regular people are the biggest threats of their lives. Then, with people battling each other, seize government and rewrite the rules of the economy to shovel more power and wealth to the billionaire class.

There’s a broad recognition – including among Republicans – that the economy is rigged, that government has largely been captured by economic elites. They’ve written the rules of government and the economy to favor themselves. Trump supporters understood this. One of Trump’s most popular lines was his promise to “drain the swamp.” But that was a complete fabrication in terms of what he actually went on to do – as evidenced by all the Goldman Sachs alums on his cabinet. He created a cabinet of swamp creatures.

Is this an analysis or narrative that everybody will understand? Not by a long-shot. But I do think it’s an understanding about American politics that we could use to rebuild a governing coalition. Not just 50 percent plus one, but 58 to 60 percent – the sort of numbers you need to create a wave election that will actually change how the country is run.

CCLP: Why do you think so many low-income, White, rural voters voted against their own self-interest in the last election? I think of the folks in Kentucky who might have health insurance for the first time because of the Affordable Care Act.

IHL: I would be careful about the phrase “self-interests” because it masks too much. What we really mean is they’re voting in ways that support the billionaire class and hurt their economic interests. They’re voting for a government that’s going to pull the social safety net out from under them and let them fail, suffer, go hungry or homeless. Instead, they’re going to get huge tax cuts for the billionaires.

But let’s keep pushing and ask, “What do they think they’re getting here? What’s animating them to support this kind of a deal?” It seems the main thing they hope to get by voting for someone like Donald Trump is a different sort of interest: respect. They hope their status and position in society will be reaffirmed. They’re pushing back against all these new people who are demanding “equality.” By that, I mean people of color and immigrants. I’m also talking about women who are demanding equal pay and an end to traditional patriarchy, as well as sexual-orientation minorities and non-Christians.

Additionally, often Trump voters feel disrespected by a condescending cultural elite. We used to think of the “elite” as the titans of wealth, the lords of industry who wield their wealth to boss around the little guy. But Republicans since the 1950s have been very successful in shifting resentment from the rich and powerful to the cultural elites, the Hollywood liberals, the mainstream media and university professors – all of these progressives who supposedly despise the working man. Supporting a boorish billionaire like Donald Trump lets people poke their finger in the eye of those cultural elites. Though I would ask: who truly condescends to working people? The cultural elite who insist on humane values? Or the billionaires who manipulate people’s fears?

In any event, what people are voting for is a chance for self-respect. They want to feel respected. They want to preserve and restore a status they feel has been taken away from them. We need to understand the importance of respect and feeling like you belong and that you’re recognized.

We also need to understand that everybody ought to feel that way—and that it’s morally wrong to rebuild one’s status by tearing others down. It’s immoral. If the goal is to feel that you’re respected and you belong, the moral solution is to build a community of mutual respect and belonging.

We also need to show that by building social solidarity, we can actually take power back from the billionaire class. It’s important to shift the language toward that and away from “voting against their own self-interests.”

CCLP: Members of Congress and the Trump administration seem intent on rolling back progress we’ve made on issues like wage stagnation as we speak. It sounds like there might be draconian cuts – particularly on human-service programs – coming from Washington. How do we change course?

IHL: These are draconian cuts in terms of the shift of ever-greater wealth to the very rich. But I hesitate to call this “conservative” because there’s nothing especially conservative about what’s happening in our country. When you think about a term like “conservative,” the root word is “conserve,” which implies protecting institutions, respecting tradition, proceeding with social change slowly and cautiously.

These folks aren’t conservative in that sense. They’re radical. They’re anarchists. They are intent on trashing society’s major institutions, including the presidency, the courts, the media, the notion of one-person-one-vote, checks and balances. They are intent on trashing anything that gets in their way. Trashing democracy allows them to move society to one where the rich exercise virtually unfettered power. That is dangerously radical. Many of them admit this. They talk in the language of “anarcho-capitalism,” of capitalism unleashed from government regulation and even more fundamentally from civic constraint and social responsibility.

It’s incredibly important for people to stop seeing the current moment as politics-as-usual and part of the normal cycle between Democrats and Republicans. This is an existential crisis for the country. Will we continue to be a democracy? What will happen to our society if the major social institutions that have bound us together are destroyed in the interests of increasing the wealth and power of a few? What will happen to “us” when social divisions are purposefully deepened and anger is purposefully fueled and stoked?

We face very deep threats to the future of our country and indeed to the future of humanity. It is a moment that demands mobilization and solidarity and creativity and energy. That’s the only way that people can effectively respond. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Think of the Women’s March. Hundreds of thousands of people who never participated in protests before are paying attention, they’re newly energized, looking for new ways to understand what’s happening to us and how to move forward. The goal is to provide a coherent narrative and a coherent vision of where we are, where we want to go, and how we want to get there. If we can do that, we’ll have the energy and the people and the resources to connect with and mobilize the many folks who remain dangerously complacent. But they shouldn’t be our initial focus. Our initial focus should be on people who are already mobilized and actively looking for a way to move forward.

CCLP: Speaking of changing the narrative, can you tell me a little about your effort to develop a unifying narrative on race and class, how it came about, your findings so far and when you think the project will be ready for the general public?

IHL: I’m involved with a new project called “The Integrated Race and Class Narrative Project” that starts with the idea that coming together rests on us having a shared vision about what has happened to the country. The basics seem clear. Now the challenge is to fill it in, to give it shape, to translate this story into many different versions that connect with the experiences of different people, different groups, different regions.

Politics is fundamentally about collective action to govern ourselves and others. To do this requires understanding who we are, who our enemies are, who our allies are, how we move forward.

Our basic story is clear. We are a people united by a set of ideals, including equality, liberty, and freedom. We’ve been taught to fear each other, when in fact other people in our society are our greatest allies. That’s what it means to be a democracy.

The real enemy in our lives — and in every society — is tremendous concentrations of power and wealth in the hands of very few people. The way forward is a sort of unity among the people. We can take the power of the people against the power of concentrated wealth and push wealth and power downward and outward. That’s the basics of it.

How does it actually work? What forms does it take? What language do we use? What sorts of imagery and metaphors can help us convey this message most powerfully? That’s what we’re working on.

The project is launched and going. Initial research is happening right now. There’s going to be both poll testing and focus groups. We’re working throughout the fall in and into the early new year. We’ll have some initial results in this fall. And then we’ll have a fuller understanding of how best to tell the story of who we are, where we’re going and how to get there early in the new year. Stay tuned!

-Bob Mook

Want to hear more from Professor Haney López? Join us for breakfast and conversation with him on Oct. 6 at CCLP’s Fourth Annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast. 

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