Research-based perspectives from MIT 

From dog whistles to claxons | Heather Hendershot 
Professor of Comparative Media Studies

Heather Hendershot; photo by Jon Sachs/SHASS Communications

Perspectives for the 2022 Midterm Election
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Heather Hendershot is professor of film and media in MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing. Hendershot studies TV news, conservative media, political movements, and American film and television history. Her courses emphasize the interplay between creative, political, and regulatory concerns and how those concerns affect what we see on the screen (big or little). Her most recent book is When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America (University of Chicago Press, 2022), a riveting account of how the network broadcasts of the 1968 Democratic convention shattered faith in American media.

In light of the right-wing radicalization of the GOP and the party’s widespread efforts at voter suppression, the 2022 midterm elections may be America’s last chance to deter—though not definitively defeat—the looming menace of fascism and authoritarianism and to maintain a democratic system of government. While political scientists and sociologists can explain the tactics and motivations powering efforts to establish a single-party, right-wing system of government, media historians take a different vantage point, asking how messaging works to communicate ideas (and feelings) during elections and how historical understanding can elucidate the present.

Of particular importance in the past has been how political candidates speak to a wide, mass audience versus smaller niche audiences and the role that subterfuge plays as candidates speak to those different audiences. To what extent do they reveal their true agendas? How do they package their platforms depending on how they perceive the composition of their audience? Put another way, politicians always spin their messages, but how do candidates speak differently to a New York Times reporter than to a Fox News interviewer? As we approach the 2022 midterms, with right-wing candidates supporting an anti-democratic agenda, what makes this particular moment of political communication unique?

Let’s start with the basics. The so-called dog whistle is a media tactic with deep roots. In theory, it’s a clever way to say something radical or extremist or, at the very least, controversial, to some constituents but not others. When Richard Nixon spoke of maintaining “law and order” in the course of his 1968 presidential campaign, he was referring specifically to the suppression of urban uprisings and of his intention to suppress minority voices of discontent. He avoided overtly racist language, yet crafted a message that reverberated strongly for opponents of desegregation, busing, and open housing. In 1980, Ronald Reagan voiced his support for “states’ rights” in Neshoba County, Mississippi, just a few miles away from where civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964, offering a dog whistle of reassurance to white supremacist Southern voters.

Decades later, in another effective dog whistle, George W. Bush incorporated New Testament phrasing into his speeches without labeling them as such; his evangelical Christian followers could read between the lines and understand that his feelings about issues ranging from Middle East policy to abortion access were farther to the right than a cursory listener not well-versed in the Bible would understand.

Dog whistles confirm the beliefs of followers and solidify their allegiance to a political candidate while leaving the door open to new converts (voters) within a mass audience. The tactic is useful when politicians seek to avoid controversy or negative publicity or when a sound bite appropriate for a centrist media outlet is desirable.

Many Republican candidates in the current midterm election cycle are actively courting controversy, though, and avoiding centrist outlets. This means that dog whistles are only occasionally useful to them. On the one hand, many are not hiding their darker motivations and beliefs (some candidates actively oppose LGBTQ civil rights, for example, or are vocal about their comfort with raped children being forced to give birth). On the other hand, there is still sometimes a sense that subterfuge is needed. Some candidates are scrubbing abortion from their websites, for example, and giving lip service to the idea that America should remain democratic. Thus, a GOP candidate may advocate for voter suppression policies but will speak not of “suppressing votes” but of “preventing voter fraud,” even when he or she is aware that the actual instances of voter fraud in America are very, very low.

The opposite tactic is what I call the claxon: a loud, blazing message targeted in particular to true believers. The claxoning of potentially controversial or polarizing issues used to be more common in the course of in-person appearances and local news interviews. George Wallace had a consistently populist, demagogic messaging strategy, but he spoke differently on the hustings in Tuscaloosa or on a Birmingham TV news interview than he did as a guest on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, where he had national exposure. The Alabama governor and presidential candidate’s pro-segregation stance was explicit for local audiences but more rhetorically veiled for national audiences.

This was a viable strategy in the days before YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok. Of course, there was always the possibility that a national reporter might cover a local rally and publicize a message not intended for wider dissemination, but in the network era a politician could count on a certain amount of containment of localized messages. He or she could run tailored TV and radio ads with confidence that they would remain local.  

The picture I’ve drawn here of dog whistles and claxons is useful but also has its limitations as the Republican Party and pro-Trump supporters continue their hard shift right. In 2017, when President Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, some mainstream news sources speculated that this might be a dog whistle to white supremacists. But it was actually a claxon, a loud and overt voicing of support. While in office, FPOTUS never tempered a comment that had potential to offend. Likewise in 2022, the dog whistle is not a particularly useful tactic for candidates who have dropped all pretense of being in favor of democracy or equality.

Paradoxically, social media enables the very narrow targeting of communication, yet that’s not necessarily linked to a strong desire to message constituents differently from a wider audience. If a particularly bigoted or otherwise controversial tweet ends up on cable or network news, it’s a win for candidates, because emotionally resonant messaging is quite often more highly valued than avoiding controversy. It’s the ultimate triumph of a “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” approach, though really Steve Bannon’s cruder articulation is a more apt way to describe the current situation.

The dog whistle strategy presumes that any statement could be too controversial for mass consumption. It now seems almost quaint. Imagine, if you will, a senator from South Carolina suggesting that a former president could not be prosecuted for crimes because rioting would ensue. It would be a bald-faced threat of violence. In 1973, Senator Strom Thurmond might have indicated such a thing about Nixon on a Charleston radio station. The statement would have been a claxon to right-wing local listeners, but would have likely reached no further. When Senator Lindsey Graham made a similar statement on Fox News, he was fully aware, indeed hopeful, that both more liberal and centrist news outlets would pick it up and run with it. And that is exactly what happened. Today it’s all claxon, all the time. 


Suggested links

MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing

Heather Hendershot's MIT webpage

When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America (2022)

Follow @ProfHendershot on Twitter


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