Dog Whistling in Politics


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The Dog Whistle is an instrument used to train and capture the attention of dogs through a method called dog whistling. It produces a high-pitched sound discernible by a dog’s ear but is inconceivable to the human ear. This is attributed to the stark contrasts in hearing capacities between human beings and dogs.

Politically, the term “Dog Whistle” contains significant potency and is a common fixture in political parlance. Dog Whistle politics involves the use of political language that is prima facie benign but on keen interrogation, bears furtive meaning. In other words, politicians find ways to say things that are often derogatory, derisive and dangerous but in a coded manner.

Nonetheless, it requires a level of dexterity to decipher because dog whistling is the art of cryptic speaking among the political class. Thereby displaying the striking resemblance dog whistle politics shares with an actual ‘dog whistle’ in terms of utility. Both of them manage to sweep things under the rug. And are intended to relay information only to a specified cohort of listeners.

Many a time these politically coded jibes take the form of; religious, ethnic, racist and classist slurs. Dog whistling has taken root globally and is frequently used by politicians of all civilizations and dispensations. Whether its in the ‘free world’ or in the pits of the ‘third world’. Politicians have not shied away from sharing jarring messages in the guise of dog whistling. Here are some examples.

President Trump, in his 2016 election bid used ‘Make America Great Again (MAGA)’ as his poster slogan while campaigning. It was plastered on all Republican campaign material from placards, posters to hats. As a neutral outsider and onlooker, the ‘MAGA’ slogan may have just represented a nationalist clamor. And a desire to collectively propel the American state to profound heights.

However, anyone privy to Trump’s and the Grand Old Party (GOPs) ideas of American greatness, understands lucidly what that slogan means. Trump has overtly shown disdain for minorities and people of colour. When he says he wants to Make America Great Again, he is simply alluding to making it less conducive for those groups. That is the essence of dog whistling, it gives politicians the latitude to stoke discord using cordial words.

Not only at state level politics but also on the international political scene, frays of dog whistling seep out. Some words deployed to distinguish different geographical locations are of questionable character. For instance, the terms Sub Saharan Africa and Northern Africa. Depending on your temperament for the day, it is not hard for you to deduce that a line is being drawn on the sand. Separating the wider region of Africa inhabited by the majority black population and the northern part largely occupied by the middle east populace.

Unfortunately, these subtle differentiations take a life of their own and become a standard form of polarization in more critical areas than just naming. Even though all these people share the same continental borders; the distinction of Africa in those terms, creates another cluster for discriminating against African people – depending on which side of the desert they hail from. Again, highly subliminal language but potentially extremely detrimental.  Describing the nature of dog whistling; immensely insidious.

It is no different in the use of terms such as ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’. Phrases meant to place countries accordingly in the pecking order of superiority. From the most viable to the least based on metrics that are also contentiously very biased. Because countries profiled in the ‘Global South’ are considered to be less favorable than their counterparts in the pearly ‘North’. Even in the international arena where things are supposedly neutral; dog whistling is vehemently practiced.

In Kenya we have neither been spared of dog whistling antics.  During the constitutional convulsions post 1992.  The stage was set for the late Moi to provide Kenyans with a presidential dog whistling moment. Paraphrasing his remarks, Moi said, ‘what does Wanjiku know about making a constitution anyway?’ Sentiments that elicited uproars from academicians.

In a literal reading of the words, Moi had a point. What business does a ‘Wanjiku’ and by extension ordinary Kenyans have writing a constitution? It is surely a task reserved for scholars. It would be petulant to read malice into that. But scratch beneath the surface and ask yourself if Moi’s utterances were really bereft of an ulterior motive. Truth be told, he had slighted the intellectual quotient of the citizenry.

He had failed to recognize that a constitution is a social contract not a research paper. Therefore, its making was a process that was owned by every citizen regardless of his reservations about their aptness. Because constitutions are for people to serve people and as a result not subject to elitism. But to the will of the masses. Moi had made a gaffe that is still remembered today. As a moment that unraveled the ‘reverence’ the political class have for citizens in Kenya especially ‘Wanjiku’.

More recently, we have had the effusive peddling of a ‘Hustler’ versus ‘Dynasty’ narrative. It always pops up when one side of the political divide seeks to separate itself, from a mess it participated in creating. Just to fathom, that one side of the mainstream political class is more financially disenchanted than the other is fallacious. It is a make believe begging us to think that there are two classes of politicians. The bourgeoisie class that are the ‘Dynasties’. And finally, the proletariat class, the so called ‘Hustlers’ who strive to resonate with the common man, a pauper.

Yet we all know that the most lucrative industry in this country, is sitting in elective office. Whether you are in the opposition or government. Do we have a class rift and income inequality gap in this country? We certainly do. But does it persist among the political class? Such is the tomfoolery peddled by politicians who try to endear themselves to the hoi polloi, through class difference politics. By and large ‘Hustler’ and ‘Dynasty’ politics ought to be taken with a pinch of salt to unearth the manipulation. On face value they may seem correct and innocuously true. But they are not and that’s why they are dog whistles.

It is important for citizens in every corner of the world to be abreast with devious tactics in politics. So as to call them out whenever they are used for political expediency. From now on, read between the lines. Identify the dog whistles!

Dog Whistling in Politics….

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