The whole point of dogwhistles in politics is to send a message to a target audience that goes over the heads of most people, because those people might be offended or turned off if you came out and said it. One way the going-over-the-heads-of-most-people bit is accomplished is to speak in code, such as when George Bush suddenly blurted out something about the Dred Scott decision during a debate with John Kerry, in response to a question about abortion. A whole lot of people were scratching their heads about that one, but he had a target audience, and they understood exactly what he meant:
If elected to another term, I promise that I will nominate Supreme Court Justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade.
Bush couldn’t say that in plain language, because it would freak out every moderate swing voter in the country, but he can say it in code, to make sure that his base will turn out for him. Anti-choice advocates have been comparing Roe v. Wade with Dred Scott v. Sandford for some time now. There is a constant drumbeat on the religious right to compare the contemporary culture war over abortion with the 19th century fight over slavery, with the anti-choicers cast in the role of the abolitionists.
Another way to send your message to your target audience while maintaining deniability is to go the wink-wink-nudge-nudge route, where you know that many people not in your target audience will pick up your meaning, but because you’ve crafted your statement to be facially innocuous, anyone who objects will be accused of being hysterical, hypersensitive, or overreacting.
This is, I understand Senator Clinton periodically when she is feeling down launches attacks as a way of trying to boost her appeal.
And that’s exactly what’s happened — all over the place, when anyone has objected to this statement as a sexist dogwhistle, they’ve been accused of overreacting. Of trivializing *real* sexism. Of seeing things that aren’t really there. Of stretching. Of ignoring context. Of simply being in the tank for Clinton (pay no attention to that double standard behind the curtain! The fact that some of the most vehement denials of sexism are coming from Obama supporters is mere coincidence!).
In other words, of being the exact same sort of overemotional and inconsequential person that Obama’s dogwhistle made Clinton out to be. Of being someone whose opinions and perceptions don’t matter, because everyone knows how women are.
Melissa McEwan has made the point many times that Obama has been praised for his rhetorical skills, for his ability to craft a message using just the right words. On the surface, this statement appears to be saying merely that Clinton goes negative when she’s behind. But then you look at the words he chose to make that statement:
And you have to ask yourself: Why did he choose those words to make this point? And the answer, unfortunately, is to send the message that Clinton is a big girly girl ruled by her hormones.
This isn’t the first time he or one of his surrogates has used this kind of coded language to remind voters that Clinton is a woman. Among other things, he’s dismissed Clinton’s experience in the White House as having tea; he’s said that Clinton’s “claws come out” ; said during a debate, “You’re likeable enough, Hillary”; and his campaign co-chair implied that she was crying over her looks (among other things, but the important point is that she cries like a girl).
Clinton was called out for racial dogwhistles, and rightly so. But a lot of the same people who were on her for that are pooh-poohing the sexist dogwhistles that Obama’s been employing, or ignoring from his own people. He’s also benefited from the kind of misogyny that’s been aimed at Clinton by the mainstream media, in the same way that all men benefit from misogyny: he doesn’t have to spend his time defending against attacks like that, so he can concentrate on his own message rather than responding to that of his detractors.
And it would be so easy for him to decide that he wasn’t going to win that way, too. 50% (or more, in the case of Democrats) of the electorate is made up of women. Why not refrain from the sexist dog whistles, or denounce the media’s misogynist treatment of Clinton? If you’re going to position yourself as being above it all, why not actually *be* above it all? If you’re going to campaign on a message of change and of progressivism, why not be an agent of change and say, no, I don’t need to win this way, that change starts right here? You’d think that such a message would only help him with the kind of voters who are leaning to Clinton just because they’re sick of the misogyny.
Unless your real audience is the kind of frat-boy voter who knows all about what those women are like. Periodically.
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