I don't think I have ever heard the term applied to statements on the left. Supposedly racists can understand a hidden meaning or applied to the Christian right, but the majority of voters cannot hear when certain phrases are used.

She uses as an example Australian politicians using broadly-appealing words such as "family" and "values" which have extra resonance for Christians, while avoiding overt Christian moralizing that might be a turn-off for non-Christian voters.

The phrase "states' rights", although literally referring to powers of individual state governments in the United States, was described by David Greenberg in Slate as "code words" for institutionalized segregation and racism.

Are any words from the left considered dog-whistle politics phrases. For example, are the following considered code words?:

  • Social Justice: Code word for wealth redistribution.

  • Sustainability: Code word for reductions in developed nations standard of living, decreased meat consumption, and ecotaxes.

  • Diversity: Code word for promotion of non-white people and cultures, racial quotas, affirmative action.

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    Every party has a form of "lingo". It's unavoidable when you put together enough people with similar ideas... programmers have a lingo, StackOverflow has a lingo, etc. The examples you give are examples of lingo .
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Dec 25, 2012 at 20:12
  • This might be better moved to the English Language SE.
    – user
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 8:46
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    @Sklivvz - the difference between lingo and dog whistle is intent. More specifically, the intent of lingo is to be a shortcut (sometimes, to brand-identify too) but not to mislead; whereas the intent of dog whistle is explicitly to mislead, either directly, or by plausible deniability.
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 22:53
  • 1
    Voting to close as opinon-based. Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 15:13

7 Answers 7


The examples "Social Justice", "Sustainability", and "Diversity" are not dog-whistle phrases, since the same connotations of those terms are understood by both sides.

Dog-whistle phrases seem best suited to closeted agendas and ideologies at variance with general public opinion. In 2018 Washington the political spectrum has shifted rightward to that of the general populace, so at present there seems to be little reason for the former moderates now relegated to the left wing to need dog-whistle phrases.

In the previous century however, various progressive but less prevalent ideas were draped in a more stealthy dog-whistle vocabulary:

  • Fellow Traveler, (prior to becoming a right-wing term of sardonic opprobrium), was in the '20s and '30s used un-ironically by the non-communist left.

  • Gay code words back when US laws were more repressive.

  • The aggregate political significance of Rock n' Roll lyrics of the 20th century, sometimes full of cryptic innuendos and allusions regarding various contemporaneous forms of contraband and unconventional lifestyles, which were not perfectly understood by generally youthful audiences. Like messages in a bottle, the lyrics wash ashore in adult recollection of those same audiences, who then understand a little more.

A present-day bipartisan instance of stealth:

  • Wealthy Americans in hopes of not provoking further resentment signal their economic status through allusions that border on code. Daniel Mallory Ortberg writes in Harvard Magazine Personal Advertisements’ Many Synonyms For “Rich” or “Thin”:

    ...every single advertiser feels like it is VERY URGENT to stress exactly how rich and thin they are... but they are also (belatedly and barely) concerned about seeming judgmental or close-minded, so they try to speak in the world’s most breakable code...


    “You: Could get up to use the business-class lavatory without being questioned by a flight attendant.”

    “Tired of being on symphony committee boards”...

    “You enjoy long walks from cars to helicopters, or from helicopters to shipyards”

    “The number of pages in my last prenuptial agreement were greater than my current bodyweight in imperial pounds”...

    “Your grandfather: The number of research libraries that share his last name is greater than zero.”


Social justice

Social Justice: Code word for wealth redistribution.

Usually when I see Social Justice, it is being used as a code word for identity politics. E.g. it is not socially just to use the term blacks. You should say African-Americans instead. Also see Social Justice Warriors. It is of course possible that you run in different circles than I do.

This would not generally be considered a dog whistle, as it doesn't hide one policy with another. I've never heard anyone say social justice, mean wealth distribution (or identity politics), and try to argue that social justice is not actually wealth distribution or identity politics.


Diversity might be considered a liberal dog whistle. As practiced, it often means setting different standards for one demographic than another. For example, Harvard excludes Asian applicants at a higher rate than black applicants. This is a dog whistle because it hides preferential treatment based on race behind a policy that claims to promote equal opportunity.

Assault weapons

An example of what I would consider a liberal dog whistle is assault weapons. So-called "assault weapons" are semi-automatic rifles that look like the assault rifles used by the military. They are popular for the same reason that water guns that look like real guns are popular. They look dangerous. But in reality they are no more dangerous than other semi-automatic rifles with similar shooting characteristics.

By using the term "assault weapons", liberals imply that these are just as dangerous as military assault rifles. And you can see this in the rhetoric around them. They are described as designed for military use with no civilian purpose. This is of course hooey. No military in the world uses semi-automatic versions of fully automatic weapons. They may use semi-automatic rifles for things like sniping, where a single shot is sufficient.

The television show Supergirl had a recent episode, Not Kansas, where special large caliber rifles were available with bump stocks. However, assault rifles are not larger caliber than other rifles. In fact, they are generally smaller. Why? Well, let's consider a scene from the episode.

The villain is shooting one of these magic rifles at Guardian (an armored hero). The bullets are physically pushing Guardian backward even though he was braced against the shots. However, real guns don't work that way. If a bullet has sufficient momentum at impact to push a large man in armor back, then it must have had an even higher momentum when it was expelled from the rifle (air resistance reduces momentum as the bullet travels). Firing would also push the unbraced, unarmored shooter back. As Isaac Newton explained for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

An actual human being shooting a real fully automatic, large caliber rifle would fall over. This is why a weapon like the M2 Browning is mounted on a turret. The recoil in fully automatic mode would knock over a human being who tried to fire the thing. But that's okay, Supergirl is fantasy. They can have magic guns. The ironic thing is that they seemed to present both sides but did so in such an unrealistic way that it was obvious which side viewers should pick.

An assault rifle is generally rather small caliber for this reason, to allow real human beings to manage the recoil of a fully automatic weapon in continuous or burst fire. For example, the ubiquitous M-16 is a .224 or just slightly larger than a .22. The semi-automatic version, the AR-15, is the same caliber. Meanwhile, many hunting rifles will be a larger caliber, e.g. a .300 or .375. And handguns are often even larger, e.g. Dirty Harry's famous .44 Magnum. That's almost as big as the .50 M2 Browning.

Rifle cartridges are often longer than handgun cartridges, not a larger caliber. The length gives more speed out of the muzzle. That's part of why handguns can be larger caliber. They're shorter and slower, so their momentum or recoil is lower than it otherwise would be.

Anyway, back to dog whistles. I would consider an "assault weapon ban" to be a liberal dog whistle because it makes no policy sense to single out "assault weapons" while leaving other weapons that are at least as dangerous if not more. But in many districts politicians can't say that they want to ban all guns. So they instead talk about "assault weapons" as being easy to demonize. Meanwhile, most homicides and suicides are committed with handguns, which are easier to use and to carry concealed.

Some gun-rights activists believe that this is intended as a policy of harassment. Because long rifles are commonly owned but rarely used in crimes, a policy restricting them doesn't make much sense from a crime reduction standpoint. However, it is annoying to gun owners and reduces their enjoyment in collecting guns. After all, semi-automatic versions of assault rifles are probably as close as most gun owners will get to owning an assault rifle. If some of those people don't bother to own guns at all, then they are less likely to resist other gun restrictions.

The phrase "Assault weapon ban" is a dog whistle because it hides one policy (eliminating all private ownership of firearms) with another policy (restricting one class of firearm).

Virtue signalling

Another issue with the term dog whistle is that it is usually used as an accusation. One person says about another person, "When you say [dog whistle], you are signalling that you support [some bad thing]. But you don't come right out and say it, even though you believe it." Two things:

  1. The person making the accusation doesn't actually know if the person being accused really thinks that way. That is an assumption.

    For example, many liberals say that they don't want to take away hunters' guns; they really just care about the immediate policy. That may seem unlikely, but it is not impossible. In fact, the whole purpose of a dog whistle is that for some people, the dog whistle is acceptable but the alleged policy is not. If that weren't true, there'd be no reason to use the dog whistle over the policy.

    There must be at least some people who agree with the literal policy without supporting the hidden agenda. Any given individual may be one of those people.

  2. This then becomes a form of virtue signalling. Liberals accuse conservatives of dog whistles. Conservatives accuse liberals of virtue signalling. Saying that black lives matter is virtual signalling. What many conservatives hear is that black lives are more important than white lives. Saying that all lives matter is a dog whistle response. What many liberals hear is that white lives are more important than black lives. In both cases, they infer something different than what was actually said.

    Virtue signalling is also stigmatized as saying something to avoid doing something. For example, Democrats say in their platform that they are against illegal immigration. But when it comes to actually doing something about it, they won't support any of the policies to reduce illegal immigration.

    A dog whistle is something of the reverse. It's supposedly saying a relatively innocuous thing so as to attract people that believe something else. The problem with a dog whistle is that it may turn into the policy and then be expanded.

  • 2
    This is a good answer, but I kindof want to suggest shortening it. But aside from the digression on guns (which I can see the relevance of), I can't think of what.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 4:36
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    Agree it's too long, but it seems there are some obvious parts that could be cut. For instance, the idea that the Democrats are in favor because the don't support any of the policies to reduce it? Bogus. Yes, Democrats oppose most of the Republicans proposals, but you can't equate Republican proposals and the full spectrum of possible measures to reduce ilelgal immigration. For instance, giving development aid to countries so there is less incentive for migration would NOT be a Republican proposal, MIGHT be acceptable to democrats, and is a policy to reduce illegal immigration.
    – MSalters
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 11:39
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    -1. Many of these examples are specious. It's not clear that people who say "assault weapons" are using it as a code word. As a test, does the term "assault weapon" convey a radically different meaning to the intended audience than the general audience? Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 17:39
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    @indigochild - yes. One can quibble whether the meaning difference is intentional or not, but yes, the anti-2d-amendment crowd usually use it in way way broader way than the technical definition.
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 22:51
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    To be fair i never considered the "assault weapons" ban in this way. The reasoning usually given is no one reasonably owns these kind of weapons for self defense.
    – Ivana
    Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 11:53

The reason that "dog whistle" is only used by progressives to apply to their opponents is because that term was invented (in a political usage) by progressives.

But yes, in all fairness, the examples provided are no different conceptually if you consider the defined Wiki usage (political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted subgroup).

As a matter of fact, most terms used by progressives in political discourse have hidden connotations that aren't at all obvious to someone who merely knows regular English:

  • UPDATE And in case my own answer seems "too biased" as source of examples, how about Obama's Secretary of Treasury Time Geitner, who in his memoir quotes Obama's White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer:

    "It wasn't a main driver of our future deficits, but it did contribute," Geithner wrote, explaining his own reasoning. "Pfeiffer said the line was a 'dog whistle' to the left, a phrase I had never heard before. He had to explain that the phrase was code to the Democratic base, signalling that we intended to protect Social Security."

  • Minority:

    a normal person (let's take an immigrant from a country who has English fluency but never heard modern progressive political discourse as a yardstick) would assume it's a group/demographics that is a small % of general population. To progressives, it means preferred "oppressed"/"victim" demographics that needs special privileges even if in numerical majority.

  • "Working class":

    Does not, for some reason, mean "all people who work". This basically means "anyone who should in our opinion be against evil capitalism and for us" to the target audience; and the usual implied set of people doesn't fit any objective definition.

    The definition from common language usage - e.g. "people who work" doesn't match (since progressive's context always includes people on welfare, including those who didn't work a single day of their life).

    None of the "official" definitions given by Progressives match either:

    • "People who are poor" - Nope. Progressive context include union members many of whom have a total compensation package (per-hour salary, gold-plated benefits, super generous pension with early retirement, and guaranteed job security) that exceeds typical middle-class white collar employee, or even most entrepreneurs who aren't yet super successful.

    • "People who do physical work" - Nope. This excludes any white collar professionals who do physical work as part of their occupation, e.g. surgeons; and includes people like subway train operators, whose job is (no disrespect) to sit in a chair all day and press a couple of buttons once every couple of minutes (a lot less physical work than most bankers do, by any objective standard).

    • "People deriving their living through wages as opposed to investments" - this excludes "working class" retirees whose income is 100% from ... *gasp*... investments.

  • 14
    Would it be possible to get some citations here? Specifically, I would be interested in the origin of your claim that progressives "invented" the modern "dog whistle" term. Additionally, do you have any data to back up your claim that progressives equate "minority" to "oppressed/victim". Similarly, your answer about "working class" uses rather biased terminology that you ascribe to liberals without any sort of citation (e.g. "evil capitalism"). What makes your "official" definitions "official"? Do you have any citations at all? Commented Dec 26, 2012 at 15:29
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    @Gramatik - Females constitute 50.9% US population as per Census. That is a numerical majority (males are 49.1%). Yet, they are always classified as "minority" by the left. Additionally, racial/ethnic "minorities" are always same exact people, even if they constitute majority numerically at any given region. Or do I need to cite progressive literature to you that explains the term "minority" based explicitly on "oppression"/"power"?
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 14:16
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    @user4012 Racial/ethnic minorities I believe are implied to be so at a national or state (law-making) level as opposed to local, I'll give you the female majority part but I've only seen women referred to as a minority in "women are a minority in X field" situations. That said, I did learn after searches concerning this comment that there are four US states in which the national majority is not the same as state majority (though still the same as the plurality besides Hawaii) - Hawaii, NM, California, Texas
    – Gramatik
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 14:35
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    @Gramatik - leaving that aside, the question is not talking about laws. We are talking about political statements. Two different things
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 14:38
  • 7
    @Gramatik, your argument about the meaning of the word "minority" amounts to stating that the word continues to be used in its original meaning. The meaning which you attribute to it is how the word used to be used. But its usage has evolved. It now refers to those specific groups (and their members) who were in the national minority at the time when the word was first used an an emphasis. Today it's common to hear "minority" used as an adjective when talking about single individuals. A "minority student" or a "minority employee" only make sense when taken as user4012 describes them.
    – grovkin
    Commented Jul 4, 2018 at 0:59

For something to be a "dog whistle" it has to be understood by the listener to be a proxy for something that the speaker wants to avoid saying. For example, saying "states rights" when the audience understands that you are talking about laws which hurt people of colour.

The examples given are not dog whistles. Social justice is a broad term that mainly describes a struggle for equality. Also, people are not at all embarrassed to talk about redistributing wealth directly, it's a mainstream political philosophy, so there is no need for a dog whistle.

Neither of the others are trying to obscure anything either. Your definitions for their true meanings are bizarre and don't seem to match the way people with a progressive/left leaning stance use them.

  • 1
    this is an excellent, straightforward answer (and clear definition of 'dog whistle politics') +1
    – user1530
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 17:10
  • 3
    This answer just simply accepts the left/liberal/democratic claim that social justice is simply a struggle for equality, and doesn't spend any time investigating what else it might mean. Commented Feb 5 at 19:57

None of the terms given apply since they don't serve to target specific subgroups while being opaque to the general population.

Social justice is too broad to easily define both among both its supporters and detractors. It can target various subgroups (even spilling over to multiple groups), but it is not opaque because detractors will also read various things into it, much of which the user might not have even intended.

Sustainability and diversity has the opposite problem of being too well defined. Everyone can attribute specific policies to the terms and pretty much agree on what those policies are, whether they support those policies is immaterial. It's just a form of branding like pro-life or pro-choice, neither of which are dog whistle terms.

The perfect form of dog whistle politics requires a high level of opacity, hiding social engineering under economic policies for example. Lee Atwater is famous for outlining this in an interview he gave in 1981:

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."

State's rights was a very effective dog whistle term because the level of interest invested into it by the general population is low. The point of the term was to avoid overt racism, once that is accomplished political opposition largely collapses because the avoidance of overt racism isn't equivalent to the pursuit of racial justice. Also you can easily tell that the term is not actually about "state's rights" because the term is never mentioned near topics like environmental or educational standards despite the influence California and Texas has on the auto and textbook industry respectively, or about local policies on enforcement regarding things like immigration or prohibition.

  • 4
    "Sustainability and diversity has the opposite problem of being too well defined" - this is a statement that is (1) wrong, (2) completely uncited and no evidence is presented to back it up, nor any effort is made to acknowledge or rebuff criticism of it. Yet, this whole answer hinges on it and has 2 upvotes.
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 13:35
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    @user4012 You don't agree that they refer to environmental policy and ethnic/religious/sexual/etc identity respectively? It's certainly nothing like the economic policies being linked to racial discrimination as mentioned by Lee Atwater.
    – Teleka
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 15:09
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    Specific meaning of what it means to have diversity (or sustainability) definitely differ depending on what left or right wing means. The latter typically being tangled up with equally un-same understanding of what "equality" implies - on average, equality of outcome for the left and equality of opportunity for the right. I won't even go into even deeper weeds since it's a comment and likely will get deleted
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 15:47
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    @Teleka - the specific terms I listed in a comment are of the second kind (different meaning - and opaque to uninitiated who aren't political junkies or same side), NOT the first kind (different term but without opaque meaning)
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 4, 2018 at 2:08
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    @Teleka - let's not even go into the fact that specific terms are just examples in the question. The question wasn't "were those specific terms dog whistle", it was "do they use dog whistles at all" - which cannot be answered by just claiming 2 or 3 or 4 terms of your choosing aren't dog whistles.
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 4, 2018 at 2:10

Another dog whistle became prominent in the past few months due to the events of October 7th and the war in Gaza:

From the river to the sea

According to Aljazzera:

From Beirut to London, from Tunis to Rome, calls for a ceasefire ending Israel’s relentless bombing of Gaza were interspersed with the slogan: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

To the crowds waving Palestinian flags, the chant reverberating across the globe expresses the desire for freedom from oppression across the historical land of Palestine. But for Israel and its backers, who label the phrase as pro-Hamas, it is a veiled call to violence that bears an anti-Semitic charge.

The protests against Israel where this phrase is repeated have generally been left-leaning in the US, so I'll consider it an example of a left-leaning dog whistle.

  • I wouldn't even say it's a dog whistle for the left, but rather a dog-whistle for Islamic Jihad specifically (which I guess technically is far-right, making this a less-than-ideal example). “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” means "free of Jews" or "entirely Muslim". The phrase is a call for genocide of Jews, and a lot of the left doesn't really recognize that fact, but parrot the phrase because they believe that Palestine represents some sort of marginalized group and want to support them in solidarity.
    – Beefster
    Commented Feb 5 at 17:45

The 90s Subaru Commercials

In the 90s, Subaru identified one of their major demographics: Lesbians. As LGBT acceptance wasn't particularly great at the time, they decided to advertise to their lesbian demographic in a subtle way that would only be understood by lesbians. You could consider such an ad campaign to be using dog whistles, though in a positive way rather than the pejorative way that the term "dog whistle" is typically used.

  • This article goes into more detail about the Subaru ads, and the pro-LGBT dog-whistles they incorporated. Some of them don't actually sound very dog-whistley by modern standards because LGBT culture has become that much more mainstream over the years.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Feb 5 at 18:25

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