Rachel Maddow has a great vlog up at AlterNet about how Republicans know their presidential candidates have nothing going for them at this point other than being white, male, and willing to “protect the children.” She mentions Novakula’s recent outburst that “only the Democratic Party, with everything in their favor would [decide that] this is the year to either have a woman or an African-American to break precedent…and it gives the Republicans hope,” and Gonzo’s insistence that he won’t resign because he’s “going to stay focused on protecting our kids,” and then goes on to Mitt Romney’s new ad where he promises to “clean up the water in which our kids and grandkids are swimming,” but not the actual water—just the cultural water.
The Republican candidates, Maddow notes, are not on the right side of any of the issues that are important to Americans, so all they can do is point out they’re white doodz who will totally protect teh childrenz! Oh—and they all totally hate abortion and teh gayz, no matter what you’ve heard!
In other words, the closer we get to the election, the more we’re going to start hearing about “tradition” again—because it’s the ultimate GOP dog whistle.
The GOP is the party that will protect traditional values. That’s what we hear all the time. Don’t want the radical homosexual agenda to render marriage and families obsolete? Vote Republican! Don’t want abortion to be used by soulless hussies as a form of birth control? Vote Republican! Don’t want erase our identity as a Christian nation? Vote Republican! Don’t want to see Christmas and Easter made illegal? Vote Republican!
Never mind whether the threats aren’t true; the message is what’s important, and it’s quite clear: Republicans will protect your way of life and what you believe in. They’ll protect tradition.
Liberals see an American tradition of slowly but surely making good on that promise of equality for every citizen, but we tend to call it “progress” and ourselves “progressives.” Social conservatives, on the other hand, define American tradition as the good old days, when there was no question that men were superior to women, straights were superior to gays, and whites were superior to everyone else. They want to preserve and protect that “tradition,” and, though some of them call themselves culture warriors, mostly they call themselves “traditionalists.”
Not only is that shorter than “sexist, racist, homophobic retrofuck jackholes,” but it sounds a lot nicer, too.
“Tradition” is the kind of word that appeals to people who don’t pay attention all that much, but might have a notion that the world is changing more rapidly than they can comfortably keep up with, who have heard some things about how feminism is responsible for the breakdown in the family and maybe that explains why all of Junior’s friends are such smart-alecks; maybe their mothers are feminists. “Tradition” is a word that plays well with that mushy middle, who can’t be bothered to examine anything too closely.
But it’s an even better word for speaking to the unabashed bigots of the base, reassuring them that they’re right to hate women and gays and brown people, and promising them, without saying as much, they’ll be protected from the onslaught of the radical hordes. America’s great tradition of conferring undeserved privilege on you won’t fail. Not on our watch. “Tradition” is the ultimate dog whistle to the social conservative base.
Last year in Tennessee, where the bitter Senate race between white Republican Bob Corker and black Democrat Harold Ford, Jr. escalated into one of the ugliest campaigns in recent memory, the GOP sent out a flyer to voters which said across its top: “Vote early to preserve your way of life.” It was immediately called out for its nefarious implications, as well it should have been—when social conservatives issue promises to protect tradition, our first response should be pointing out the tradition to which they refer is not worth protecting.
Proponents of “traditionalism” like to conjure images of the America that most Americans know from shows like Leave It to Beaver, but never experienced firsthand—it is a rare family indeed who never struggled for money, weathered a layoff, suffered an extended illness or loss, or fell out with each other, not to mention had no friends of color, gay friends (or members), or, ya know, daughters. The reality that most families aren’t a picture of Christian white perfection, and never were, doesn’t stop people from imagining the opposite, however. And that’s what makes “tradition” the ultimate dog whistle—it doesn’t just send a covert message, but makes people come running, panting and wagging their tales eagerly in search of a reward, a glorious something that never existed.
Of course, it the nonexistence of this perfect America, in spite of illusions to the contrary, that created the beloved “traditions” of racism, sexism, and homophobia in the first place. The dangling enticement of a happy family, supported by a single secure and well-paid job, in which no one is wracked with disillusionment, dispossession, or a lack of opportunity—an invitation to join for which most Americans are never given the chance to RSVP—creates the resentment and scapegoating that are the foundations of social conservative traditionalism. If I don’t have everything I want, it’s got to be somebody’s fault. And the GOP is always happy to point a finger in the direction of the already-marginalized.
They’re the ones—they’re the ones taking away what you deserve, the uppity niggers, the Jews, the illegals, the feminazis, the purveyors of the radical homosexual agenda. It’s them, but if you vote for us, we’ll protect you.
It’s the siren song that has hoodwinked generations of poor white Americans into voting for the GOP—and while the GOP keeps distracting them with promises to preserve tradition, they continue to redistribute wealth up the ladder away from them, doing precisely the thing they accuse the scapegoats of doing. But as long as there are scapegoats, the real culprit goes unnoticed by its victims.
That’s the tradition the GOP likes. And that’s the tradition they really want to protect.
Then there are the people who know the score, who get the game that’s being played, and don’t care—because they just liked things better when women and people of color and the LGBT community were to be unseen and unheard. They don’t like them. They don’t like the thought of working for a woman, or the thought of a black man marrying a nice white girl, or seeing two men holding hands on the street. And they call themselves “traditionalists” to mask their overt hatred of a changing world where their aesthetic only exists in podunk backwaters in which they’d never deign to live. It’s the height of insolence, in their view, that a metropolis like New York or Chicago has the temerity to be metropolitan—sophisticated, multicultural, progressive.
What a conundrum for a culture warrior like Bill O’Reilly who has to stoop to making his millions working in a cesspool like New York City; thank Christ for the suburbs. And even there, you see working women and nouveau riche tokens and two confirmed bachelors living in the same house—shit. But at least it’s better than living in a trailer park in Indiana where the air reeks of meth and hillbillies might make you vomit with their desperate ignorance of foie gras and four-syllable words.
The GOP is happy to cater to these people, too.
Which is why, though we hear that the GOP is just using sexism or racism or homophobia as a marketing tool—they don’t really hate those people; look at all the women and minorities and gays in their ranks!—they’re still out there selling protection of tradition, blowing that dog whistle like there’s no tomorrow…because even if they don’t hate the disenfranchised, their base does. And without that base, there really won’t be a tomorrow for the GOP.
[Originally published in similar form as “Tradition is the Ultimate Dog Whistle” at Shakespeare’s Sister in Oct. 2006. But, sadly, it bears repeating every campaign season.]