In politics, the “dog whistle” is coded language designed to delight a targeted subgroup and pass over the heads of everyone else. Other terms, such as “establishment,” “Washington insider” and “free trade,” are not quite full-grown dog whistles. Let’s call them puppy whistles.
These are expressions whose meanings remain vague. For the puppy whistle, the vaguer the better.
Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders rail against “the establishment.” This is a way of saying that they are not favored by the traditional leaders of their parties — the leaders said to have let us down.
“Establishment” is hard to define, and when you do, it sometimes carries positive feelings. Who among us wouldn’t be impressed by a plumber’s ad reading, “The Wrench Brothers, Established in 1971”?
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On the left, “the establishment” is itself a highly established term. It gained steam in the 1960s as a designation for the adults who messed things up for us kids. Sanders uses it as pure pejorative.
When Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Fund endorsed Hillary Clinton, Sanders responded, “Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time, and some of these groups are, in fact, part of the establishment.”
Clinton’s unfortunate comeback was that no one would be less establishment than the first woman president.
Harvard political scientist Danielle Allen then wrote a piece in The Washington Post titled, “Sorry, Hillary: You are the establishment.” She never explains why, uh, Hillary should be sorry for that — or more basically, why being part of the establishment is necessarily bad. The National Audubon Society has been around for 111 years. Is that any reason to hold it in low regard?
Allen offers this line: “Bernie Sanders is right that Clinton’s long list of endorsements represents her muscle within the Democratic Party.” That may be so, but if President Obama had that kind of muscle, we’d probably now have a government-run public option on the federal health-insurance marketplace.
“Washington insider” is a puppy whistle favored by populists across the spectrum. It’s No. 2 on the right’s list of condemnations (after liberal).
The coded meaning is that longtime Washington politicians become servants of lobbyists. It really shouldn’t matter how long a politician has worked in Washington but rather what the politician has done in Washington.
“Free trade” has long held negative meaning for populists in both parties. The left continues to use NAFTA — the North American Free Trade Agreement — as almost a curse word, as the cause of devastating losses among our manufacturing workers. But how many sweatshirts in your closet were made in Mexico? Go into Home Depot and see where the hammers, screws and lighting fixtures come from.
On the Republican side, Trump rails against Chinese imports. At least he knows where most of those jobs have gone.
The consensus among economists is that NAFTA provided modest benefits for the U.S., as well as for Mexico and Canada. Some American jobs did move to Mexico, but many would have otherwise gone to Asia. The remedy for victims of globalization is not to stop the unstoppable but to strengthen their social safety net.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the new trade boogeyman. Its purpose is to strengthen America’s hand in dealing with China, but that gets lost in the political discourse.
Trade agreements tend to be a mixed bag in terms of who benefits. They are not inherently evil. Likewise, so-called political establishments and Washington insiders should be judged by what they do, rather than what they are. But gray is an unpopular color in campaign season.