Top five racist Republican dog-whistles

Sometimes, there's more to a "gaffe" than meets the eye.

After an excruciating few days, the Romneyshambles is finally coming to an end as Mitt departs Britain, tail between his legs. It really has been gaffe-ridden, as he's insulted Britain, he's failed to sell tickets to his fundraiser, and he's suggested we aren't doing the Olympics very well (even a stopped clock...). But one of his "gaffes" has a decidedly darker undertone, when an unnamed aide was reported by the Telegraph to have commented that Romney would be a better President than Obama because only he understood the "shared Anglo-Saxon heritage" that Britain and America have.

This sort of statement is known in politics as a "dog whistle". To most people, it looks innocuous, if a bit weird, but to its target audience – in this case, racists – it reads as a perfectly clear statement that Romney is better than Obama because he is white. It's noticeable, for example, that Romney did not bring up the fact that Ed Miliband, the son of Polish Jewish migrants, also does not share an Anglo-Saxon heritage.

Not that this is anything new in the Republican party. Consider Romney's "gaffe" just number 5 in the Top Five Racist Republican Dog-Whistles of all time:

4. Barack Hussein Obama

Quick pop quiz: What's Barack Obama's middle name? Even if you haven't read it from the line above, it seems pretty likely that you know it's Hussein. Now, do you know John McCain's? (It's Sidney) What about Mitt Romney's? (Trick question. Mitt is his middle name, and his real first name is Willard. But even he forgets that sometimes)

There is a reason you know the former's but not the last two. It's because reminding everyone that Barack Obama has, not just a scary foreign-sounding name, but a scary, foreign and Islamic sounding name which is the same as that nasty dictator plays really well with a Republican audience.

To his credit, John McCain never got on board with that angle of attack, even going so far as to apologise for a radio commentator who did. But that doesn't mean the Republican base has forgotten their President's middle name.

3. Georgia's 1956 state flag

Less a dog-whistle, more a klaxon, this one. In 1956, the state legislature of Georgia voted to adopt this as their flag:

which is awkwardly similar to the Confederate battle flag. You know, the one people marched under as they went to war to defend their right to keep people in slavery? That one. Now, Mississippi also has a flag which contains the confederate one, but at least theirs was adopted in the 19th century. Georgia, on the other hand, voted for theirs in 1956, and then proceeded to keep it until 2001. And even when they replaced it, the new one still had the confederate flag on it, albeit much smaller. It was only in 2003 that they successfully de-racisted.

Even then, it still didn't stop being flown in the skies of Georgia – it just flew in less of them. The city of Trenton, Georgia (population 1,942) promptly adopted it as their official flag, and still use it today.

Not cool, Georgia.

2. Ronald Reagan and "States' Rights"

On the campaign trail in 1980, Ronald Reagan gave an infamous speech in Mississippi, where he told assembled supporters that:

I believe in states' rights.... I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment.

It is perhaps the archetypal dog-whistle statement. To most people, it sounds like a statement on constitutional law. Yet to the residents of Nashoba County, where the speech was held, it is a clear call-back to what many still viewed as an illegitimate federal imposition: the civil rights agenda. Desegregation was fought bitterly throughout the South, and even drove the government to institute martial law in some areas.

Even worse, the Nashoba County Fair was very close to the town of Philidelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists were shot and killed in 1964.

In that context, saying "I believe in states' rights" sounds an awful lot like saying that Reagan believed that the decision as to whether or not to desegregate should be handed back to the states – and if they decided against it, they should be allowed to. As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote in 2007:

Everybody watching the 1980 campaign knew what Reagan was signaling at the fair. Whites and blacks, Democrats and Republicans — they all knew. The news media knew. The race haters and the people appalled by racial hatred knew. And Reagan knew.

He was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about “states’ rights” to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.

1. Where's the birth certificate?

The number one racist dog-whistle has to be the relentless accusations that Barack Obama wasn't born in the US. Unlike the others, it's one that has a point beyond propaganda – the "birthers" hope beyond reason that they'll be able to prove he is of foreign birth, and thus render him ineligible for the Presidency – but it serves that aim admirably as well.

The Guardian's Michael Tomasky sums up the thinking of the people who spread the myth:

They likely know no one who voted for Barack Obama, so all the information they received in 2008 that they trusted – not from the media, but from friends and co-workers – led them to search for explanations fair and foul. Acorn and the journalists helped them feel a little better, but they didn't solve the basic problem: that the man occupied the office.

And so, the birther story. Perfect. Explained everything. A conspiracy of immense proportions, concocted all the way back in 1961, had to be the only explanation for how this black man got to the White House. And if you think race isn't what this is about at its core, ask yourself if there would even be a birther conspiracy if Barack Obama were white and named Bart Oberstar. If you think there would be, you are delusional.

Even releasing his actual birth ceritificate didn't stop the crazies, but it did at least get everyone else to recognise them as such, until, at the White House Press Correspondent's Dinner last year, he could safely mock them:

Mittens leaves Number 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.