Drawing Attention To Dog Whistles

When I read the headline of the AP story–“Dems slam Cuccinelli comment on slavery, abortion”–I wondered what ol’ Cooch had done to gussy up that ancient RTL chestnut. So I read on:

Nearly eight months before election day the Democratic Party of Virginia released video from last June that shows Cuccinelli addressing a small gathering of religious conservatives meeting in Williamsburg. It continues the Democrats’ strategy of portraying the socially conservative attorney general as too extreme for a swing state.

“Over time, the truth demonstrates its own rightness, and its own righteousness. Our experience as a country has demonstrated that on one issue after another. Start right at the beginning — slavery. Today, abortion,” Cuccinelli said in remarks recorded by a Democratic Party tracker at a Family Foundation event on June 14, 2012.

“History has shown us what the right position was, and those were issues that were attacked by people of faith aggressively to change the course of this country,” he said. “We need to fight for the respect for life, not just for life but for respect for life. One leads to the other.”

Okaaaay. So Cuccinelli had reached into his files or his memory banks and flogged the false analogy between slavery and abortion–and hence between abolitionists and anti-choicers–that’s been utilized offered by anti-choice pols every day for forty years. So why the news flash?

Then I realized: just because I, as a paid connoisseur of right-wing memes for quite some time now, found this stuff familiar didn’t mean the non-anti-choice-activist public did. There’s a reason this sort of thing is so often called a “dog whistle.” When during the 2004 presidential candidate debates George W. Bush said he’d never appoint a Supreme Court Justice who would condone the Dred Scott decision, he was talking about abortion, not slavery, though an awful lot of viewers–even journalists–didn’t seem to get it.

So Virginia Democrats are right to draw maximum attention to this habit, particularly among African-American voters who might not be aware that the anti-choice forces have been referring to themselves as “the new civil rights movement” for ages. Indeed, it’s a good bet that pols like Ken Cuccinelli have rarely if ever made any reference to the struggle for African-American emancipation and equal rights in any context other than as an analogy for the battle to repeal reproductive rights. So to hell with dog whistles: let’s hear it loud and clear!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.