Republican strategist Lee Atwater is the godfather of the modern political dog whistle. He didn’t go around calling it that—I can’t actually find any evidence that he even used the term—but in a 1981 interview about how the GOP won the South, Atwater offered a concise description.
“By 1968 you can’t say ‘[n-word]’—that hurts you, [it] backfires, so you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights,’” Atwater explained. “And you’re getting so abstract. Now you’re talking about ‘cutting taxes.’”
Atwater was speaking anonymously to a political scientist from his perch as a staffer in Ronald Reagan’s White House. He was also telling on himself. He got his start working for the arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond. Later, as a campaign manager for George H.W. Bush, he would push the Willie Horton ad, which tied Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis to a Black man who committed multiple violent crimes while out on furlough from prison. On the surface, it was just a factual criticism about a weekend-release program. On a different frequency, it was screaming at white voters about a racist trope. Plausible deniability was crucial. Atwater told reporters that he at first hadn’t known Horton was Black.
The Horton ad, and the campaign manager behind it, captured something essential about the past and future of the Republican party. Over the last half century, Republican politicians and ad-makers have repackaged and sold white reactionary politics—on education, public services, housing, immigration, and crime—with an evolving set of euphemisms
— source motherjones.com | Tim Murphy | Sep+Oct 2022