Dog Whistles, Whistle-Blowers, and Whistle-Stop Tours

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Several idioms based on the word whistle are associated with politics. This post discusses the origins and meaning of “dog whistle,” whistle-blower, and “whistle-stop tours.”

A dog whistle is any one of various devices that emits a high-pitched sound audible to canines but out of the range of human hearing that is used to train and summon dogs. In a political context, however, “dog whistle” has a pejorative connotation; the analogy is of a word or phrase that has a given literal meaning but also has a subtext to it that means something else to certain audiences. For example, in certain contexts, the invocation of the phrase “states’ rights” in assertions of the right of states in the United States to determine their own laws and policies without interference from the federal government is said to mask tacit advocacy of the perpetuation of racism.

Meanwhile, a whistle-blower is someone who exposes a secret or an act of wrongdoing at a government agency or in a business or organization, with the notion that the person calls attention to something as if he or she were a referee at a sports event alerting athletes to halt play because of a penalty (or had blown a whistle to summon help in an emergency). Whistle-blowers, especially employees who publicize an entity’s crimes or unethical behavior, have risked termination, litigation, and threats of physical harm, and laws have been passed to protect them from such forms of retribution.

A whistle-stop tour, traditionally, is a form of travel in which tourists make multiple brief stops at various sites; the phrase dates from the nineteenth century, when trains were a dominant mode of travel. It is, however, also associated with political campaigns: A train carrying a candidate would halt briefly in turn at numerous small-town stations, and the train’s whistle would alert residents of its arrival, at which point the candidate would give a speech to those who gathered. The term is still used, albeit figuratively, to describe a stop, often at a public venue, along the campaign trail at which a candidate will give a speech and meet supporters.

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3 thoughts on “Dog Whistles, Whistle-Blowers, and Whistle-Stop Tours”

  1. Some politicians can also be “Whistling Dixie”, or “Whistling a tune”, or “Whistling in the dark”.
    Sorry, but these seem to be pastimes of the present American administration.

  2. President Truman went on whistle-stop tours (in a train) during his reelection campaign of 1948, and across many of the 48 states of the Union that he hoped to carry in the election that November. He did visit many of the Midwestern, Southern, and Western states with large populations, such as Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Georgia, Texas, and California. Back in 1948, the following were not populous states with lots of votes in the Electoral College: Florida, Arizona, and Colorado; and California had 24 seats in the House of Representatives, rather than 52+ like presently.
    A large percentage of the population ahs moved to the Sunbelt.

  3. Back in 1948, TV was not widespread in the United States, and many cities and states got their first TV stations during 1948 (later on in the year) through 1952. TV was not a big factor in the Presidential election of 1948, and most people did not even have TV sets. TV broadcasting was clustered in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, which got their first permanent TV stations during 1946-47.
    At least some of those stations did cover parts of multiple states:
    NYC: New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey
    Philadelphia: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.
    Chicago: Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin
    Washington: the city itself, and Maryland and Virginia
    Boston: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and maybe Rhode Island.
    New Jersey still gets almost all of its TV coverage from NYC and Philadelphia, Delaware still gets most of its from Philadelphia, and New Hampshire gets most of its from Boston and Montreal.
    Most of Vermont is covered from Plattsburg, New York, Montreal, and Springfield, Massachusetts, though there are stations in Burlington, too.
    By the time that 1952 came around, TV was big in the campaign between Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, nearly nationwide.

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