Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Biden’s Catholic Dog Whistle

Remember how it became a sport for reporters to try to detect the “dog whistle” lines in George W. Bush’s speeches – i.e. phrases that might excite evangelicals without generating fear, or notice, from anyone else? Joe Biden is trying out a key Catholic dog whistle expression.
In today’s big economic speech he used the word “dignity” four times.

What is John’s response to the state of the economy? Let me quote him: “A lot of this is psychological.” Let me tell you something: Losing your job is more than a state of mind. It means staring at the ceiling at night thinking that you may lose your house because you can’t get next month’s mortgage payment. It means looking at your pregnant wife and not knowing how you’re going to come up with the money to pay for the delivery of your child, since you don’t have health care anymore. It means looking at your child when they come home from college at Christmas and saying “Honey, I’m sorry, we’re not going to be able to send you back next semester.” It’s not a state of mind. It’s a loss of dignity.



Yes, this campaign is about change, but it’s about even more than that. It’s about what we value as a people. It’s not just about a job, it’s about dignity.

The “dignity of work” is a major concept in Catholic social teaching, a phrase most Catholics would have heard growing up. The Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum explains the spiritual essence of the idea; the U.S. Catholic Bishops conference lists it as one of the key principles of Catholic Social Teaching:


The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected–the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.

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posted September 15, 2008 at 4:18 pm

And your point is?? I started working at the age of thirteen because I couldn’t play sports. I took pride in working every day of my life and now enjoy being retired. There is a dignity in working, a sense of self worth and for years my employers tried to “beat it out of me” by intimidation and degradation.
While the GOP supports low wages and outsourcing, Joe Biden has fought for the working men and women, fair wages, medical plans and retirements. He is a champion of the dignity of work. John McCain and the GOP dogs of industry seek to degrade, diminish and invalidate the working Americans with their anti-labor, anti-union and outsourcing jobs to third world countries that use child labor and forced labor.
If the Catholic Church is supportive of workers, they should stop attacking Obama and Biden.

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posted September 15, 2008 at 7:48 pm

To Scruffy…
First, the Catholic Church is supportive of human beings, including the most defenseless. This is where dignity begins. Joe Biden has forgotten it.

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posted September 15, 2008 at 9:15 pm

What’s the fear Biden would have in appealing to Catholics? Come to think about it, what problem did Bush have appealing to evangelicals? I thought the whole original story about Bush using these code words a bit strange at the time. Did any evangelicals read these messages from Bush as code words?

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Steven Waldman

posted September 15, 2008 at 11:51 pm

Sometimes I report things without meaning anything nefarious or momentous. Sometimes I just find it interesting.
I suppose I felt that in fairness to Bush, who was always inspected for code words, we should do the same for this year’s crop of candidates, including the Democrats.
It’s also a bit new in the sense that most of the appeals to Catholics have been from the conservative side — on life issues. We’re less familiar with how a Democrat might appeal to Catholics using particular phrases.

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posted September 16, 2008 at 12:12 pm

I understood your point, which was decent and fair. In fact, now that I’ve found your blog, I read it because you’re doing such a great job being fair. I just needed help on what these code words were trying to hide. Thanks for the response.

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posted September 17, 2008 at 2:50 pm

It’s not that a Catholic will hear Biden (or an evangelical will hear Bush) and think “aha, he’s speaking to us in a secret code that nobody else gets! They all think he’s talking about something else!”
A general audience member who hears Biden talk about dignity will think “yes, my dignity was damaged when I lost my last job, and/or I can see how a displaced worker’s dignity would be affected, so I know what he’s talking about.”
Listening to the same speech, a Catholic who grew up with “The Dignity of Work” as a key principle will think those same things – but will also think, if only at some gut level, that “Biden sees the world the same way I do, and he shares my values.”
In other words, the “dog whistle” conveys extra content to specific listeners, without alienating everyone else by speaking more explicitly about faith (or what-have-you). It’s a way of wringing extra value out of a mass-market speech.
Of course, assuming Biden grew up with “The Dignity of Work” as a key principle and has come to view job outsourcing and other economic issues through this lens, then the dog whistle may not have been intentional; his use of “dignity” in this context may simply be the way he views the subject.
It’s possible that some or all of Bush’s “dog whistles” are unconscious as well, though this book excerpt suggests otherwise:
(The author is clearly not a fan of Mr. Bush, although his sources seem credible; those who would prefer not to read less-than-glowing portraits of GWB might as well skip this link.)

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