Looking back on the 2012 presidential campaign up to this point, one wonders why there has been an active effort by some Republican candidates to alienate American Muslims. This is especially surprising since, according to a recently published report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, American Muslims are an active and growing constituency in key swing states such as Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. Alienating fellow American citizens based simply on their beliefs, as some candidates have done, is not only un-American — it’s bad politics. Republicans especially would do well to remember that just a decade ago the majority of American Muslims were firmly in the Republican camp, voting overwhelmingly in favor of George W. Bush in the 2000 election. Yet, a decade later, the community is strongly in favor of President Obama.
Looking back at history, there are lessons to be learned from the consequences of ignoring and alienating an important voting constituency. When President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, he reportedly remarked to an aide, “We’ve lost the South for a Generation.” His fear was that southern states would become politically hostile toward the Democratic Party and that his rivals would take advantage of racial resentment to win back White voters in the region. Johnson was immediately proven right, losing five states in the south to Barry Goldwater.
Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate and eventual winner of the 1968 presidential election, appealed to southern voters (whom he lost to segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace) using terms such as “law and order” and “states’ rights.” Nixon’s opponents accused him of what is now referred to as “dog whistle politics.” Just as a dog whistle emits a sound with a high enough frequency for dogs to hear but which is past the range of human hearing, political messaging can be designed to reach a subset of voters with specific biases while bypassing other voters who might not be primed to pay attention. It has become a hallmark of presidential politics, as multiple ideological and geographic constituencies must be pulled together to make a candidate nationally viable. Even now in 2012 dog whistle politics is alive and well. For instance, witness presidential candidate Newt Gingrich referring to Barack Obama as a “food stamp president.”