‘Dog-whistle’ politics vs. ‘Dog-whistle’ economics: A plea to the identity politics police

The #1 issue of the economic debate seems to be Stephen Harper’s mention of “old-stock Canadians.” As somebody who came to this country as a refugee, this issue is particularly important to me. Slip-up or strategy, it is still the politics of division–and that’s always a dangerous play. However, is this really what we should be most upset about? For a moment, lets grant the Harper critics everything they want: this comment was not a slip-up, but a calculated play to inject some old-fashioned dog whistle politics into our election. But with Harper’s material record, do we really need to preoccupy ourselves with the symbolism of Harper’s rhetoric? I contend that this knee-jerk obsession with identity politics is actually clouding our ability to understand and appreciate the economic issues that we should better understand.

First of all, as Tu Than Ha pointed out in the Globe and Mail, lost in the outrage of his remark was the very content of his sentence:

Lost in the controversy is the fact that Mr. Harper’s comment about health-care coverage was inaccurate. The cut affected not only rejected refugee claimants but also claimants from what the government designates as “safe countries.”

But, much more important: this was a debate about the economy. And the most offensive thing about that whole debate was the economic policy of all three parties, not the term “old stock.”

Why are we obsessing about Harper’s symbolism and not the real social consequences of his surplus or the failure of his economic management, which has meant we took the biggest hit of any G7 country this year? Why aren’t we pointing out that even the most cautious economists are saying that the most aggressive candidate, Trudeau, could do even more deficit spending ($20 billion), and the infrastructure deficit is much larger than his proposals? Why aren’t we critiquing the NDP for undercutting their own spending promises and premising their modest spending on the rose-coloured glasses of the Harper projections, which includes an inflated oil price of $67 in their projections? Most importantly, why are’t we asking why all three parties are continuing the basic outline of the small government politics  that have persisted since the Chretien/Martin Liberals of the 1990s?

Narrow economic analysis devoid of the intersectionality of identity issues means that you are unable to see how different kinds of oppression handicap different kinds of people. For example, a strong economy might not be so strong for those who face hiring discrimination. But identity politics devoid of economic analysis fails to see how fiscal (mis)management most affects the very groups that you are fighting for. It is a well-observed fact that austerity policies most dramatically affect women, the poor, ethnic minorities, recent immigrants, seniors, the mentally ill, the drug-depended–basically, every group that depends on the government’s assistance for a leg up.


So, my plea is: can the internet outrage machine stop merely scoring cheap identity politics points on symbolic language, and try to understand the depth and complexity of how economic decisions affect these groups?

I think part of where this plea is coming from is simply the fact that my Facebook and Twitter feeds are dominated by campus activists who (no offence) don’t read the business pages, and don’t really know very much about economic policy. Some of them will admit that.

It would be easy to just call them ignorant and unrealistic (how many times has a conservative told a liberal to “take an economics class already, stupid”). But, I think it’s mostly the economics to blame; it’s not that economics is hard, it’s that there’s something more sinister at play here. This CBC Ideas piece profiles two progressive economists who are “economic whistleblowers” that reveal how economists deliberately make their work difficult to understand so that they can pull a fast one by you. The basic premise is that austerity politics is winning because a certain kind of economist has taken over the public debate, and purposely made that debate too hard for you to understand.

It’s a different kind of dog-whistle politics. It’s dog-whistle economics. When somebody is arguing for rolling back a stimulus program early because of “looming inflation,” they are telling one group one thing (“I’m on your side no matter what, austerity hawks”), but it doesn’t mean a thing to another group (“how does inflation actually work?”). That’s basically what dog whistle politics is all about. It’s trying to sneak a bad idea to one group without the other group noticing. But it’s not really about economics, it’s just deception. In one of the CBC Ideas clips, they say that some economists sometimes joke in private about the crazy things they say in public.

But these people have won the economics debate, while the identity politics police have given up on it. That’s what I see when a 5 second clip about identity politics dominates the discussion around a long debate that was actually about economic policy. This Ideas piece implores progressives get back into the debate and decode it, because they can actually win that debate on economic and social justice grounds. Then, we can have economic policy that truly helps people other than “old stock Canadians.”