Clip: Ronald Reagan’s Racially Tinged Stump Speeches

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In Dog Whistle Politics, author and legal scholar Ian Haney López describes how politicians use subtle, racially coded messages — “dog whistles” — to manipulate Americans in the voting booth. One early example, Haney López says, is a story Ronald Reagan told on the campaign trail during his first run for president in 1976. Watch:

By playing on stereotypes, Reagan was able to get middle-class white voters to support economic policies that helped corporations and the wealthy. Haney López tells Bill, “Over the 1980s, the Reagan tax cuts transferred a trillion dollars to America’s top one percent. Yes, voters got the tax cuts they thought were aimed at cutting off undeserving minorities, but, in fact, it was a politics that was showering money on the very richest Americans.”

“We used to understand that the biggest threat in political life was the power of concentrated money… but now, Republicans for fifty years have been telling voters the biggest threat in your life is minorities are going to hijack government.”

Watch a preview of Bill’s conversation with Ian Haney López »

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  • Anonymous

    The names have changed since the 1980′s.. as have the coded language and intended targets of it… but the message is still the same…

  • didoro

    …only not even bothering to code the language any more. I am convinced that the current partisanship stems from the tacit approval that the GOP has given to the rednecks, bigots and the simply awful… like all the politicians who have given a wink and nod to Ted Nugent this week.

  • Alpha Wolf

    Possibly, but this story doesn’t have to be interpreted through a racial lens.

    In a quick search, a “young buck” is defined as, “…a teenager or a young adult male,” with no racial connotations in any of the mainstream definitions. While there is apparently an African American rapper nicknamed “Young Buck,” he was born in 1981 and his career didn’t begin until 1995, so Reagan clearly couldn’t have been referring to him.

    Personally, without the story Mr. Lopez tells, my picture of a “young buck” would be a white jock or frat boy (nothing particular against white jocks or frat boys). That said, I can see how some people might have interpreted this through a racial lens.

    From my perspective, the core of Reagan’s message, which still resonates with many today, is that these people (regardless of race) are taking advantage of a broken government system (aka: the “deep state” in another context on last week’s show) and “you” , the hard working taxpayer. (regardless of race), although different people will clearly interpret this through different lenses.

    The larger issue is that Reagan leveraged these images, as he did with the white protestors at the Berkeley Free Speech movement in 1964, to forge a conservative coalition that endures to this day. This imagery forged a core of hard working middle/working class Americans that remain the core of the Red State Republican Party, who have repeatedly, and continue to vote against their own economic interests. Using a Venn diagram, some subset of the Republican coalition undoubtedly responds to these racial appeals (ie: “Dog Whistle Politics”), but the coalition is much broader than that and people respond to these appeals on different levels.

    It is also the core of the problem of “class consciousness” since Marx, with the working class skewing towards reactionary parties, and liberal intelectuals (and Berkeley Free Speechers) acting as the “vanguard of the Proletariat.”

    More generally, I personally see “dog whistles” of all shapes, sizes, tones and colors on all sides of the ideological divide, which can be seen in the comments on any story , including those on Moyers & Co. People respond to stories with very predictable ideological responses and self-replicating memes, depending on the source and the raw meat being thrown to the crowd, often with people on the same side of an issue getting into spitting matches depending on their ideology. For example, many of the recent comments on Moyers & Co. appear to be arguments between traditional “liberals,” the “Old Left,” the “New Left,” the new “Hip Left,” further left “progressives,” “democratic socialists” (Henry Giroux), Marxian Economists (Richard Wolff) and, because of the “deep state” content, “libertarians” and/or anarchists with a few anarcho syndicalists and anarcho capitalists thrown in for good measure.

    Different dogs, different whistles, although no doubt racism also remains an undercurrent in American politics. It will be interesting to see the response of Moyers viewers respond to this week’s stories/show.

    What Reagan did better than anyone was to herd a disperate group of ideological cats into a powerful coalition that has held the trump card in American politics since 1980. If the left is going to accomplish any of its agenda, it’s going to have to herd the aforementioned ideological cats, along with a broader more mainstreanm coalition into a political force.

  • Anonymous

    This is such an interesting thesis; it’s one that Thomas Frank explores in great detail in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Why would lower income, working class whites vote against their economic interests over and over again? It makes no sense, right?

    Actually, it makes a great deal of sense when you realize that culture trumps politics. When people see abortion legalized, prayer outlawed in public schools, men kissing other men on broadcast television, children being taught to put condoms on cucumbers, and any other number of (from their point of view) crazy, immoral things taking place in their country, then tend to react badly. The Democrats, fairly or unfairly, are associated with all of the cultural shifts that have taken place in America over the past forty years: secularization, the normalization of homosexuality, the legalization of abortion, etc. So all these bitter clingers, rather than try and figure out the intricacies of credit default swaps, or trying to cobble together an opinion of taxing derivatives, pick the people who tell them that God, family, and country still matter.

    Our society is more than economics. There are things that matter more to a great many people than taxes and infrastructure spending. People–work white Christians, mostly–feel that the ground is shifting beneath there feet on every level, and it’s not a good shift. It’s threatening. And it’s happening fast.

    Do you really wonder why they vote Republican?

  • Democratsinceiwasborn

    My father,who was a conservative southern Democrat, told me this before he died in 1989. He said that one day, the very people who are voting for the Republicans, who will end welfare and food stamps, will wake up one morning needing them, and they will be gone. For many this has happened, and they want to blame Obama. You can’t fix stupid!

  • Democratsinceiwasborn

    You’ve got a good point, but when Republicans have been in charge, there have been no changes in those hot button issues. If they did, they would no longer have anything to run against, and it would become evident that “the Emperor has no clothes”.

  • Democratsinceiwasborn

    The people who Reagan was talking too understood the term “young buck”, whether you ever heard it or not. And it was racial, just like Willie Horton and all the other crap they pull out.

  • Anonymous

    apparently you don’t know that “young buck” referred to able bodied male slaves for sale on the slave block. everyone knows that young buck is not a young white male, except you i guess. the young rapper of whom you speak probably chose the name as a nod and a mockery to this southern tradition.

  • Anonymous

    “• informal • offensive A black or American Indian man.” Oxford dictionary for all of you trying to pretend it doesn’t mean what it means.

  • Chris Bray

    Fortunately, back at the time, while right-wing racists like Ronald Reagan were using these kinds of racial code words, Democratic Party leaders like George Wallace were taking a much more restrained and decent approach.

    A question for the former Johnson administration official Bill Moyers: What kind of racial language did LBJ use in private discussions with Southern congressmen?

  • Tara

    Here in the American Midwest where, incidentally, Ronald Reagan was born and raised, a young buck is akin to a “strapping lad.” That is, a healthy young man or male child. In all my life I have never heard the term used to refer to anything racial. If I’d heard this speech then, this is what I would have thought he meant then, as I also do now.

    My American Heritage Dictionary defines “buck” as “a robust or high-spirited young man.”
    My American Slang dictionary defines “bucko” as “friend” or “pal.” (“Buck” is a dollar.)

    Lopez may have other, more viable, examples. If so, I would love to hear them so that we can continue the work of ridding ourselves of racism and hatred. But to build an argument on this foundation is shaky at best, and certainly, obviously, hate-mongering.

  • Edward Zingraff

    crappy dictionary

  • Alpha Wolf

    That’s why I said, “I can see how some people might have interpreted this through a racial lens.”

    I did some more searching and I found references to “black buck” being used during Reconstruction, which is clearly racist, but I couldn’t find direct references to “young buck.” I did a quick search of google n-grams, which has all of the scanned google books going back to 1800 and couldn’t find any racist references to young buck,” but there are thousands of entries so they may be there. Per your post above, this is one of many connotations of the term “buck.”

    I kind of agree with Tara (above):

    “Here in the American Midwest where, incidentally, Ronald Reagan was
    born and raised, a young buck is akin to a “strapping lad.” That is, a
    healthy young man or male child. In all my life I have never heard the
    term used to refer to anything racial. If I’d heard this speech then,
    this is what I would have thought he meant then, as I also do now.”

    As Mr. Lopez said in the interview, Reagan said “young buck” once and then he changed it to “young fellow,” so, perhaps he used it in Tara’s sense above and he changed it because of the negative connotation, but that doesn’t fit the narrative. Who knows since none of us were inside of Reagan’s head, or the heads of those who heard him use the phrase that one time?

    That said, I don’t deny that some people may have interpreted it as a racial code, or that there are racial undertones in American politics, and it’s gotten a lot of mileage from Reagan bashers and liberal commentators (I found lots of references to them self-replicating the meme) ever since.

    My larger point was that people of all ideological colors use highly charged buzzwords and self-replicating memes to appeal to people’s fears of the “other.” The politics of hatred, scapegoating and blame are alive and well in America I could find hundreds of references in the Moyers comments alone over the last week.

  • Alpha Wolf

    See my other comments, but I’m glad you have the ability to read the minds of the people Reagan was talking to the one time he used the phrase (changing it to “young fellow” thereafter).

    I don’t deny the existence of racial politics in America, but what I see more than anything else is two morally superior groups pointing fingers at each other.

  • Alpha Wolf

    May be true, but a term can have many connotations for different people, in different places, at different times. .

    As Tara (above) says:

    “Here in the American Midwest where, incidentally, Ronald Reagan was
    born and raised, a young buck is akin to a “strapping lad.” That is, a
    healthy young man or male child. In all my life I have never heard the
    term used to refer to anything racial. If I’d heard this speech then,
    this is what I would have thought he meant then, as I also do now.”

    I’d love to see the references, because I did a search of google n-grams, which has all of the google books going back to 1800, and couldn’t find it. I did, however, find references to “black buck” being used during Reconstruction, which is clearly racist.

    As Mr. Lopez said, Reagan used the term once, perhaps in Tara’s sense, and then changed it to “young fellow,” perhaps realizing the negative connotation, but that doesn’t fit the narrative he’s trying to make.

    I’m not denying that there are racial undertones in American politics, or that certain people, almost all of whom would vote for Republicans anyway, might respond to coded racial messages, but the larger point is that Reagan’s economic message, which is at the core of the Neoliberal ideology, applies regardless of the color of the “young fellow” or whoever you put in that blank. You’re out there busting your hump trying to make a buck (ie: dollar) and stop into the grocery store after a long day to pick up some hamburger and this other person, whoever that is, is buying T Bone with your tax dollars. For racists, that could have racial connotations, for the hard working African American woman, that could be some snotty white kid.

    Given the deep frustration with government and the economy in 1980, after the hyperinflation and everything else in the 70s, Reagan’s message hit home and he won a massive landslide and redrew the electoral map ever since.

    I think the President said it best in his recent “New Yorker” interview with David Remnick, ““There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black President,…Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black President.”

    In terms of America almost 4 decades after Reagan made the comment, thankfully, the racists are losing 2-0. In the same article, Remnick says, and I would tend to agree, “Obama’s advisers are convinced that if the Republicans don’t find a way to attract non-white voters, particularly Hispanics and Asians, they may lose the White House for two or three more election cycles.”

    If the Republicans want to play the race card going forward, as Dirty Harry said, “Go ahead punk. Make my day!”

  • Anonymous


  • JonThomas

    Except that language use has changed, and there are a lot more references dating back to Ronald Reagan’s generation which did use ‘buck’ as a derogatory term.

    Even if ‘buck’ wasn’t in usage during Mr. Reagan’s life, it was close enough after it was common usage to still be in the popular mindset. I was born DURING the Civil Rights era, after decent people stopped using most of those denigrating terms, and I’m fully aware what someone is referring to when they use such terms.

    Reagan grew up BEFORE the civil rights era. His language usage was instilled during a time before it became taboo to use such terms. I knew a lot of older people who threw around unacceptable terms without even considering a second thought. says…. A derogatory term (primarily 19th century) for an African American male, the female counterpart being wench.

    And many more. Your dictionaries do not seem to be very comprehensive, and you seem to be neglecting the changes we’ve seen in language.

  • JonThomas

    One reference from a non-comprehensive source doesn’t mean much, especially when you are posting on the internet and the rest of us can find 20 sources to prove it was ‘race associated.’

    I posted just 3 above.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve maintained an email thread for several years with about 8 friends of mine. I asked them if they’d ever heard “young buck” used as a racial pejorative. One of them had heard “big buck” used by an 80 year old from Brooklyn. The guy who grew up in Alabama had not.

    So, yeah, somewhere in the US “young buck” is a racist pejorative. Where I grew up in California, where Reagan lived most of his life, it wasn’t even a pejorative, let alone a racist pejorative.

    Is it possible that Reagan was race-baiting? Sure. But if this guy did a bunch of research and that’s the evidence that’s good enough to make the interview…. weak argument.

    If you want to get a clear picture of what was wrong with the Reagan Administration, read, “Friends in High Place.” The whole administration walked into the White House through a revolving door with the Bechtel corporation.

    These approaches by Democrats to smear Republicans on charges of racism always ring hollow with me. Robert Byrd, George Wallace, Bull Connor, the Southern Bloc that filibustered the Civil Rights Act…. Democrats. The part that any researcher worth a damn would have to consciously leave out of a narrative about Republican racism in the 80s is that its only purpose was to lure Democrats away from their party.

    Oh, and, while we’re here on Bill Moyers’s site, let’s not forget the ease and frequency with which LBJ and his friends used the n-word. For Bill to sit there shaking his head as if he’s hearing the whole story…. Just shameful.

  • Jim Young

    Both knew what to use where, as did Eisenhower and Colin Powell on one end, and David Dukes on the other.

  • Chris Bray

    So it was tactical and insincere when people you like did it, and racist when people you don’t like did it.

  • Anonymous

    the trolls are doing their best to counter the truth of Reagan and the Republican “talking points”. that’s their job. after 40 years of this “con,” seeing through the “talking points” like this guy Alpha Wolf doesn’t want to admit to, is so easy.

    of course, if you lived down South, you knew what Reagan and the Republicans meant. it is quaint to watch Alpha Wolf spin his “theories”. the stupid American voter has had 40 years to “get” what this means. but good try, Alpha Wolf. you are doing your job as best you can. the public isn’t quite that ignorant any more. all those talking points have trickled down into the reality of real meanings.

    close but no cigar anymore. poor people start to wonder why they are being conned after a while. it worked then, but now, the game is up and the reality shows all the way through.

    and like i said, being a Southerner, you knew from the beginning what all the BS from Reagan meant,from the beginning. what was most fascinating was watching how well it sold and how Reagan and the Republican had to “tone down” their talking points.

    funny in so many way, and so sad in too many more.

  • Jim Young

    It really wasn’t who I liked or didn’t like, but for what purposes they used it for.

    Very very few were as reserved as they were in public with the backroom guys in private. I don’t know how JFK treated the military (while laying down the law to them in private), but I do know how Johnson had them shaking in their boots,stunned at how he unexpectedly burned their ears off (after quietly listening to their recommendations).

    I’ve had a few try it with me, but I’m used to working with them, wait them out and quietly ask the same questions I started with, if they haven’t answered them.

    An Executive Secretary for one of the mini-Bells taught me a technique she had taught to operators and customer service techs. When the angry caller went into a tirade, she would hold the phone away, but not so far she couldn’t hear when they stopped and started asking if she was still there. Then she’d apologize for having to have left for some plausible reason, and say, very pleasantly, that she really hadn’t heard any part of what they said, and ask if they could explain the whole thing to her again. I do the same thing, pretty much, even in person, as pleasantly as I can.

  • Jim Young

    “Do you really wonder why they vote Republican?”

    Not as much as I wonder why so many abused children and women defend their abusers, or why some Catholics defend some imaginary vision pure clergy, or why so few believe our troops don’t face things that challenge their consciences.

    Why do so many believe the other side must be using dirtier tricks than their side, therefore justifying more dirty tricks, gutted regulators, underfunded and understaffed agencies that can’t stand against a few corrupt power brokers?

    To get back to the race issue, though, ask former Black Farmers how the agencies treated them compared to others. Ross Perot pointed out how they were led to buying some of the poorest farmland, falsely rated as good buy county agricultural agents. You don’t have to believe every story, but go out into the communities and ask the 2nd 3rd and lower tier staff about how much of that happened, and as many Black farmers, or their friends, as you can. I guarantee you a different picture will emerge.

  • Anonymous

    I actually agree with you Doug but wow, what did you think of the point that Lopez made about getting white middle class voters to agree with something that Wasn’t for their own good?

  • Anonymous

    And if you lived outside of the South the whites also understood from the beginning what and who Reagan was referring to hence the dreaded code words.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Jon for saying what I didn’t have the energy to say to Tara except I would have suggested that she begin to read more about this country’s history since she obviously hasn’t done much of.

  • Anonymous

    I’d suggest that you begin by reading the book since you seem to have missed the point Lopez made. Did you even listen to the video which is all of 23 min. long?

  • Anonymous

    But then do you deny what Reagan meant when he used the phrase ‘young buck’? Welfare Queens and even then white women outnumbered black women on welfare but by Reagan’s use of the phrase we who were alive and adults understood perfectly which group of people he was referring to. Maybe you were just a 5 yr. old? Maybe just stoo-pid?

  • JonThomas


  • Edward Moriarty

    That’s not what it meant in Rosewood, Florida.

  • Edward Moriarty

    original sin by the Gipper was breaking the Flight Controllers Union. Working conditions and salaries for “the Workers” have been disintegrating since the moment he fired all those hard working, over stressed, Public Servants!

  • KA

    Speak for yourself, Midwesterner! I was born and raised midwest and to me, strapping young buck always referred to young black men. Using this term was considered acceptable to whites, so was considered acceptable to me as a child. As an adult, it is racist, conjures images of slaves being auctioned off.

    Regardless of who it is tho, I do not like my taxes being used for subsidizing anyone who has children they should not have had, who smokes and drinks and overeats while using my tax dollars to subsidize them, who priotitizes their money to buy cable, iphones, gets their hair done, goes out to bars, gets their morning coffee at a restaurant, and on and on while using my tax dollar to pay their basics. That is the problem. Stop giving momey to those who are using THEIR money for incidentals such as above- make them pay their way by paying their own rent, own food, own bills, and give them free birth control . If someone has money for the lottery, for the casino, for cigarettes, for hair and nails and iphones…..stop giving them my taxes. This includes welfare for businesses and corporations…kinda like the NFL, non profit NFL who pays no taxes at all!

  • Anonymous

    Racism is not an undercurrent in American politics – it is right out there front and center. It just wears new clothes.

    The stratagem used by conservatives in the 60s was the successful exercise in which the face of poverty was changed from those in Appalachia to those in the “inner-city.”

    Reagan learned what George Wallace and Kevin Phillips (who worked for Nixon) knew before him, whites see race as a zero-sum game and if blacks do better than whites do worse. Considering the large racial majority enjoyed by whites of the day it was a hellacious use of imagery that worked in all regions and in spite of its fallacy. Wasn’t it Reagan (channeling JFK) who when explaining supply side economics said, “A rising tide lifts all the boats?” If that is true how does my boat rise and your boat sink if both are on the same water?

  • Randall_S

    This is despicable journalism.