Dog-whistle politics are back, and this time, they're for the nonreligious.
For years, politicians have used coded phrases — sometimes known as dog whistles, because only some people can hear them — to reach out to evangelical Christian voters.
Some examples: President Ronald Reagan talking about the “shining city on a hill” in his speeches. President George W. Bush citing the “wonder-working power” of the American people in the 2003 State of the Union. And Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee bringing up “vertical leadership” in a 2008 debate.
Derived from the Bible, gospel music and religious books, those phrases were designed to let religious voters know that the politicians understood their values without turning off voters of different faiths.
Today, politicians are struggling with a different group of voters: the nonreligious. The Pew Research Center has found that about one-fifth of the public — and one-third of adults under the age of 30 — are religiously unaffiliated.
At the same time, about half of Americans think that's a bad thing, so politicians who appeal to openly to the nonreligious risk a backlash.
Enter Festivus. The end-of-the-year holiday popularized on the 1990s sitcom “Seinfeld” is a mishmash of elements of Christmas, Yom Kippur and a professional wrestling match.
Started by character George Costanza's father on the show (and screenwriter Dan O'Keefe's father in real life), the holiday involves erecting a Festivus pole, airing grievances against loved ones and then showcasing feats of strength.
It's also thoroughly nonreligious, presenting a pretty skeptical take on the commercialism of other holidays. So it's become a great way for politicians to reach out to younger voters who may be skeptical about religion too.
This year, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky jokingly tweeted about his Festivus celebrations, inspiring a response from Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. Former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle put up a Festivus pole when he was in office and former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening proclaimed a statewide Festivus day. Texas Gov. Rick Perry mentioned Festivus in a key speech.
And at a lesser degree, Florida Gov. Rick Scott's administration approved a Festivus pole as part of a multi-denominational holiday display this year, although that was more of a citizen-driven effort.
With the number of nonreligious voters growing, look for more politicians to celebrate Festivus in coming years.