Lee Atwater was a thug Republican strategist of the 20th century, famous for his unbelievably dirty campaign strategies. He perfected the art of push-polling*, and is responsible for the continuation of the “Southern Strategy” under Ronald Reagan, which was implemented beginning in 1968 as a way to play on the racial fears and prejudices of Southern voters by using code phrases and buzzwords which, to non-Southern, non-racist people didn’t always resonate, but served** as dog-whistles for racist voters. In 1981, Atwater gave an interview in which he explained the evolution of the Southern strategy for the Reagan years:

‘You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

”And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.”’

Atwater went on to manage Poppy Bush’s 1988 campaign.

Okay, why am I talking about Lee Atwater? Because I think we’re seeing something similar happening among the anti-gay movement. Many of you will remember that, during the campaign to strip gay couples of equality in Maine, conscious decisions were made by those running the Yes on 1 campaign to relegate the fringiest of the fringe anti-gay activists as far onto the sidelines as they possibly could. Jeremy Hooper was one of the first to notice this trend, as those running the official campaign did everything in their power to make the fight about “protecting children” and to emphasize over and over again that they were not anti-gay, even though, at heart, they obviously were/are. They did this because it’s no longer okay to appear virulently bigoted against gay people in American society. Or, to put it in Atwater-ese, it’s 2010 and you can’t say “faggot, faggot, faggot” anymore. So, the messaging is changing.

The good news, though? We may actually be a bit further along than I thought, because one of the fringiest of the fringe activists seems to have, in least one instance, fallen under the spell of “political correctness” that he fears the most. Upon hearing that President Obama had appointed Amanda Simpson, who happens to be transgender, to a post at the Commerce Department (that hotbed of LGBT activism), Peter LaBarbera and Matt Barber had these predictably inane things to say:

“Is there going to be a transgender quota now in the Obama administration?” asked Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth. “How far does this politics of gay and transgender activism go? Clearly this is an administration that is pandering to the gay lobby.” …

Matt Barber, associate dean at Liberty University, said the appointment “boggles the mind.”

“This isn’t like appointing an African-American in order to try to provide diversity and right some kind of discriminatory wrong,” he said. “This is about political correctness.

Right, whatever. They’re weird. We know. But Jonathan Chait of The New Republic noticed something else*** about those statements:

The interesting thing is that there’s no attempt to show that the administration employed any sort of quota or affirmative action program. It just hired a person who’s transgendered. The religious right obviously opposes that, but they can’t say so. Thus they have come to employ words like “quota” to mean something entirely different than their literal meaning.

It’s very odd to witness a part of the political discourse where one side understands that its actual views are so completely socially unacceptable that they can’t be expressed, and must be replaced with nonsense terms.

Odd, indeed! And good news, ultimately. It’s not good, in and of itself, that they’re using, as Chait put it, nonsense words like “quota,” because those are dog-whistles aimed at the very same low-information voters Atwater targeted. But it’s notable, because it means that, in some way, they’ve recognized that they really no longer have any hope of reaching those who don’t hear the dogwhistles. That bird has flown. And those who do still hear the dogwhistles?

Their numbers shrink every year.

(h/t The Awl)

UPDATE: On the other hand, considering the fact that we’re dealing with the “fell off the deep end years ago, never to return” contingent of the radicalized anti-gay set, we still have to acknowledge the fact that the above may be an anomaly, as The Two Pouting Peters of the Christian Right have made other statements on the Simpson nomination where they do indeed wear their backwards bigotry directly on the sleeves of their tattered muu muus. But the point still stands. These two and their sweaty man wrangler friend are more prone to public displays of hatred, and the Atwater-ization of the anti-gay Right is precisely why they’re being pushed more and more into the margins of the movement. They make statements like these, in these settings, because the American Family Association and the Family Research Council are themselves considered fringe by mainstream Christendom. Emerging churches which seek to attract younger followers have nothing in common with organizations such as that. So when they speak for FRC, or in one Peter’s case, to the AFA, there’s no need for dogwhistles. But don’t expect to see them with a prominent role in a statewide anti-gay campaign any time soon.

*A perfect example of Atwater-esque push-polling came during the 2000 South Carolina GOP primary, when the Bush campaign sponsored push-polls wherein voters got calls asking if it would make them more or less likely to vote for John McCain if they knew that he had fathered a black child out of wedlock. McCain, of course, has an adopted Bangladeshi daughter named Bridget, which offered a visual confirmation for voters who didn’t know any better.

**It’s still going on, to be quite honest, but it’s mostly moved into far-right media and talk radio. Example: the use of the term “welfare queens,” used by Rush Limbaugh and others, to convince empty-headed white Republicans that poor black people are coming after them and everything they hold dear.

***The fact that Chait noticed at all should make Peter’s and Matt’s day, to be honest.