With the 2022 midterm elections heating up, conservative direct-mail campaigns have started efforts to target high-profile Democratic politicians, notably President Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.). In fact, a recent mailing encouraged recipients to open an 8-by-11 envelope to “learn why politicians like these are to blame for increased crime.” And the instructions were abundantly clear: “Please complete and return the enclosed survey within three business days.”
Such mailings are part of a larger campaign launched by political action committee Citizens Behind the Badge to expose how “anti-police politicians in 2022 are handcuffing police and emboldening criminals.” The mailing possesses multiple components: a bombastic cover page, a multiple-question survey, a passionately written letter and an appeal for funds.
This type of hyper-specific, sensational messaging is a tried-and-true political strategy with deep roots. American conservatives, in particular, have relied on direct-mail marketing with clear goals: to raise money, advertise programs, mobilize pressure on public officials and recruit new members for citizen action groups and PACs. Most importantly, the medium has allowed political consultants and advertisers to channel discontent and resentment into the public square as their preferred form of political engagement. Rather than winning people over with ideas exclusively, this tactic enables the right to stoke discontent and fear to great effect — all in the name of winning elections.
Barry Goldwater’s famous presidential defeat in 1964 ironically gave birth to the modern form of direct mail. As part of the newly formed organization Young Americans for Freedom, conservative consultant Richard Viguerie began his political career organizing Goldwater’s direct-mail campaign. Despite Goldwater’s loss, the mailing lists that came out of the campaign proved to be invaluable for future conservative candidates, including the disgruntled Southern Democrat George Wallace, who ran as a third-party candidate for president in 1968, and later as a conservative Democrat in 1972 and 1976. Viguerie’s lists made Wallace a viable candidate because they drew from a wellspring of consistent conservative donors willing to give. For example, between 1974 and 1976, Viguerie raised more than $6 million for the Wallace campaign alone.
During the 1970s, New Right strategists, notably Viguerie and Kevin Phillips, realized that direct mail was the perfect delivery system for the bombastic “social issues” of the day, which included issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion and civil rights. Viguerie set about composing copy for the highest conservative bidder. In 1974, he wrote a series of letters for fellow New Rightist Howard Phillips’s Conservative Caucus. “Dear friend,” the letter began, “are you as sick and tired of liberal politicians as I am? Force children to be bused; appoint judges who turn murderers and rapists loose on the public; force your children to study from school books that are anti-God, anti-American … If so, why don’t you join the Conservative Caucus?”
Political operatives had long used such fear, intimidation and doubt to win elections by encouraging political participation that depended less on informed deliberation, and more on one’s immediate fight-or-flight response. But during the 1970s, New Right consultants and operatives, experts in both copywriting and advertising, realized that they could better market conservative ideas to the American people by matching their message to a particular communicative medium. In this case, direct mail: abrasive by both choice and strategy.