The letter, with “Senator Orrin Hatch” written in large capital letters centered across the top, told me that on behalf of the National Republican Senatorial Committee the senator was sending me my “Republican Strategy Ballot” (the name was printed in boldface in the letter). “Your immediate response is critical,” he told me, or rather the “fellow American” to whom the letter was addressed.
The letter followed the standard form for conservative fundraising: four completely filled pages with narrow margins, mixing (with no apparent pattern) flush left with indented paragraphs at a roughly two-to-one ratio, and including (again with no apparent pattern) some phrases and some paragraphs in boldface as well as a few underlined phrases here and there, offering one direct appeal for money on every page, and ending with a p.s. giving one final appeal for money.
As is usual, it featured emotive words starkly dividing the forces of light from the forces of darkness, who are unrelievedly dark. The NRSC will defend us, for example, from “Barack Obama, the Senate Democrats and their liberal allies—from the Hollywood elites and Big Labor bosses to the radical environmentalists and ‘peace’ activists who loathe our military.”
Part of the standard form is a gimmick, often a poll and in this case that “Republican Strategy Ballot.” The fifth through the seventh paragraphs of the senator’s letter (the fifth and seventh were indented) read:
Please open your sealed Republican Strategy Ballot right away, then vote and return it in the Registered Return Envelope within the next 5 days. The postage is paid for you. You can also complete the survey and make a contribution online at [web address].
Because information generating by this balloting will help drive Republican communications and grassroots initiatives for the coming year, accuracy is essential. The NRSC must have your Strategy Ballot returned for precise results.
If for any reason you cannot participate, please complete the information on the outside of the sealed Strategy Ballot Carrier and return it unopened so we may select someone else in your community to help determine Republican communications strategies.
The bright yellow envelope itself says across the middle “REGISTERED MATERIALS. TO BE OPENED BY ADDRESSEE ONLY.” (With whom the materials are registered, and why, is not said, but it does sound official and impressive.)
A box on the right side tells me what to do if I intend to vote and if I don’t. If I don’t, I’m supposed to “Sign below and return unopened so we may select one of your neighbors to vote in your place” (good luck finding a Republican in my neighborhood), below which is a line on which to sign. The letter also includes a barcode, but whether it’s a real one I don’t know.
The “Strategy Ballot” inside the envelope, two-thirds the size of a letter and completely crowded with words on both sides, includes a “Respondent Validation” you are supposed to sign and a “Ballot Number” that, like the barcode, may or may not be real. It asks six questions of “grassroots voters like you.”
The first two are actual questions: “Which issue(s) do you believe Republicans should highlight in the 2011 policy debates?” and “Which of the Democrats’ liberal policies do you oppose the most?” I’d be interested to know whether anyone at the NRSC actually compiles the answers to these questions, and if so, if the answers make their way to anyone involved in deciding Republican strategy.
The next two are leading questions with obvious answers for the kind of people who will get the letter. The fifth is a not very useful question about the best media to use. Why they ask it is not clear, since on the last page of the letter Senator Hatch tells me that the “NRSC know just what kind of television and radio ads to run in specific markets where our message will have the most impact among voters, as well as the best online strategy for quickly reaching taxpayers with the facts.” If they know so definitely, why listen to the grassroots amateurs?
The sixth questions is not a real question at all but a barely disguised request for money: “The NRSC is our first line of defense against Barack Obama and the Democrats’ liberal majority in the U.S. Senate. . . . Will you help the NRSC fight for our Republican agenda and the candidates who support it?”
The writers hope that Miss Elma Mae Wombat of East Cow Pie, Iowa, pro-life activist, and Luigi Tortellini of Queens, New York, Reagan Democrat, and Horace Smythe-Worthington of the Hamptons, investor, and me, guy on a mailing list for reasons he doesn’t know, and thousands like us are going to answer the questions, convinced the NRSC really cares about our answers, and then, caught up in the thrill of contributing to the destruction of those hated Democrats and their liberal allies, send them money.
This is too bogus for words. We know for certain, I think, that this is a fund-raising letter, not a genuine attempt to understand what the “grassroots voters” really think, need, and want.
If they cared what people like me think, the “Strategy Ballot” would have asked many more and much more finely worded questions. And it would not have asked questions like the fifth one, the answer to which the letter itself declared had already been settled by the experts at the NRSC. They would have asked questions that showed some comprehension of the lives Elma Mae, Luigi, Horace, and I live, of what worries us and for what we hope.
The letter tries to trick the trusting into believing that they have a greater role than they do, in order to spur them to give more money than they would. It is, as Gollum would say, “tricksy.”
And it will work, because Elma Mae, Luigi, and Horace, or at least one out of three of them, trust such letters. It will bring in the money, but tricking people to get what you need, even for a good cause, is wrong. Wrong, period. Even if such tricks have become on the right the standard operating procedure, the way things are done, the game people play with a wink to the other players.
The “Strategy Ballot” is not, I realize, very deceptive, as political appeals go. It’s really a little tawdry, like the fairground games that keep people from hitting the ducks by bending the sights on the bb guns, or tricking an eight-year-old out of his Halloween candy. Some people, even among “family values” conservatives, will say it is just a harmless gimmick, and besides, it works, and it’s for a good cause. (I have had these conversations.)
But it is not the way an honest man asks for help. It is not the way men speak who remember to let their yea be yea and their nay be nay. You will find nothing of the sort in the New Testament, and it is impossible to imagine Our Lord or the Apostles using such a gimmick, or countenancing anyone else using such a gimmick.
Not very deceptive, no, but even little deceptions corrupt, and the corruption compounds itself over time. “He that is unjust in that which is little,” as Jesus says, “is unjust also in that which is greater.” That applies to everyone, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
David Mills is Executive Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.