The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservatives pioneered direct mail to stoke discontent. It worked.

How the right keeps fueling division on the most fraught issues with great electoral success

A 2019 Virginia mailer.
6 min

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.

The goal? To apply cutting-edge marketing principles to the conservative movement by drawing upon outrage and resentment through single-issue politics, thereby bypassing more “liberal” mainstream media circuits like television news. As such, silent majorities based on law-and-order politics could be stitched together largely outside the view of the public eye — including Democrats and liberals alike. This is one reason the religious right appears to be always and ever on the proverbial “rise.” It returns to the fore when seemingly least expected.

Direct mail also helped New Right operatives coordinate between conservative American citizens and newly developed political action committees by raising money for the latest New Right causes. For example, in 1979, Viguerie and consultant Paul Weyrich began courting evangelist Jerry Falwell for a leadership role in a PAC that would soon be known as “Moral Majority.” Its purpose? To organize conservative Protestants politically in a manner that arguably had never been done before, as part of an imagined community known collectively as the religious right.

Indeed, the brilliance of direct mail was how Viguerie connected multiple mailing lists within one conservative constellation — all while raising money. Individuals who gave to one cause (like the National Rifle Association) were often tethered together with those who gave to an entirely different cause (like Moral Majority), but both were united under a New Right banner, or more appropriately, a mailing list. “Moral people didn’t get anywhere until they discovered direct mail,” Viguerie once remarked. “Now we can go directly to our people; people who will be with us on abortion or gun control or prayer in school — whatever the issue might be — through direct mail.”

This is what made New Right organizing so effective — it focused on issues that hit readers in the gut, allowing movement leaders to organize resentments, fears and feelings of discontent and then turn them into legitimate political grievances. It was, as political scientist Larry Sabato once observed, the “poisoned pen of politics.” Citizens began to see politics as one liberal calamity after another, without knowing exactly why.

Former president Donald Trump embodies everything direct mail is about, down to the proverbial shock value of its unique blend of information, entertainment and fact. It helped him win the presidency in 2016 — and the Republican Party today continues to rely on direct mail to continue its abrasive approach to social issues.

But it is important to remember that such divisive issues exist in public life because conservative consultants and operatives have learned how to match issue selection to technique, to great economic and electoral effect. This particular skill is as much about presenting substantive ideas to the American public as it is about the presentation itself. “We’re trying to make money,” Viguerie once admitted in an interview, “but we’re also concerned with perpetuating a political philosophy.”

Since the advent of the internet and, more recently, social media, such techniques have only become more sophisticated and ubiquitous in American public life. While millions of Americans still receive direct mail at their respective addresses, much of the copywriting and labor have migrated to virtual spaces, especially through personalized email. The goal remains the same, however: to remind recipients of their interests, and to give them ways to actualize them politically. And the other side of the aisle has yet to catch up. As one Democratic strategist of the 1970s noted: “Liberals used mail to pay the bills. Conservatives used it to move the country.” Hard to argue any differently — especially today.