Morris Dees, the former director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a photo from November 2002. (Dave Martin/AP)

Last month, Morris Dees, the co-founder and longtime public face of the Southern Poverty Law Center, was abruptly fired. The SPLC has launched a wide-ranging investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and racial and sexual discrimination in its organization. While many of its nonprofit peers finance themselves via big checks from foundations, the SPLC still relies, as it has for decades, on over-the-top appeals from mass direct-mail and email solicitations.

Most people who know about Dees and the SPLC think about their work on racial justice issues. Yet Dees and SPLC also have a more complicated legacy. Dees, together with his conservative counterpart Richard Viguerie, transformed American politics by figuring out how to harness direct mail as a never-ending source of money.

Dees developed his sales techniques working for Democratic presidential contenders

When Dees entered the Direct Marketing Association’s hall of fame in 1991, he remarked, “I’m not ashamed to say I’m a salesman.” He, Viguerie and their heirs developed many of the familiar sales tricks of direct mail fundraising. Many of these have made the leap from mail to email, including the phony questionnaire, the appeal from the candidate’s spouse or the chance to enter a drawing for face time with the candidate.

A native Alabamian, Dees worked for George Wallace’s first gubernatorial campaign in 1958, when Wallace campaigned as a relative moderate. (In defeat, Wallace reportedly said that he would never be “out-n-----ed” or “out-segged” again, though he denied saying either word.) After a short spell in a publishing house that sold child-rearing manuals and encyclopedias through the mail, Dees found his vocation in political fundraising. In a 1980 interview, he was straightforward about how he milked his lists: “My goal in any kind of fundraising, whether it’s for the Southern Poverty Law Center, or for any organization, the National Rifle Association — whoever, is to get names of people who’ve already given to you in a pool as quick as you can.”

Dees first met George McGovern in 1970, and then set to work building the South Dakotan’s mail program of 1972, scouring subscriber lists to the New York Review of Books and transcribing volunteer lists collected by hand. He relied on gimmicks such as pens and a promised invitation for lucky supporters to dine with McGovern at the White House. Dees also worked for Jimmy Carter in 1976 (a less happy experience as it was harder to raise money for a moderate), Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1980 and Sen. Gary Hart in 1984.

Viguerie helped pave the way for the conservative revolution

In early 1973, Dees suggested, in response to a query from Wallace’s aide, Charles Snider, an old acquaintance, that Wallace should hire Richard Viguerie to help retire $400,000 in debt from his 1972 campaign. Dees and Viguerie relied on the same technology and kept up a certain professional bonhomie despite their sharp political differences. Viguerie, who had cut his teeth at the Young Americans for Freedom, was a critical figure in the rising New Right. Viguerie’s methods paralleled those of Dees. But Viguerie had a much grander ideological plan: to use single-issue groups to build a conservative majority that would topple the New Deal coalition.

George Wallace provided a way station for his supporters, mostly Southerners, on their road to supporting Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party. Richard Viguerie was a critical mechanism in that transformation. In exchange for unusually lenient terms — Wallace netted half the proceeds, rather than the usual quarter — the Viguerie Co. received the 3 million names on Wallace’s mailing list. Viguerie ultimately raised more than $7 million for Wallace. In 1981, Viguerie wrote that he and Wallace “agreed on about 80% of the important issues, social issues like busing and law and order, and the need for a strong national defense. So we struck a bargain. … My working for Wallace, although I don’t think I realized it at the time, was the beginning of my thinking in terms of coalition politics.”

Direct mail has reshaped American politics

On both sides, but especially on the right, direct mail promoted polarizing politicians, who often took more extreme positions in their solicitations than on the stump. “Direct mail,” Dees said, “only works on those people that have a pretty strong left or right ideological bent, and that’s not the kind of theme that usually will get you elected.” Or in the words of Viguerie’s client Terry Dolan of the National Conservative Political Action Committee: “The shriller you are, the better it is to raise money.”

Dees and Viguerie are in their 80s and on their way out of electoral politics. Nevertheless, we live in the political world they helped to create, one where political consulting is now a big business, and where financial self-interest and polarized politics go hand in hand. Today’s online fundraising, built around expanding and trading lists, then repeatedly bombarding them with appeals for dollars, largely replicates the model pioneered by Dees, Viguerie and their peers. They showed how a multitude of small donations can accumulate, and, when directed by a skilled political entrepreneur like Viguerie, reorient American politics.

Daniel Schlozman is Joseph and Bertha Bernstein Assistant Professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. This essay draws on his book “When Movements Anchor Parties” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015) and on his and Sam Rosenfeld’s paper “The Long New Right and the World It Made,” an unpublished chapter from a book manuscript in progress.