Sunday, October 7, 2007

Re: Ron Paul's Infamous Fundraising Letter

Certain elements of the blogosphere have been in stitches the last few days over this Ron Paul fundraising letter, including my friends over at Comments from Left Field. The general point of amusement has been the apparent nuttiness of this faux-handwritten letter, specifically its somewhat conspiratorial tone about the United Nations. While I can see why someone who is not a Ron Paul supporter would be amused, the letter really is no less extreme than fundraising letters I have seen from all sorts of political causes, both left and right. Below is a helpful explanation of why this ridicule is just making a mountain out of a molehill.

1. It's a fundraising letter sent to supporters, not much different in tone from most fundraising letters. Over the years, I have seen many fundraising letters from various political causes and campaigns, both right and left. My observations have been the result of experiences on Capitol Hill and on the fringes of the lobbying industry, as well as my wife's extensive experience in direct-mail fundraising. One of the keys to successful direct-mail fundraising campaigns is to make the recipient feel a sense of urgency to donate. In the political realm, this typically means making the reader believe that everything they believe in is under attack; this is especially true when the letter is targeted at people who have previously donated and are thus more likely to be concerned about the issues addressed in the letter. Compare, say, a NARAL letter with a Family Research Council letter, or a Brady Campaign letter with an NRA letter, and you will usually find a similar theme of, in essence, "they're out to get us." So, yes, the Ron Paul letter may take a tone reminiscent of black helicopters and conspiracy theories- but then again, so do fundraising letters for most political causes.

2. The faux handwriting has also attracted attention as creating something of a "Unabomber effect" in the words of Brendan Nyhan. But this is another important element of successful direct mail fundraising- making the recipient feel personally invested. Oftentimes, this element is achieved by making the letter a personal story that will pull at the heartstrings; in this case, though, the campaign decided to make the letter handwritten to achieve the recipient's personal investment. My understanding is that the apparently handwritten fundraising letter is one of the "tricks of the trade" when it comes to direct-mail fundraising; even the appearance of being on lined paper is something that "has been done before", according to my reliable source.

3. The substantive element that has achieved the most attention from the more "Progressive" critics (this blog reserves the word "liberal" for classical liberalism, which has little relationship to Progressivism) has been the portion that states the "American way of life is under attack," the "global elites are busy forming a North American Union", and "the UN also wants to confiscate our firearms and impose a global tax." Now, as I said above, there is a certain amount of hyperbole in these claims- but it is a type of hyperbole that runs through most political direct mail fundraising. I should also mention that I personally cringe whenever a politician assails "elites"- but I don't know many politicians who haven't used that line of attack before. As for the substantive points he raises:

a. "American way of life is under attack." It surprises me that Progressives would find this statement amusing, as it taps into essentially the same feelings that Progressives have about Bush thanks to things like Bush v. Gore, the torture memoranda, the wiretapping programs and bypassing of FISA, etc. Yes, I know that the letter does not specifically address those issues; however, the sentiment is pretty much the same.
b. "Global elites are busy forming a North American Union." This is obviously a reference to NAFTA and various agreements that Bush has entered into. Now, I happen to be a supporter of NAFTA and free trade agreements more generally, so this is a bit tougher for me to justify since I actually disagree with him here (full disclosure: Ron Paul is entirely in favor of free trade; he just thinks, with some reason, that NAFTA and other agreements don't actually achieve free trade) However, I understand where the sentiment comes from. Indeed, as this article shows, the Bush policy with respect to Mexico and Canada is to increase cross-border traffic and ultimately have a common tariff system. Again, I'm not necessarily opposed to this type of setup; however, there is little doubt that it would decrease American sovereignty, so Paul's claim isn't really all that insane.
c. "The UN also wants to confiscate our firearms and impose a global tax." The fact is, the firearms claim is pretty much true (see portion of report where they discuss concerns over increased manufacturing of "small arms", which means firearms; I've also had some personal work-related experiences with the issue). That said, it's not something the UN is likely to be successful on as long as the 2nd Amendment remains an individual, rather than a collective, right- still it is a goal of much of the UN. As for the concept of global taxes, it appears that the US is almost alone in its opposition of such a tax- without US opposition, there's a good chance a global tax would be a reality.

Hopefully, this post demonstrates why this whole thing is really much ado about nothing. People are certainly free to disagree with the implicit policy positions the fundraising letter takes (as I said, I personally disagree with him on NAFTA and the concept of a "North American Union", which would at least be a union of relatively liberalized countries as opposed to the UN, which has plenty of thug nations in it). Factually, however, his letter is correct, and the "state of emergency" tone of it is extremely common. In fact, there are many people in all parts of the political spectrum who actually believe we are in a state of emergency- they just tend to disagree about what the emergency is: Christian Conservatives believe gay marriage is going to destroy the family; disillusioned Republicans think that Bush (and, if elected, Hillary or Giuliani) is destroying the Constitution; Progressives think that Bush (and, if elected, any Republican) is destroying everything that made America good; anti-gun people think that pro-gun people want to see our cities destroyed by gun violence; and pro-gun people think that anti-gun people want to destroy their rights to own a gun; etc.