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The Conservative Movement is a Confidence Game

2012-11-07

The Baffler is another Internet Blog that, in this case, traffics in true wisdom, which accounts for its obscurity.  I have just read an article from The Baffler No. 21, entitled “The Long Con: Mail-Order Conservatism.”  This long, fascinating, and enlightening article explores the relationship between the conservative movement and mail-order fund-raising.  By mail-order fund-raising I mean the letters that come in the mail, asking you to contribute to a cause, such as distributing Bibles in Asia.  The article was written by Rick Perlstein and emphasizes the conundrum of Mitt Romney’s political lies: why does he lie so consistently and transparently?

Mr Perlstein explains that the origins of the current conservative movement are deeply tied in to the development of a direct-mail fundraising organization by a Richard Viguerie in the early 1960’s.  After Goldwater was defeated in the Presidential elections of 1964, he tapped in to the official list of people who had donated fifty dollars or more to Goldwater’s campaign, which at that time was maintained by the Clerk of the House of Representatives.  Before he was stopped by the Clerk, he was able to write down 12,500 names and addresses of donors to Goldwater, presumably reliable conservatives.

By writing to these people and asking for donations, he was able to raise enough money to dramatically increase the scope of his mailing list: by 1980, he had twenty-five million names on computer tape.  The key to his financial success was that the causes for which he requested donations usually received less than fifteen percent of the money he raised.  In the case of the organization that wished to raise money for Bibles in Asia, they actually paid him more than they received in contributions from him.

The growth of this direct-mail plan was not unnoticed by liberals; in 1977, Democratic congressman Charles H. Wilson of California proposed legislation that would lightly regulate mail-order fundraising.  The Heritage Foundation counterattacked with a hysterical screed called an “issues bulletin” that implied that the regulations would be a direct attack on Christianity and Christian organizations.  The legislation failed to take root.  Thus, mail-order fundraising solicitations are not required to indicate what percentage of funds raised will go to the organization that solicits and what percentage will go to the cause solicited for.

Perlstein states that conservative organizations that stopped using Mr Viguerie’s company found themselves able to keep, after expenses, more than half of the funds they raised on their own.  However, companies that continued to use Mr Viguerie were apparently not dissatisfied; perhaps some of them were in on the con, while others were unaware that their names were being used.  One example is Citizens for Decent Literature, which took in about $2.3 million in two years and was run by a certain Mr Charles Keating, he of Savings and Loan fraud fame; Mr Viguerie apparently kept more than 80 percent of the take.  On the other hand, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who lent his name to a mailing for the “Friends of the FBI”, quit after four months and complained that he had been defrauded.

The practice of raising money by direct-mail solicitation is extremely common and is engaged in by many entirely different groups: from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to Doctors Without Borders to political organizations from far left to far right.  The difference in the case of the conservative movement is that most of the “groups” are front organizations that collect in the name of causes and then pocket the money (almost all of it.)  In order for these appeals to have maximum impact, the writers find themselves making up complete fabrications as well as grossly distorting statements by “enemy” groups.

The rhetoric and objects of these appeals are stereotyped in such a way as to make the reader feel that he or she is being made privy to baleful secrets.  These secrets are critical to the reader’s survival and are with-held at the behest of the villains: the liberals.  Perlstein explains the hero-villain dialectic and the overlap between economic and political appeals in a powerful and clarifying fashion.  Read his article to get a full appreciation of how this come-on has worked so powerfully.

The best part is that the Mormons have a catch-phrase for this behavior:  it’s called “lying for the Lord.”  Perlstein describes the elaborately constructed central “truth” of conservatism for the last fifty years: that “liberalism is a species of madness[insanity]” but “conservatism is the creed of regular Americans.”  Finally, he says, Mitt Romney lied because “lying is an initiation into the conservative elite.”

Mr Perlstein doesn’t mention Paul Ryan; the only comment I can add about him is that he doesn’t just lie for his cause.  Paul Ryan is a pathological liar, one who lies habitually about trivial things for no reason.  That isn’t opportunism or a career choice, it’s mental illness.

The result of these fundraising letters has been the growth and persistence of numerous derogatory lies about American (and foreign) liberals.  There is an entire alternative reality relating to liberal politics that has been created by letters and speeches, and their authors are profiting handsomely from this deception.  The “conservative” authors maintain this alternative reality by feeding lies to their audiences.  They then obtain contributions from these audiences, which they use primarily to reimburse themselves for their time and effort.  Fortunately, they do not need to spend any of the money they collect on fighting the evils against which they rail; those evils are primarily in the imagination.

So, dear readers, Mr Perlstein has explained far more effectively than I could how conservatism in America has at its roots a pyramid scheme, multi-level marketing, with the elites at the 0.1% level being the only winners.  Read his article in the Baffler, No. 21.

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