The Risk of Fear as a Fundraising Tool


There is no single reason that Democrats, and progressive Democrats in particular, are in so much trouble this year. There is little point in whizzing through the list of various reasons for this, as media mavens large and small have been enumerating them to such a degree that the supposed doom of the left is pretty much ahead of the story itself. All the hype and prognostications aside, though, as the challenges of this electoral cycle have become clearer and higher, I’ve realized you can almost measure the creeping fear, the drip-drip-drip of gathering, slow-motion panic, by the lately-increasing volume of emails that ask for and receive donations by offering horror-filled scenarios. They’re effective, of course, because they work:

Elect Republicans and [fill in nightmare here].

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But one must be very careful how often one uses fear as a fundraising tactic. For one thing, it’s an inherently negative approach, less about what an organization has done to earn the right to ask for money and more about ultimatums of disaster if you don’t give.

Or, to put it another way: How many times can you drink from the trough of fear before people become numb to it?

Here is one example. In the past I have been a supporter of the Human Rights Campaign, which fights for LGBT civil rights and is devoted to electing pro-LGBT candidates to public office. In the future, I am sure I’ll support the group, too. Does it tilt to the left? In my view, you’re darn tootin’ it does. It’s not because they’re wacky lefties. It’s because no such thing as a Republican moderate exists — not when the GOP is teeming with so much hate-mongering and bigotry.

Late last week, I received an email from Joe Solmonese, president of the HRC, which I’m quite sure went to the group’s entire list; all the up-to-date sources I could find put the HRC’s membership at 750,000. The email placed the phrase “Texas GOP says gays shouldn’t have custody of children” in the subject line. Not only is that part of the 2010 platform of the Texas GOP, but

It says issuing a marriage license or performing a marriage ceremony for a same-sex couple should be punishable by jail time.


It wants to restore 19th-century Texas statutes outlawing sex between men.

Obviously this is disturbing. Indeed, the full 25-page platform of the Texas GOP (click here to read it) is full of nothing but bile — a slippery slope toward Republican Fascism. One cannot be mistaken regarding what the party stands for.

But the HRC email treats the matter like some kind of surprise. People, this is Texas. The reddest, most incorruptibly right-wing state in the union after that other bastion of all things progressive, Utah. This is news? This is an action item?

The email goes on to read:

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At a time when Americans are looking for real solutions to the challenges we face, the Texas GOP decided to focus on propaganda, not policy:

“Homosexuality tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family unit, and leads to the spread of dangerous, communicable diseases.”

“Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable ‘alternative’ lifestyle in our public education and policy, nor should ‘family’ be redefined to include homosexual ‘couples.'”

“We oppose the recognition of and granting of benefits to people who represent themselves as domestic partners without being legally married.”

The email also notes that the Texas GOP isn’t just against marriage equality, it’s “against basic equal rights”:

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They think it should be 100% legal to fire someone for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). Even their word choice shows a possible anti-transgender bias, using the phrases ‘natural man’ and ‘natural woman.’ The list goes on — far beyond the usual Republican talking points on ‘traditional family values’ and even the GOP platforms in other conservative states.

Shocking. Just, you know, out of the blue — Texas Republicans, of all people, taking the most extreme conservative position!

I mean, it’s not like the Texas GOP platforms of the last 30 years have exactly been shrines to Democratic (or LGBT) values, right?

The HRC email goes on to accuse the Republican National Committee of “trying to avoid the issue,” but, quite frankly, it doesn’t actually offer an example of how it is doing so — a missed opportunity, in my view, to make a case for why one should make a donation to the HRC. Instead, the section of the email that leads up to the pitch is weak:

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Is this really what they want voters to think the GOP stands for as the 2010 elections approach?

Um, yes. This is exactly what the GOP stands for — and exactly what the GOP wants the American people to think that it stands for because they believe, for them, this is a winning approach this year. And, sadly, it might be.

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Solmonese does state:

I want to be clear: HRC is a bipartisan organization. We’ve endorsed Republican candidates for election. So this isn’t about party politics — it’s about deep intolerance that deserves to be rejected.

And in this sense, he’s right. Deep intolerance (I prefer the word “hate”) does deserve rejection. Yet what evidence does Solonese offer for how a petition, even one signed by all 750,000 of its supporters, would materially affect the national GOP’s thinking?

None from what I can see. And so, back to my point: While I understand the HRC’s outrage, this email is little more than another sky-is-falling scenario aimed at frightening people into opening up their wallets. And while I agree that people should give to the HRC, we have a long electoral season ahead of us. I can easily imagine another 10, 15, 20 nightmare scenarios ahead of us. How many times can the HRC put out such emails and reasonably expect money to flow? Is there a danger of diluting the dangerous politics possibly ahead of us?

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It’s one thing for extremist groups to spout this type of bigotry. But one of the nation’s two main political parties? That’s taking it WAY too far.

If this is the first time the HRC has noticed the GOP hate strain, they’re in more trouble than the Democrats. If I had the chance to work for the HRC, I’d spend the summer issuing more emails touting the work they’re doing — the progress being made. (Yes, I know the HRC does do this.)

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And I’d save the nightmare scenarios for closer to the moment that people actually vote.

And I’d let the awful Texas GOP be the awful Texas GOP.