The Direct-Mail Poetry of Election 2012

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Finding the beauty (sort of?) in a relentless torrent of campaign pamphlets

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Samuel Cohen

Day after day they come to my house. By mail. By hand. Borne along with an urgent smile by canvassers who stalk the neighborhood looking for opportunities like me. Stuffed into the handle of my door. Blown around by the wind when I walk the dog. With an eye toward this piece, toward perhaps making some meaning of the insanity of it all, I started keeping them only about a month ago, after I had already received (and promptly tossed out) at least 200 more. They will continue to come, I know, until early November, until the eve of the coming election, when the people who send them will finally realize that it's just too late.

As the resident of a swing state, evidently in or near a swing district, I live today in a pamphlet world. Every politician seeking my vote this election cycle seems to have decided that the best way to reach me -- and to reach me -- is to send me colorful, high-gloss, thick-stock political pamphlets pitching me on this or that. What the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling has done for the television and radio industries -- think those television campaign commercials are free? -- these pamphlets surely have done for the printing industry. I don't remember ever receiving as many mailed election pitches as I have this year.

One day, all of the pamphlets I have, and all of the ones I will collect between now and November 6, will either be recycled or will help me start wood fires in my fireplace on the days when I can. Some of this garbage may make a difference in the races on which it touches. Some, no doubt, were as wasted on me, and on the related campaign, as all the other junk mail that comes. In the meantime, since I have them here, I thought I would go back through them to give you a sense of the language of the race, far away from the glare of the debates or the cheers of the crowd.

Political operatives are spending millions upon millions of dollars this cycle -- more than ever before, I reckon -- to get their message into my home, figuratively and literally. And what those messages say tells us an awful lot about the awful nature of politics in America in 2012. On balance, I would say I've received many more mailings from Republicans and conservative operatives than I have from Democrats and liberal operatives. Sometimes, it's impossible to tell, so couched in dog whistles and focus-group-speak is the language of the pamphlets. Here is just some of the poetry of the campaign, taken directly from the text of the mailings:

Straight from the horse's mouth.
The road to prosperity is not paved in debt.
The truth washes it off easily.
In scary situations, trust someone who knows what they're doing.
They're not on your side.
If Penn State happened in your elementary school, would you want to know? 
Who betrayed our children's safety for a campaign donation?
Which [state] politician thinks money grows on trees?
She paid into Medicare and Social Security all her life. But [politician] wants to leave her out in the cold. Who's tired of politics as usual?
[Politician] knows that good jobs don't grow on government trees.
[Politician] is a weaselly politician. He raised our taxes but dodged paying his own.
[Politician] is fed up with politicians ignoring our community.
[Politician] didn't raise her taxes. But she is happy to raise yours.
[Politician] creates jobs on Main Street, not Wall Street.
More runaway spending. Higher taxes. More jobs lost.
And to bring better jobs to [state], we need [politician].
We need to focus on getting people back to work. We're better together.
Where in the world did all our jobs go?
New industries demand new jobs.
[Politician] is just plain selfish. 
[Politician] was caught red handed dodging his fair share of taxes. 
[Politician] supports real education reform. 
[Politician] would allow big insurance companies to deny women access to life saving preventative care like mammograms. [Politician] has the experience and values we need.
Unemployment worse. Taxes worse. Income worse. Mortgage worse.
Working to build a better [state].
Standing up for our small businesses
She would like to be working. But there are no jobs.
Working toward common sense solutions. Working for you.
[Politician] wants to cut taxes for millionaires like himself but raise taxes on the rest of us.
[Politician] knows that what children learn today determines their bright futures. 
[Politician] wants to give politicians unlimited spending power. 
[Politician] will follow his party bosses, even if it means raising taxes for middle class families. [Politician] is still treating us like his own ATM!
Better jobs, stronger schools, safer neighborhoods.
An excellent school in every neighborhood.
Good schools mean better jobs.
Our Children's [sic] future is in Jeopardy.
We have to save their future ... before we save for their future.
[Politician] will create the jobs we need.
[Politician] has worked across party lines to cut middle class taxes and create new jobs.
[Politician] voted to yank the lid off spending.
[Politician] can't even manage his own money.
[Politician's] spending has reached new heights.
Experience. What difference does it make?
Believe in the America you built. Believe we can build it again.
Money's tight. But I pay my taxes on time.
These solar panels do more than create clean energy. They also create good jobs.
We need a Congressman who stands with us.
[Politician] is the kind of common sense leader we need to get [state] moving forward.
[Politician] wants to fatten his wallet at your expense.
[Politician] will continue to grow government. 
[Politician] voted to support her campaign contributors and put our children at risk
[Politician] is [state's] most extreme member of Congress
When [politician] cut his own take-home pay, it was leadership by example.
The closer you look the more [politician] seems like Rush Limbaugh. 
Together we can make our community better.
We need to focus on doing what is best for the people.
Vote for a Better Tomorrow. Working for you.
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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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