Snail-mailing representatives in a crisis: up to a point

Why was I wrong to suggest snail-mailing members of Congress in a crisis? Because the terrorists have won.

In response to my earlier noodges (here and here) to write representatives via snail mail, two readers wrote to tell me some good news and some bad news.

The good news: I was right that personalized, written communications are much more influential than mechanically repeated electronic ones. One reader says each letter is counted as much as “dozens” of phone calls and “hundreds” of emails.

The bad news: since the anthrax scare, letters apparently have to be poked and prodded so much that they take weeks to be read. Here’s one congressional office’s explicit warning to that effect. (Henry Waxman omits such a warning: minor shame on him.) This strikes me as a substantial overreaction to a minor threat, but members of Congress are not selected for unusual courage (nor skill at risk assessment).

Congress moves so slowly that for most issues this makes no difference. But the stimulus negotiations are/were obviously another matter.

In one of my earlier posts, I recommended calling when time was short rather than emailing or using web forms, which apparently remains a decent idea. But a better idea, as both my readers point, out, is to fax your letter when time is short. The snail mail copy can follow later.

Update: Don’t have a fax machine at home? Mark and I investigated and found a free (advertising-supported), high-quality, online fax service that’s perfect if you only send occasionally (a limit of two a day, I think): FaxZero.com.

Second Update: One of the two anonymous readers mentioned above assures me that my original idea was right in most domains.

You are right for everyone except members of Congress and the President. For any other government official, from dogcatcher to Secretary of Defense, the physical letter is by far the most effective way of getting the word out.

Presumably the writer is not personally acquainted with all officials from dogcatcher to Secretary of Defense–though who knows? But the reassurance is, well, reassuring.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.