Gone are the days when political campaigns were fought with competing commercials and political rallies. With the Internet, Americans don’t have to suffer through political ads to get their must-see TV, so politicians fight to reach people just about everywhere else. And truly savvy politicians know reaching passive viewers isn’t enough: People want to feel a connection with their future leaders. Political pros concluded that voters didn’t believe, for example, that Mitt Romney cared about people like them, which sealed his fate at the polls.
It’s a cautionary tale candidates are taking to heart—particularly candidates such as Hillary Clinton, whose strong suit has never been exuding empathy or a warm personality. Clinton struggled to appear like someone to whom the average person could relate when she was First Lady; she has an even bigger challenge now that her family has amassed gobs of money and created a gigantic family foundation that has her hobnobbing with elites—not to mention corrupt princes, foreign dictators, and shady money men.
No wonder Clinton is struggling to portray herself as a normal, everyday working mom (and grandmother!) just like you and me. In a recent “Open Letter to Working Mothers,” Clinton tells the story of her campaign bus driver, Liz, who makes ends meet driving shifts on a chartered bus, sacrificing time with her family for nights away from home to earn extra hours. Hillary wants readers to see she’s buddies with women like Liz, and that’s why she wants to be President: to help Liz and those like her. As Clinton writes:
Liz is my reason. So is every other woman who’s pulling together kids at home, working multiple jobs, getting paid wages that are far too low, and trying to afford skyrocketing child care costs, tuition fees, health care, and so much more.
Sounds nice, right? Clinton cares about the working stiff! But how does she plan to help Liz, exactly? What would she do differently than President Obama, who also had promised to help women like Liz during his campaigns, but somehow left them all still treading water?
Such specifics aren’t addressed in the letter. And from the politician’s point-of-view, that’s the big advantage of the “open letter” format. Unlikely pesky press conferences (which Hillary actively avoids holding) or media appearances with journalists—or even letters written to actual individual people—the real-life “working women” don’t get to pose follow-up questions after receiving this letter supposedly from the candidate.
In her letter, Hillary jokes she’s “had a bit of a reputation for being a policy wonk.” She modestly continues: “It’s true! I sweat the small stuff.” This is a not-so-artful attempt to distract readers from the dearth of details about the policy plans in her missive to women—or on her campaign website, for that matter.
Just as it would be unbecoming to question whether a letter writer was being truthful about her own reputation, the format encourages readers to forgive Clinton for taking jabs at her opponent. She’s such a nice, normal woman—writing to us in such a personal way!—it’s expected we girls would dish a little gossip on the side.
Mrs. Clinton isn’t the first politician to use this format as a ruse, and she almost certainly won’t be the last. In fact, just this summer President Obama has written two open letters, one released just this weekend in honor of Labor Day to “America’s Hardworking Men and Women,” and then one in July to America’s Law Enforcement Community, in which the President insists to policemen, “We have your backs.” (I’m sure they felt reassured.) Like Mrs. Clinton’s, President Obama’s letters are short on details and heavy on posturing.
Of course, it isn’t just politicians who have seized on the open letter device for image crafting. Charlotte Alter, writing for TIME, brilliantly riffed on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s “letter to our daughter,” born just days before, describing the letter as “a press release cloaked in a baby announcement.”
There’s nothing wrong with this type of marketing, but readers should see such “open letters” for what they are: A less-than-subtle attempt to manipulate perceptions by the letter’s author. It poses as honest communication to share information, but really offers nothing deeper than the average slick political advertisement.