How To Win An Election: Advice from 2,000 years ago

How To Win An ElectionJust finished a delightful little book written in 64 BC by Quintus Tullius Cicero, younger brother of Marcus Tullius Cicero who history knows simply as Cicero, the Roman statesman, orator, philosopher, etc.

In 64 BC, Quintus felt obliged to jot down some advice for his older brother who was then in the midst of an election campaign for the job of consul of Rome. As translator Philip Freeman explains in the lively introduction to How To Win An Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians, Marcus came into that campaign as an outsider and as a bit of an underdog. Generally speaking, Romans only elected consuls who had the Roman equivalent of the “royal jelly”, which neither Marcus nor Quintus had. They had to work for the place in Roman society rather than be born into it.

So Marcus had a fight on his hands for votes and gave his brother some advice on how to beat the other two candidates, both of whom had “royal jelly” connections. The result? Well, if Machiavelli’s The Prince is gimlet-eyed advice on the exercise of political power, then Quintus Cicero’s slim volume is equally sharp advice on the acquisition of that power in a democracy.

Some of Quintus’ advice (lifted straight from Freeman’s translation):

  • Do not overlook your family and those closely connected with you. Make sure they are all behind you and want you to succeed … For almost every destructive rumour that makes its way to the public begins among family and friends.
  • There are three things that will guarantee votes in an election: favours, hope, and personal attachment. You must work to give these incentives to the right people.
  • … the friendships you make while campaigning can be very useful. Running for office, as wearisome as it is, has the advantage of allowing you to meet and get to know many different types of people you wouldn’t normally associate with in your daily life. This is perfectly respectable during a campaign … so that you can eagerly and unashamedly cultivate friendships with people no decent person would talk to.
  • Nothing impresses an average voter more than having a candidate remember him, so work every day to recall names and faces. Now, my dear brother .. you have excellent manners and are always courteous, but you can be rather stiff at times. You desperately need to learn the art of flattery — a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office. If you use flattery to corrupt a man there is no excuse for it, but if you apply ingratiation as a way to make political friends, it is acceptable. For a candidate must be a chameleon, adapting to each person he meets, changing his expression and speech as necessary.
  • Don’t leave Rome! There is no time for vacations during a campaign. Be present in the city … speaking constantly with voters, then talking with them again the next day and the next. [This rule would be broken 2,000 years later by NDP candidate Ruth Ellen Brosseau … Apologies to Ruth Ellen but I couldn’t resist]
  • Remember Cotta, that master of campaigning, who said that he would promise everything to anyone, unless some clear obligation prevented him, but only lived up to those promises that benefitted him. He seldom refused anyone, for he said that often a person he made a promise to would end up not needing him or that he himself would not have more time available than he thought he would to help. After all, if a politician made only promises he was sure he could keep, he wouldn’t have many friends… Broken promises are often lost in a cloud of changing circumstances so that anger against you will be minimal.
  • It also wouldn’t hut to remind [voters] of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves.

As Freeman notes, we do not know if Cicero the elder took his brother’s advice but we do know that he won this election in a landslide and went on to much glory as a politician.

I highly recommend this book to all political junkies: It’s very short, with the original Latin on left-hand facing pages and the English translation on the right. You’ll be through it in an afternoon and I guarantee you will chuckle at least a few times as you recognize modern examples of the methods and characters Quintus describes from 2,000 years ago.

In fact, here’s David Weigel, writing in Slate, applying Quintus’ advice to the Republican presidential race.

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