Befriending Those No Decent Person Would Talk To

John Von Heyking
June 25, 2012
When Marco Cicero, the famous Roman orator, ran for consul, his brother Quintus offered him some practical campaigning advice. Prof. John Von Heyking, a political scientist at the University of Lethbridge, reviews this ancient Roman guide for some modern political insights.


How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians.

Translated with an introduction by Philip Freeman

Quintus Marco Cicero

Princeton University Press, 128 pages, $9.95

Reviewed by John Von Heyking

At the beginning of Harper’s Team, Tom Flanagan’s account of the Conservative party’s rise to power, Flanagan approvingly cites a key piece of advice that Quintus Cicero offers in his How to Win an Election:

Finally, as regards the Roman masses, be sure to put on a good show. Dignified, yes, but full of the color and spectacle that appeals so much to crowds. It also wouldn’t hurt to remind them 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.

With this contemporary sounding counsel, Flanagan indicates that the “essence of campaigning is timeless,” despite rapid changes in technology. Quintus wrote this pamphlet in the form of a letter to his brother, Marcus (the more famous Cicero) when he ran for Roman consul in 64 BC. The consulship was the highest office in the Roman republic, whereby the two magistrates who held the office simultaneously held supreme executive power and were responsible for both civil and military affairs. This text has been difficult to obtain, and we are indebted to classicist Philip Freeman and Princeton University Press for producing this handsome bilingual edition.

Upon reading this edition, I was stunned by how accurately Cicero (Quintus, unless otherwise noted) explains the “essence of campaigning.”  I read How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians during the recent Alberta provincial election and was amazed that each page had a lesson that the Alberta political parties either had learned or had forgotten (to their disadvantage). Just as military historians frequently argue that the essence of military strategy is timeless and that technology only changes tactics, one can say that the essence of campaigning is timeless while technology only changes tactics.

Cicero lists three things that will guarantee votes in an election:  favours, hope, and personal attachment.

Elections are the time candidates must call in favours:  “Make it clear to each one under your obligation to you exactly what you expect from him. Remind them that you have never asked anything of them before, but now is the time to make good on what they owe you.”  Cicero emphasizes the importance of having those in your debt campaign with you and, in essence, to be your cheering section as you campaign. They are your followers. They cheer you on, they encourage others to vote for you, and they attack your enemies. No need to mention that if you are not in a position to call in favours, then you have no business campaigning in the first place. The candidate campaigns from a position of strength. Even so, there is nothing wrong with letting supporters know that if they back you, you will be in their debt.

The candidate needs to inspire hope in the people: “you must make them to believe that you will always be there to help them.” President Obama and liberals in general know this, though conservatives, it seems, generally need to make a greater effort in this regard. Stephen Harper was reminded of this after he suggested the recession would be a good time to invest, which makes economic sense but little political sense. It makes good economic sense to buy stocks when their prices are low; it makes bad political sense when people’s hopes for rising stock prices depends on government being seen to do something – anything! – to show someone is in control.  Ronald Reagan was the conservative who probably best understood the importance of hope. In his campaign for the presidency in 1980 when he criticized the malaise of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and during his own presidency, Reagan constantly tried to motivate American’s sense of optimism and hope.

However, Cicero devotes most time considering personal attachment as the best guarantee for votes. In Rome, politics was local and it was personal. However, I don’t think politics today differs that much and that personal attachment Cicero emphasized remains the most important factor.

Cicero tells his brother he must first solidify the loyalty of his friends and family, and then broaden one’s scope of friends to include the general public. This two-step process sounds easy but it is actually quite complicated. Without the loyalty of friends and family, the second step is impossible:  “For almost every destructive rumor that makes its way to the public begins among family and friends.”  The truth of this claim was quite evident in the Alberta election, especially in how Premier Alison Redford handled the Ralph Klein wing of the PC Party. Her critical comments about Klein’s legacy were leaked from a private donors’ event and the family feud was made even more public. Redford’s victory seems to repudiate Cicero’s counsel (i.e., “it’s not your father’s party anymore”), although at least one pollster stated that the PC victory was the result of Wildrose support collapsing:  erstwhile “family and friends” returned to the fold.

Cicero’s advice on how to expand friendships to “anyone who shows you goodwill or seeks out your company” can sound downright Machiavellian, which is unsurprising. While he frames his argument in the language of friendship, one needs to bear in mind that the Romans understood amicus in a very broad sense, which also included the way that friendship is understood and practiced by Mario Puzo’s character  Don Corleone in The Godfather.

Make sure you befriend “certain key men in every neighbourhood and town who exercise power” because, having befriended them, “the rest will follow along.” But be sure to distinguish those “who seem important but have no real power and in fact are often unpopular in their group.” The advantage of an election is that it offers the excuse to get to know many different types of people you wouldn’t normally associate with:  “you can eager and unashamedly cultivate friendships with people no decent person would talk to.” Even so, identify key interests in society and befriend them, which you can only do if “a man sees that you value his support, that you are sincere, that you can do something for him, and that relationship will extend beyond election day.” In short, “it isn’t enough that you merely call them by name and develop a superficial friendship. You must actually be their friend.”

With friendship as the key category, Cicero emphasizes the importance of personal interactions. “Nothing impresses an average voter more than having a candidate remember him, so work every day to recall names and faces.” Indeed, some of the most successful politicians in our time have a prodigious ability to remember names; former US President Bill Clinton is known to have this ability.

You must perfect the art of flattery, “a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office…. For a candidate must be a chameleon, adapting to each person he meets, changing his expression and speech as necessary.” Be generous. Keep the doors of your house open, “but also open your face and expression, for these are the window to the soul. If you look closed and distracted when people talk with you, it won’t matter that your front gates are never locked.”  Indeed, the successful politician looks directly at you and always smiles. This helps explain some of the success of the Wildrose Party as Danielle Smith has a brilliant smile, while Alison Redford’s smiles always look strained.

Very important is Cicero’s counsel that it is better to break a promise than not to make a promise: “If you break a promise, the outcome is uncertain and the number of people affected is small. But if you refuse to make a promise, the result is certain and produces immediate anger in a larger number of voters.” You can always excuse yourself when breaking a promise by claiming that circumstances currently prevent you from keeping your promise. But by refusing to make promises, you come off as miserly and that never wins votes. This is why politicians the world over make promises they never intend to keep, or why their promises are frequently nothing more than repackaging of old promises or things that have already been decided. Alberta voters seem to regard the $3 billion plus in post-budget promises that the PCs made in this light.

The reason for Cicero’s counsel on generosity and flattery is that “people are moved more by appearances than reality.” People wish to be important and the campaigner (who wishes the same thing) satisfies this wish by creating the appearance that a voter is important, even if he is less important than the imaginary other friend who is the cause of you having to break your promise in favor of that friend.

How does Cicero reconcile his moral advice that “you must actually be his friend” with his seemingly immoral claim that “people are moved more by appearances than reality”? I think this contradiction dissolves somewhat when you consider that Cicero’s counsel for giving a “gracious lie” over refusing to make a promise is based on his view that by making a “gracious lie,” you claim your keeping your promise to Person A prevents you from keeping your promise to Person B. Person B is disappointed in the short term, but in the long term he is satisfied because he has befriended someone who generally keeps his promises. But Person B would hate you if you refuse to make a promise to him because in refusing to make that promise, you have refused to befriend him. The campaigner must cultivate hope, and he does so by appearing as someone who keeps promises, though not necessarily all of them.

Thus, Cicero indicates that friendship is his primary subject in this pamphlet on how to win elections. Even the presence of false friends, and enemies is still a nod to the fact that the “full of the color and spectacle” of an election is a kind of party among friends. Indeed, politics is a form of friendship, though not of the highest kind. An election is an event in which politicians, who each stand at the head of a faction of party of friends, come out and try to persuade fellow citizens of their worth, and to befriend them. The election is a festival in which the polity shows itself to itself, where politician and citizen are both on display to each other and to themselves, for they are the polity. One might say that an election is a time when a polity is the most itself with itself. Of course, friends fight and, of course, they have enemies.

Elections imply conflicts can be resolved (at least for a time) and that there is a friendship worth having conflicts over. Some like to paraphrase military strategist Karl von Clausewitz’s insight on war by claiming that elections are war by other means. But elections are not war by other means because they are restrained, which wars are not, according to Clausewitz who applied this statement to his view that, in war, enemies seek the total destruction of each other. This is simply not the case in elections, which are about the peaceful, though frequently unpleasant, transition of power.

Cicero helped his brother win one of the positions of consulship and during his tenure defeated the Catilinean conspiracy. Marcus Tullius Cicero was thereby named Pater Patriae, though both brothers would be assassinated 20 years later by Mark Anthony and Octavian for backing Pompey instead of Julius Caesar who destroyed the republic, and, about whom it is said, never let down a friend. So be careful in choosing your friends and your enemies.

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