What does it say about the nature of human political life that analyses and advice dating from the first century B.C.E. is still applicable today? Stripped of its cultural and historical context, the Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Little Handbook on Electioneering”, which was ostensibly written to the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero by his younger brother, Quintus, can just as well describe contemporary American politics.
For example, it starts by outlining the importance of connections and patronage networks — especially among the wealthy and elites of society — for political advancement.
It is crucial that you take stock of the many advantages you possess. . . . Few outsiders have the number and variety of supporters that you do. All those holding public contracts are on your side, as well as most of the business community. The Italian towns also support you. Don’t forget about all the people you have successfully defended in court, clients from a wide variety of social backgrounds. And, of course, remember the special interest groups that back you. Finally, make good use of the young people who admire you and want to learn from you, in addition to all the faithful friends who are daily at your side.
Work to maintain the goodwill of these groups by giving them helpful advice and asking them for their counsel in return. Now is the time to call in all favors. Don’t miss an opportunity to remind everyone in your debt that they should repay you with their support. For those who owe you nothing, let them know that their timely help will put you in their debt. And, of course, one thing that can greatly help an outsider is the backing of the nobility, particularly those who have served as consuls previously. It is essential that these men whose company you wish to join should think you worthy of them.
You must diligently cultivate relationships with these men of privilege. Both you and your friends should work to convince them that you have always been a traditionalist. Never let them think you are a populist. Tell them if you seem to be siding with the common people on any issue it is because you need to win the favor of Pompey [a popular general], so that he can use his great influence on your behalf or at least not against you. . .
Nevertheless, like any good politician in any modern liberal democracy, Cicero is encouraged to broaden his network of supports, tap into every personal and business relationship, and balance it all out with an appeal to the general masses.
Running for office can be divided into two kinds of activity: securing the support of your friends and winning over the general public. You gain the goodwill of friends through kindness, favors, old connections, availability, and natural charm. But in an election you need to think of friendship in broader terms than in everyday life. For a candidate, a friend is anyone who shows you goodwill or seeks out your company.
Do not overlook your family and those closely connected with you. Make sure they all are behind you and want you to succeed. This includes your tribe, your neighbors, your clients, your former slaves, and even your servants. For almost every destructive rumor that makes its way to the public begins among family and friends. . . .
There are three things that will guarantee votes in an election: favors, hope, and personal attachment. You must work to give these incentives to the right people. You can win uncommitted voters to your side by doing them even small favors. So much more so all those you have greatly helped, who must be made to understand that if they don’t support you now they will lose all public respect. But do go to them in person and let them know that if they back you in this election you will be in their debt.
Indeed, most of the letter is devoted to covering the various nuances and strategies of building a support base and cultivating connections. The emphasis on the social and personal element of politics speaks to our specie’s inherently political nature: when it comes to power, prestige, and influence, you must master human relations on all levels — personal, professional, adversarial, competitive, etc.
Of course, social standing underpins all of it, and in Rome as in most places today, how you sell yourself to others — the story you present to the world — can make or break your aspirations.
Impressing the voters at large . . . is done by knowing who people are, being personable and generous, promoting yourself, being available, and never giving up. . . . Nothing impresses an average voter more than having a candidate remember him, so work every day to recall names and faces. Now, my brother, you have many wonderful qualities, but those you lack you must acquire and it must appear as if you were born with them. 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 and in the Forum, speaking constantly with voters, then talking with them again the next day and the next. Never let anyone be able to say that he lacked your earnest and repeated attention during the campaign.
Generosity is also a requirement of a candidate, even if it doesn’t affect most voters directly. People like to hear that you are good to your friends at events such as banquets, so make sure that you and your allies celebrate these frequently for the leaders of each tribe. Another way to show you are generous is to be available day and night to those who need you. Keep the doors of your house open, of course, 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. People not only want commitments from a candidate but they want them delivered in an engaged and generous manner. . . .
Granted, politics is not entirely self-serving and mechanistic. There is a lot of romance and idealism involved, usually juxtaposed with a world and political system that is rife with problems and in need of a publicly anointed savior like no other.
The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you. On the other hand, you should not make specific pledges either to the Senate or the people. Stick to vague generalities. Tell the Senate you will maintain its traditional power and privileges. Let the business community and wealthy citizens know that you are for stability and peace. Assure the common people that you have always been on their side, both in your speeches and in your defense of their interests in court. . . .
Our city is a cesspool of humanity, a place of deceit, plots, and vice of every imaginable kind. Anywhere you turn you will see arrogance, stubbornness, malevolence, pride, and hatred. . . . In such a chaotic world, you must stick to the path you have chosen. It is your unmatched skill as a speaker that draws the Roman people to you and keeps them on your side. It may well be that your opponents will try to use bribery to win your supporters from you, for this can often work. But let them know you will be watching their actions most carefully and you will haul them into court. They will be afraid of your attention and oratory, as well as the influence you have with the business community. You don’t have to actually bring your opponents to trial on corruption charges, just let them know you are willing to do so. Fear works even better than actual litigation. And don’t be discouraged by all this talk of bribery. I am certain that even in the most corrupt elections that there are plenty of voters who support the candidates they believe in without money changing hands. . .
Compare that to the usually spiel about “Washington politics” — nowadays a pejorative with the subtext of corruption and venality — or America in decline and its people in need of a true representative who will restore glory.
Lest you think I am reading too into this, consider the perspective of one modern political adviser in the U.S., who takes away quite a lot from the letter.
Quintus starts with what we campaign advisers call “confidence building,” assuring the candidate that he has what it takes to win. He moves on to an assessment of the nature and strength of the candidate’s base and the need to target specific groups, cautioning against what might be perceived as class warfare. He urges his brother to go negative early, even bringing up the character issue (it must be easier to do when your opponent is a murderer, child molester, and “friend of actors”). He then moves brilliantly back to base development, urges his brother to pander, and anticipates Napoleon’s advice that a leader should be “a dealer in hope.”
Even without the benefit of modern technology, he suggests microtargeting, crafting specific appeals to the narrowest of segments of the voting public. Then, he recommends what is so often done in modern politics: sucking up and spitting down, that is, paying far more attention to those with great power than to the great unwashed. He stresses the importance of retail politics and offers a fascinating discussion of how and when to say no if you have to.
He recommends George H. W. Bush’s courtesy, Bill Clinton’s total recall of names and faces, and Barack Obama’s focus on getting out the youth vote. He argues for campaigning constantly and incessantly, and cautions against taking vacations during the campaign, since your absence will suggest that you are taking voters for granted. (If Newt Gingrich had gotten such a memo last spring, he might not have lost the bulk of his campaign staff a couple months later.)
There are always those who say that politics is more negative than ever and that contemporary political consultants are more cynical and unrestrained than their predecessors. Anybody who thinks that just hasn’t been paying attention, and should go read Quintus’ advice to his brother. He suggests sticking to generalities during the campaign, telling the wealthy you are for stability and peace while assuring the common man that you are always on his side. Oh, and accusing your opponents of “crimes, sex scandals, and corruption.” His cynicism, moreover, makes him a trial lawyer’s dream: he suggests threatening to take opponents to court at any provocation, no matter how frivolous. He is not particularly interested in the fruits of litigation, but only wants to use it as a tool to produce fear and restraint on the opposing side.
Depending on your perspective, the timelessness of politics — the same struggles, opportunism, patronage, fakery, etc. — is a source of comfort, insofar as it reminds us that our society or present time is far from uniquely bad. At the same time, however, it speaks volumes that so many of the problems we struggle with in good and honest governance seem so intractable, even across so many centuries and among so many different kinds of societies and political systems.
What are your thoughts?