“One of the reasons people hate politics is that truth is rarely a politician’s objective. Election and power are.” – Cal Thomas
NEW YORK CITY – This article may interest some of those aspiring for public office in the coming May elections in the Philippines.
Before Marcus Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator, won as consul, the highest office in the Roman Republic, in an election in the summer of 64 B.C., the then 42-year-old son of a wealthy businessman from the small town of Arpinum received an advice from his younger brother, Quintus, on how to win the election.
The short pamphlet written by Quintus on electioneering in the form of a letter was called in Latin the Commentariolum Petitionis, which survived the centuries and was included in the book How To Win An Election written by Philip Freedman.
Like Machiavelli’s Prince, this short treatise provides timeless and no-nonsense counsel to those who aspire to power.
Idealism and naivete are left by the wayside as Quintus tells his brother–and all of us–how the down-and-dirty business of successful campaigning really works.
The letter is full of priceless advice for modern candidates, but some of the choicest gems are:
- Make sure you have the backing of your family and friends. Loyalty begins at home. If your spouse and children aren’t behind you, not only will you have a hard time winning but it will look bad to voters. And as Quintus warns Marcus, the most destructive rumors about a candidate begin among closest to him.
- Surround yourself with the right people. Build a talented staff you can trust. You can’t be everywhere at once, so find those who will represent you as if they were trying to be elected themselves.
- Call in all favors. It’s time to gently (or not so gently) remind everyone you have ever helped that that they owe you. If someone isn’t under obligation to you, let them know that their support now will put you in their debt in the future. And as an elected official, you will be well placed to help them in their time of need.
- Build a wide base of support. For Marcus Cicero this meant appealing primarily to the traditional power brokers both in the Roman Senate and the wealthy business community–no easy task since groups were often at odds with each other. But Quintus urges his brother as an outsider in the political game to go further and win over the various special interest groups, local organizations, and rural populations ignored by other candidates. Young voters should be courted as well, along with anyone else who might be of use. As Quintus notes, even people no decent person would associate with in normal life should become the closest of friends during a campaign if they can help get you elected. Restricting yourself to a narrow base of support guarantees failure.
- Promise everything to everybody. Except in the most extreme cases, candidates should say whatever the particular crowd of the day wants to hear. Tell traditionalists you have consistently supported conservative values. Tell progressives you have always been on their side. After the election you can explain to everyone that you would love to help them, but unfortunately circumstances beyond your control have intervened. Quintus assures his brother that voters will be much angrier if he refuses to promise them their hearts’ desire than he backs out later.
- Communication skills are key. In ancient Rome the art of public speaking was studied diligently by all men who aspired to political careers. In spite of the new and varied forms of media today, a poor communicator is still unlikely to win an election.
- Don’t leave town. In Marcus Cicero’s day this meant sticking close to Rome. For modern politicians it means being on the ground pressing the flesh wherever the key voters are at a particular moment. There is no such thing as a day off for a serious candidate. You can take a vacation after you win.
- Know the weakness of your opponents–and exploit them. Just as Quintus takes a hard look at those running against his brother, all candidates should do an honest inventory of both the vulnerabilities and strengths of their rivals. Winning candidates do their best to distract voters from any positive aspects of their opponents possess by emphasizing the negatives. Rumors of corruption are prime fodder. Sex scandals are even better.
- Flatter voters shamelessly. Marcus Cicero was always courteous, but he could be formal and distant. Quintus warns him that he needs to warm up to voters. Look them in the eye, pat them on the back, and tell them they matter. Make voters believe you genuinely care about them.
- Give people hope. Even the most cynical voters want to believe in someone. Give the people a sense that you can make their world better and they will become your most devoted followers–at least until after the election, when you will inevitably let them down. But by then it won’t matter because you will have already won.