A LITTLE known book – How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians – provides timeless advice for aspirants to representative office and critics of crumbling democratic systems.
The advice is an illuminating insight into political campaigning and the democratic process.
That process increasingly feels irreparably corrupted and broken. There appears an urgent need to look beyond Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted cliche that democracy is the least worst form of government.
Democracy’s adherents have long claimed one of its greatest assets is that at least you get the chance to vote Tweedledee out.
But democracy’s critics claim all you get is an opportunity to replace Tweedledee with Tweedledum and end up with a “same same, but different” approach, with emphasis on “same same” rather than “different”.
Today, that “same same” is an unbending belief in the type of neoliberalism that distorts free market capitalism into an unrelenting political ideology.
That ideology has captured many political hearts and minds and, most political imagination.
The influence of money and the promise of more money disproportionately win votes. Elected representatives are enticed and encircled by lobbyists, and committees of government across the globe increasingly outsource political decisions.
Now that democracy and capitalism have morphed into a political ideology whose trajectory is almost exclusively focused upon the singular idea of maximising profit, resulting in an increasing inequality of income and wealth distribution, disillusionment with politics is not likely to dissipate.
Relatives, students, colleagues, friends and acquaintances tell me they believe politics is more negative than ever and their faith in democracy is diminishing.
They tell me they believe those who work professionally in contemporary politics as a cog in the party machine are more cynical, shameless and self-serving than their predecessors, as if there was some golden age in democracy where candidates never gilded the lily, never told a porky or never broke a promise.
Anybody who thinks there was a golden age should read Quintus Cicero’s advice to his older brother. How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians is not especially comforting to those who are weary from cyclical disappointment in both parties and people in whom we invest hope and trust to create a better future for all citizens.
The text is widely purported to have been written in 64BC by the practical Quintus for his idealist older brother Marcus Cicero, following Marcus’s announcement of candidacy for consul, the highest office in the Republic.
Numerous scholars dispute the authenticity of the work and challenge the claim that the text was written by Quintus. Certainly, the work is absent from the most academically influential Ciceronian manuscripts.
To some researchers, the work reads like a rhetorical exercise typical of the Imperial period, in which a student offered advice to a well-known historical figure. In other words, it reads as a parody.
Marcus Cicero was an outstanding orator and philosopher. He remains one of the most influential figures in the history of European literature and thought.
Quintus advises his brother to overpromise whenever an opportunity presents itself. ‘‘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.’’ Quintus points out the necessity of working to understand what it is that people want.
He makes the clear distinction between honourable conduct and political campaigning. To cultivate voters, for example, the candidate can mix with people he would be considered “doltish” (absurdus) to cultivate at any other time.
Normally, sycophancy (blanditia) is considered self-defeating and repulsive (vitiosa et turpis), but it is a prerequisite (necessaria) of campaigning.
Quintus was big on the delivery of promises. That is, make sure to make promises early and often.
He suggests sticking to generalities during the campaign. “The most important part of the campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill towards you. Let the business community and wealthy citizens know that you are for stability and peace. Assure the common people you have always been on their side.”
And this beauty: “There are certain key men in every neighbourhood and town who exercise power. These are diligent and wealthy people who, in spite of not backing you previously, can be persuaded to support you if they feel indebted to you or see you as useful to them.”
A couple of millennia later and it’s “same same, but different”.
You know where the emphasis lies.
Paul Scott is a lecturer in the School of Design, Communication and Information Technology at the University of Newcastle