Dirty Tricks, Roman Style
It was a bitter and volatile campaign, with accusations of inconsistency, incompetence and scandal filling the air. Candidates competed to portray themselves as the true conservative choice, while voters fretted about the economy and war threatened in the Middle East. The year was 64 B.C., and Marcus Tullius Cicero was running for Roman consul.
Cicero was a political outsider from a small town near Rome, but he was a brilliant man and gifted speaker, with a burning desire to gain the highest office in the ancient republic. As the campaign approached, his brother Quintus—a practical and sometimes violent man who would later help Julius Caesar conquer Gaul—decided that his older sibling needed to learn a few things about how to win an election.
"My dear Marcus," he wrote, "you have many wonderful qualities, but those you lack you must acquire, and it must appear as if you were born with them." Quintus knew that the odds were against his brother: "To speak bluntly, since you are seeking the most important position in Rome and since you have so many potential enemies, you can't afford to make any mistakes. You must conduct a flawless campaign with the greatest thoughtfulness, industry and care."
And so he laid out an election plan for Marcus in a short pamphlet in Latin that remains almost unknown to modern readers. The candid advice that Quintus gives would make Machiavelli blush, but it rings as true today as it did 2,000 years ago. Here is a sampling of his political wisdom:
1. Promise everything to everyone. Quintus says that the best way to win voters is to tell them what they want to hear: "Remember Cotta, that master of campaigning, who said he would promise anything, unless some clear obligation prevented him, but only lived up to those promises that benefited him." As Quintus says, people will be much angrier with a candidate who refuses to make promises than with one who, once elected, breaks them.
2. Call in all favors. If you have helped friends or associates in the past, let them know that it's payback time: "Make it clear to each one under obligation to you exactly what you expect from him. Remind them all that you have never asked anything of them before, but now is the time to make good on what they owe you." If someone isn't in your debt, remind him that if elected, you can reward him later, but only if he backs you now.
3. Know your opponent's weaknesses—and exploit them. Quintus practically invented opposition research: "Consider Antonius, who once had his property confiscated for debt…then after he was elected as praetor, he disgraced himself by going down to the market and buying a girl to be his sex slave." A winning candidate calmly assesses his opponent and then focuses relentlessly on his weaknesses, all the while trying to distract voters from his strengths.
4. Flatter voters shamelessly. Quintus warns his brother: "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." A candidate must make voters believe that he thinks they're important. Shake their hands, look them in the eye, listen to their problems.
5. Give people hope. Even the most cynical voter wants to believe in someone: "The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you." Voters who are persuaded that you can make their world better will be your most devoted followers—at least until after the election, when you will inevitably let them down.
So did the brotherly advice work?
Marcus won with more votes than any other candidate, went on to save the republic from a conspiracy, and was eventually given the honorific title "father of his country." Unfortunately, he fell afoul of Mark Antony and was murdered in 43 B.C.
The notion anything would make Machiavelli blush is, of course, a blasphemous claim.