The word “candidate” comes from the Latin “candida,” meaning clothed in white, referencing the bleached white togas Roman politicians wore to stand out in a crowd. The bleaching solution of the day was urine, a product vastly improved upon over time.
Wardrobe aside, how Roman office seekers communicated to the voters is almost identical to what we hear today. This is confirmed by “How To Win Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians,” written by Quintas Tullius Cicero in 64 BC and recently translated by Philip Freeman.
That year, Marcus Tullius Cicero, a great orator but Roman outsider, ran for the high office of Counsel. Younger brother Quintus helped by writing a how-to pamphlet on reaching the electorate to garner votes. Foregoing lofty vision and message, this guide provided street-level advice and tips. Most tips are spot-on in terms of what any candidate today should do, including:
- Building your base of support among family and friends first. Call in favors.
- Master your oration, which in Marcus’ case was not needed.
- Stay close to home.
- Give people hope, flatter them one-on-one, and ask their advice.
- Remember names and make good eye contact.
- Approach known supporters of your opponents with respect.
- And stay positive and enthusiastic even if the days get long and weary.
So far so good. But Quintas’ advice gets trickier about personal attacks (all the more relevant given recent news coverage of negative campaigning). By all means, Quintus says, explicitly point out scandals known or presumed. Financial misdeeds are fair game, sexual misconduct even better.
To uncover personal foibles of their competitors, today’s office seekers have tried-and-true opposition research as well as the luxury of investigative reporting (à la ProPublica), though this is almost a lost art. By relying more on investigative journalism, though, candidates can stay apart and separate from muckraking by having reporters do it for them. Voters can then evaluate the issue for themselves while the candidate stays above the fray.
The advice to Cicero that rings hollow in today’s times concerns promises. “Promise anybody anything” was Quintus’ motto. If you don’t, potential voters walk away mad. If you do, you can later ignore a promise as chances are that people will have forgotten you made it.
Today, politicians face demands for promises by special interests or to make pledges (like personally imposed term limits) to gain favor. The blame goes both ways. It is more honest for politicians to offer their best effort for an issue but to remind people they must do what they think best for the common good. And it is healthier for democracy if people make a forceful case for their position but not demand hollow promises or pledges.
Naïve? Maybe. But in this era in which the approval ratings of politicians are at rock bottom, we need a reminder that politics (derived, after all, from the Greek “polis” meaning people) starts with us and, in the end, we get what we elect.