Ancient and modern

Cicero’s advice for defeated politicians (Alastair Campbell, take note)

Humility and service have always been the secrets of winning over an electorate

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

The great Robert Harris has defended the pollsters who got the elections so wrong by quoting Cicero on the electorate’s fickleness. Cicero certainly acknowledged the problem when he was defending one Gnaeus Plancius in 54 bc, but made a rather different point.

Plancius had been accused of rigging his election to the position of aedile (a sort of joint mayor of Rome) by his rival for the post, Laterensis. But Cicero had a problem: Laterensis was a friend. Since Cicero could therefore not lay into him, he began by arguing that electoral rejection could happen to anyone in Rome: ‘For in elections the people do not always demonstrate sound judgment. They are regularly influenced by self-interest and swayed by entreaties, and elect those by whom they have been most persistently courted. But even if they do demonstrate judgement, it is not as a result of any balanced wisdom, but usually impulse and a spirit of recklessness. For the common people are strangers to deliberation, reason, discrimination and attentiveness….’

But the analysis does not end there. Cicero suggests that, if Laterensis was the equal, if not the better, of Plancius in merit, the people could have preferred Plancius because he had fought the harder to win them over, while Laterensis had not wooed them with sufficient humility. Assuming that, as a nobilis, all he had to do was turn up, he had ignored the basic tenet of Roman electioneering that winning depended on offering self-effacing service, day in, day out, to friends and supporters across the social spectrum — and paid the price.

So it may be the public is fickle; but the self-satisfied expressions of outrage and disbelief with which e.g. Lord Ashdown and Alastair Campbell greeted the damning exit polls, and their subsequent bewildered displays of injured merit, suggest their obsession with party has left them blind to the people whom their party is supposed to serve.

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  • Gerschwin

    Did Cicero advise former press secretaries to fall on their swords? I can provide.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Which ancient greek source described politicians as “corrupt people with funny voices.” I have been trying to find the reference for years.

    • Alfa

      Aristophanes went like this: “You have all the characteristics of a popular politician: a horrible voice, bad breeding and a vulgar manner.”

  • Major Plonquer

    On the other hand, Plancius didn’t get himself a nose job.

  • DrWhy

    Was it not Xenophanes who stated that: “It takes a wise man to recognize a wise man.” ? In which case . . .