The More Things Change

(Note this article originally appeared in the Ottawa Hill Times.)

Whenever I start yammering about the “good old days,” my wife reminds me about how the “past is where it should be.”

And, of course, she’s right, because she’s always right. (It’s important to note that my wife proofreads my columns.)

Yet, I still can’t help thinking that, at least when it comes to politics, the past has a lot to teach us about the present.

For instance, the past certainly teaches us that the basic fundamentals of what makes for a successful political communication strategy haven’t changed much over the course of centuries.

In other words, tactics that worked ages ago, still work today.

To show you what I mean, let me draw your attention to a communication strategy document called the Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Short Guide to Electioneering” that was written more than 2,000 years ago in 64 B.C, by an ancient Roman known as Quintus Tullius Cicero.

Quintus supposedly wrote this little memorandum to help his brother, Marcus Tullius Cicero (better known today simply as “Cicero”) who was running for Consul, the Roman Republic’s highest elected office.

And when you read Quintus’s advice it’s hard not to think of him as the ancient world’s version of a political consultant.

For one thing, he reminds his brother to be generous with his promises.

As Quintus put it, “People would prefer you give them a gracious lie than an outright refusal … 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.”

In short, over promising works, even if it means under delivering.

Quintus also talks about the importance of Cicero keeping his base happy.

“As for those who you have inspired with hope — a zealous and devoted group — you must make them to believe that you will always be there to help them. Let them know that you are grateful for their loyalty and that you are keenly aware of and appreciate what each of them is doing for you.”

Nor does Quintus neglect the importance of what today we’d call “going negative.”

He writes: “It also wouldn’t hurt to remind them (the Roman masses) of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves.”

Quintus then goes on to suggest that Cicero not be above pandering to voters with vague promises.

“You should not make specific pledges either to the Senate or the People,” he tells his brother. “Stick to vague generalities. Tell the Senate you will maintain its traditional power and privileges. Let the business community and wealthy citizens know that you are for stability and peace. Assure the common people that you have always been on their side, both in your speeches and in your defense of their interests in court.”

So be all things, to all people.

And just in case you’re wondering, Quintus’s advice seemed to work, since Cicero won the election in a landslide.

Anyway, I’m bringing all this up because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent electoral victory has led some pundits and commentators to suggest politics in Canada is now entering a golden era.

The old cynical tricks, they argue, have now been replaced with a new “sunny ways” brand of politics.

And perhaps that’s true.

But as the work of Quintus reminds us, what some call cynical politics has a way of lasting, because while everything else might change, human nature stays the same.

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