September 3, 2012

10 political lessons from Julius Caesar

With the GOP convention finished and the Democratic convention about to fire up, it seems like a good time to share some insights brought to us centuries ago by William Shakespeare, via the stage play Julius Caesar.

These lessons seem to be often forgotten in today's political climate.  Nevertheless they are important lessons and a reminder is always a good thing.

Not all of these lessons are overtly political at first blush - many apply more readily to everyday life - but there are some keenly applications important nevertheless.

10 political lessons from Julius Caesar

10. Politics is not for the weak stomached.  In Shakespeare's play, which is clearly politically themed, there are plenty of examples of weakness and the consequences of those weaknesses. Cassius for example, takes advantage of Brutus' sense of honor which makes him easy prey for manipulation. Ultimately Brutus pays for that malleability, that weakness, with his life.

Admittedly, this lesson seems to not be lost on most people.  However, if you look at the friendly guy approach taken to the election by John McCain back in 2008, and the reining in of Sarah Palin from her grizzly mama persona combined with the margin of McCain's electoral defeat, it is not entirely attributable to the economic free-fall that happened late in the campaign.

Even McCain's response to the economic problem was weak-stomached. He could have distanced himself from Bush's spending, he could have viciously went after Obama's spread-the-wealth taxes and his socialist leaning views.  He could have gone aggressively after Obama's past associations.  His take on the economy as well as everything else was too gentlemanly for the political arena. He still may not have won if he had been more back-boned but by not doing so, not only was he defeated, he was trounced.

9.  It was actually Sun Tzu who advised people to keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.  But it is nowhere more evident than in the play Julius Caesar.  Caesar was killed by conspirators among whom, he numbered his friends, particularly Brutus.  He was unaware of whom he should be keeping close - friend or enemy - as he was taken with his own power, and his own legend as it were.  Sound familiar?

Could this idea be the reason that president Obama picked Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State?  To keep her from torpedoing his presidency so she could take a run at the Oval Office in 2012? Perhaps.  Clearly it was the reason Obama tried to enlist Republican Judd Gregg as Commerce Secretary.  It would have allowed him to more readily pin the blame for failed economic policies on Republicans, and allowed him to appear bi-partisan.  Such are the advantages of keeping your enemies closer.

The real lesson though comes from president Obama's actions since then.  He has distanced himself from his enemies - the Republicans - and his party paid a heavy price for it in 2010.  He's in serious danger of paying the same price himself this year.  The president has ignored Republicans, worked around Congress and done everything he can to stick to his own agenda, and ignored his own debt commission.  He kept nobody close except his inner circle.

8. Fate vs free will - even though Cassius dies in Shakespeare's play, he grows during the play, as a character from manipulator to friend.  At the beginning he talks about free will.

 Cassius refuses to accept Caesar’s rising power and deems a belief in fate to be nothing more than a form of passivity or cowardice. He says to Brutus: “Men at sometime were masters of their fates. / The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings” (I.ii.140–142). Cassius urges a return to a more noble, self-possessed attitude toward life, blaming his and Brutus’s submissive stance not on a predestined plan but on their failure to assert themselves.
This doesn't seem to have an obvious connection to politics but think about the Tea Party.  What president Nixon once referred to as the silent majority, has turned from silence in 1969 to the Tea Party in the Obama era.  Grumbling about bad political decisions doesn't do anything.  Instead, conservatives - the silent majority - have decided to take matters, fate - into their own hands.  They've decided to agitate, a la Saul Alinsky.  If they continue to exercise their free will, then they can change the fate of the nation.

7. Listen to your wife. That sounds politically incorrect. But it really is a form of an even simpler idea: get a second opinion.
Brutus’s wife; the daughter of a noble Roman who took sides against Caesar. Portia, accustomed to being Brutus’s confidante, is upset to find him so reluctant to speak his mind
Portia may have been wise enough to keep Brutus out of Cassius' intrigue and they both might have lived.  She may have offered other courses of action.  This all of course points to the fact that collectively we can come up with better ideas than we can singly.  That is not a point for progressivism, it is a point for the Invisible Hand. More opinions, more independent thinking create more potential solutions and increase the odds that the smartest course of action will ultimately win out.  50 states with their own potential health care solutions will increase the odds that a great solution will evolve rather than one single 200+ page mandated solution.
For our dear leader.

6.  Cult of personality is dangerous. From Mao to North Korea's Dear Leader to Obama 2008 personality can drive popularity.  Ultimately, that exaltation leads to dangerous powers.  Julius Caesar was a prime example of this.
After assuming control of government, Caesar began a program of social and governmental reforms, including the creation of the Julian calendar. He centralised the bureaucracy of the Republic and was eventually proclaimed "dictator in perpetuity". But the underlying political conflicts had not been resolved, and on the Ides of March (15 March) 44 BC, Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators led by Marcus Junius Brutus. A new series of civil wars broke out, and the constitutional government of the Republic was never restored. Caesar's adopted heir, later known as Augustus, rose to sole power, and the era of the Roman Empire began.
5.  An adjunct point is that a mob mentality is truly dangerous.  After all mobs are dangerous and they can give rise to a cult of personality.  Shakespeare knew this all to well.
...It is not that the plays are sentimental about the alternative to elections: they offer many variations on a spectacle epitomized by Julius Caesar, surrounded by cynical flatterers, caught up in his own cult of personality, and poised to destroy the tottering liberties of Rome. The republican conspirators who determine to rid themselves of this public menace adhere to a moral principle: “I was born free as Caesar,” Cassius tells Brutus; “so were you”...
President Obama benefited from a media driven cult of personality that America may finally be awakened from this year. The mob mentality that enabled it was another instance of people succumbing to that personality, and that momentum

4.  You gotta have a hook - it's usually money. When he is speaking in his soliloquy for the murdered Caesar, Marc Antony speaks to his audience, and he uses a hook.  He uses money and he practically gets the audience to beg him to read it to them.
Antony. Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it; It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you. You are not wood, you are not stones, but men; And, being men, bearing the will of Caesar, It will inflame you, it will make you mad: 'Tis good you know not that you are his heirs; For, if you should, O, what would come of it!

Fourth Citizen. Read the will; we'll hear it, Antony; You shall read us the will, Caesar's will.
He points to the fact that Caesar's will endows his money to the people of Rome as proof that Caesar was not ambitious  .By the time he reads them the will, the money is almost no longer necessary:
Here is the will, and under Caesar's seal. To every Roman citizen he gives, To every several man, seventy-five drachmas.
The political lesson - promises work.  Promises are hooks.  Fulfillment of those promises is secondary.  People want stuff - give them stuff and they will like you.  This unfortunate fact, typically favors the Democrats propensity to buy votes with promises over Republicans' calls for sanity and fiscal restraint.

In that spirit, president Obama has promised jobs. The president has promised that to solve the debt problems, there won't be any pain, unless you are one of what they consider to be the rich. Promises people may be skeptical about from the president can be offset by smarter promises from Romney.  After all, the president promised everything in 2008 and did not deliver.  He has a track record.  New promises therefore are easier than promises following failed promises of stopping the oceans from rising.

3.  Start from common ground, work towards your end.  When you are trying to make a political point start from the common ground with those whom you are trying to influence - not the other way around.  Marc Antony's speech starts from the premise that the crowd, which is against him, is right.  He leads them towards his point of view, he doesn't start at the finish line.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones; So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus Hath told you Caesar was ambitious: If it were so, it was a grievous fault, And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it. Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest-- For Brutus is an honourable man; So are they all, all honourable men-- Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral. He was my friend, faithful and just to me: But Brutus says he was ambitious; And Brutus is an honourable man.
The hyper-partisan atmosphere of today's America does not lend itself to this approach. People start entrenched in their argument, as well as in their listening. The attempts to convince people out of the gate is doomed to failure unless you can find common ground to start from. Know your audience and speak to them in terms to which they can relate.

2.  Appeal on an emotional level - emotion can defeat reason. Marc Antony played Romans on an emotional level with cunning skill and to tremendous effect.
But yesterday the word of Caesar might Have stood against the world; now lies he there. And none so poor to do him reverence. O masters, if I were disposed to stir Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage, I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong, Who, you all know, are honourable men: I will not do them wrong; I rather choose To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you,
Appeal on a gut level has a visceral effect.  Appealing to reason can have a cerebral effect, but it is not instantaneous.  The best approach to a political audience is to combine both levels of appeal.  That can be difficult to manage, so often people will revert to the more impactful of the two - emotion.  Anger, hope, empathy can be very powerful and the impact will be instantaneous if the appeal is made properly.

1.  Get in the last word.  After Brutus speaks to the public they accept that the assassination of Caesar was a necessary act. He turned those who would kill him to understanding of his cause.  Watch these speeches, they are powerful examples of political speech and exhibit not only this political lesson but several of the others above as well:


At least for a time. His intentions noble, and his speech a convincing explanation are drowned out by the last word uttered by his foe - Marc Antony's. Narc Antony turned the crowd right back.


This has obvious implication in politics. The party of the president get to have their convention after the convention of the challengers.  They get the last word in.  The same is true in debates, or talk show panels and any other form of debate or verbal interaction.  The last word has the last opportunity to change minds.  That is a critical opportunity that should be grasped as an advantage at every opportunity.  Control the message - if you have the microphone, don't share it with your adversary.

That's a lot of lessons. Clearly Shakespeare was not only a literary genius but a political one too.
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