Cato the Elder was a Roman Statesman during the Punic wars. (“Punic” means “Carthaginian” for reasons explained here.)  Cato would end all his speeches with the phrase “Carthago delenda est”, or some variant of it, which means “Carthage must be destroyed!”  Even if his speech was otherwise unrelated to Carthage, he would still say that by way of closing.

A few months ago, someone pointed out to me that this phrase was “the first hashtag”. I realized she was exactly right, and quickly took to Twitter to tell everyone I knew there who would get it.

It’s a great point.  This is exactly the right use of a rhetorical device.  I hate to say it, but one of Donald Trump’s most successful Twitter tactics is his use of the hashtag #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.  Of course, he stole that slogan from Reagan, so he can’t get full credit. But Reagan didn’t repeat it the way Trump does, and repetition is one of the oldest and most successful rhetorical tactics. The fact that Trump has access to Twitter just means his audience is that much bigger.

Imagine how Cato the Elder would have use Twitter if he’d had it: everything would have the hashtag #CarthagoDelendaEst. It would look good, it’s simple, and it communicates his point clearly and concisely. Social media makes it possible to broadcast political slogans to millions of people, but the logic behind them is the same as it ever was.

It just goes to show you that when it comes to political rhetoric, some things never change.

UPDATE: In the comments, Invisible Mikey points out that there is an even earlier “first hashtag”:”Know thyself“, said by Thales of Miletus

Republicans, such as Karl Rove, have been insinuating that Hillary Clinton is “too old” to run for President in 2016.  The Democrats make the obvious reply, which is that Ronald Reagan was even older than Hillary will be in 2016 when he was elected, and the Republicans think he was one of the greatest Presidents ever.  Some would say Clinton faces an unfair double-standard in this matter, because she is a woman, and thus people count her age against her more strongly than they did against Reagan.

Maybe that’s true. But that’s not the double-standard she should be concerned about. That would be the double-standard I always write about on here: the charisma double-standard.

American politics is biased in favor of “style over substance”, and so the most charismatic candidate almost always wins the Presidential election. Ronald Reagan was charismatic; Hillary Clinton is not.

This was proven, quite conclusively, by a Senator named Barack Obama in 2008.  Bear in mind that I say this as someone who supported Obama over Clinton, but Clinton’s resume was far better than Obama’s for the job of President. Yet he won, because he was a more likeable individual.

Hillary Clinton is–Obama’s claims to the contrary–not likeable enough. Mitt Romney had the same problem.  So did John Kerry.  Pretty much every Presidential election since since 1980 has come down to the question of who is more likeable, which, since most voters never get to meet the candidates in person, is in turn determined by charisma.

Now, you may say, this seems unfair to Hillary Clinton.  Yeah, it is.  It’s kind of silly to pick a President based on something so nebulous. But what else can we do? You can dedicate your life to studying politics and still get everything wrong.  So, the average person doesn’t have time to meticulously examine every facet of politicians.  They just vote based on who “seems better”. Hillary Clinton never had charisma.  Her husband did, which is probably why they have made such a successful team–she has the brains, he has the personality.

So, does this mean she can’t win the Presidency?  Not necessarily. The Republicans seemingly have no charismatic candidates lined up.  The only charismatic Republican I can think of is too undisciplined and arrogant to organize an intelligent campaign.  The reason they are always going on about Reagan is because even after all these years, they have never found anybody half as charismatic as him to sell their contradictory policies.

But all the same, if they do manage to scare up somebody half-way likeable, the former Senator and Secretary of State will have a hard time winning.  Especially since history suggests people will be reluctant to elect another person from the same party that has controlled the White House for the previous eight years.

On one of the C-Spans the other night, they were showing Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech “A Time For Choosing”, which he gave in support of Barry Goldwater. You can see that speech on YouTube here.

It is pretty much the standard Republican fare  in terms of content, but Reagan was clearly a far more charismatic and persuasive speaker than the Republicans of today.  I hate his line about the hungry being on a diet–it’s that sort of thing that got the Republicans branded as greedy and heartless.  I don’t know how the Goldwater campaign reacted to this, but I’m assuming their position on poverty was not “it’s all in your imagination”.

But what is really interesting to me about it isn’t so much the content of the speech, but the style.  I don’t think people would stand for one long speech, and moreover one filled with a lot of references to statistics and numbers.  I don’t know how accurate the numbers he gives are, but it seems to me this speech contains a lot more precise statistics than a modern speech.

To be fair, I think Reagan was a major beneficiary of the style over substance approach to politics, and probably this speech was shallow by the standards of the time. But my hypothesis is that a shallow 1964 political speech has more substance than an in-depth 2014 political speech.

I remember in 2008, then-Senator Obama’s campaign did a 30 minute “infomercial” on the networks a week or so before the election.  It was well-made, but more like a documentary, with stock footage and interviews and such.  I think the PR people for Obama’s campaign wouldn’t have  dared to spend the whole  half-hour on one guy giving a talk–that’s dull television.

To be absolutely clear, so nobody misunderstands, I’m not saying Obama had less substance than Reagan did–I’m saying I suspect the audiences of 2008 have much shorter attention spans than the audiences of 1964. But even that may be false, I guess–after all, Goldwater lost, although probably that had more to do with his loose-cannon attitude than anything else.

The other day a friend of mine and I were discussing Ronald Reagan’s famous line “There you go again” to Jimmy Carter in their 1980 debate.  Specifically, that neither of us knew what the context of the famous line was.  So, naturally, we had to find out:

The topic at hand was health insurance, which goes to show you how long the nation has been dealing with that issue. But listen to the rest of Reagan’s response. Reagan says that he supported some other piece of legislation instead of Medicare.  I wondered what might have been, and trying to find out, all I came across was this from Wikipedia:

When [Reagan’s opposition to Medicare] arose in a televised debate in late October, Reagan responded: “When I opposed Medicare, there was another piece of legislation meeting the same problem before Congress. I happened to favor the other piece of legislation and thought it would be better for the senior citizens. … I was not opposing the principle of providing care for them…” Carter’s campaign accused Reagan of “rewriting history”, saying that there was no such alternative legislation

This sort of thing irritates me.  It is a simple “yes” or “no” question: was there, or was there not, an alternative piece of legislation?  It’s not a matter of “Reagan said” vs. “Carter said”.  I would have thought that people could manage to properly fact-check a debate after 33 years.

Longtime readers know that I reject the typical left-right political spectrum in favor of a trichotomy of political philosophies called “cosmopolitanism”, “nationalism”, and “materialism”.

At present in the United States, we have a choice between a cosmopolitan, Obama, and a materialist, Romney.  The curious part is that Romney must try to persuade the nationalists that he is one of them, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.  He has not done a very good job of it so far, although he is bound to get some of the nationalist vote simply for not being a cosmopolitan.

You may ask: “why isn’t there a nationalist candidate?”  Well, there was. Rick Santorum was his name, but he failed to get the Republican nomination.  So now, in another renewal of the delicate alliance that is the Republican party, Romney has to try to get the people who didn’t want him and wanted Santorum to vote for him.

Romney has been fairly socially liberal himself in the past, and he now has to try to assure nationalists that this won’t happen again, whether by blaming circumstance, claiming his hand was forced, or saying he’s changed his mind and/or heart on social issues like gay marriage, abortion, contraception and gun control.  Some politicians might be able to get away with this sort of thing.  Not Romney, though, because he is not charismatic and hence people do not innately trust him.

Candidates like Reagan, and to a lesser extent, George W. Bush had the ability to use their charm to cover for the contradictions in nationalist and materialist philosophies,  and thus hold the voting coalition together through their personal popularity.  Paul Graham wrote in his influential essay on charisma in Presidential elections:

The charisma theory may also explain why Democrats tend to lose presidential elections. The core of the Democrats’ ideology seems to be a belief in government. Perhaps this tends to attract people who are earnest, but dull…

A different flavor of the same idea: The post-1970s Republicans need to have the more charismatic candidate to win, because otherwise the differences in the Republican coalition become apparent and the party fractures.  (The Graham essay is what first interested me in this topic, and I consider it required reading for those curious about this subject.)

This is why likeability is everything for Romney, and history suggests that it is something which cannot be learned; so if he does not have it now, he never will.  For that reason, there is very little reason to think Romney will win in November.

James Madison probably couldn’t win the Presidency today. He was only 5 ft 4. (Image via Wikipedia)

Liberal friends of mine sometimes wonder how I can be so optimistic about Obama’s chances in the election, and yet be so cynical about politics in general.  They wondered the same thing in 2008.

Basically, I support Obama, but I think he wins for the wrong reasons.  It’s not his fault, though.  I don’t think he can do anything about it, even if he wanted to.  It’s mostly due to the charisma thing that I talk about so much, rather than his actual policies, that Obama enjoys so much success.  There are always polls coming out showing more people just “like” Obama as a person than support all his policies.

It’s not just charisma–though-mostly–but all kinds of superficial factors.  Imagine if Obama had all the same policies, and said all the same stuff, but instead were a short, bald, pot-bellied, bespectacled man with a high-pitched, nasal voice.  I doubt he would have been elected Senator.  People don’t want to support a guy like that, even if he is totally right about things.  This is especially true since the advent of television.

Presidential elections aren’t really determined by policy, or ideology, or anything like that.  They are determined by who has the more “likeable” candidate.  The Democrats happen to have him at the moment, but the Republicans have had him in the past.

On paper, actually, Mitt Romney is a pretty good candidate for meeting the superficial requirements.  He’s good-looking for a man his age–“distinguished” I think is the term–and he looks fairly tall.  Decent speaking voice.  His only flaw, from a superficial standpoint, is his total inability to interact normally with people.  Perhaps he needs a holographic avatar to make it easier.

So, I’m quite cynical about politics, but I’m fortunate in that right now the political system seems to favor the candidate who supports the same policies I do.  In the long run, however, I think this is not the ideal way to pick a President.

Here we observe one of the dangers of academic tenure…

The short version, if you don’t have time to watch the video, is like this: evidently having nothing better to do, Roberto Unger, a former professor of President Obama’s, has concluded that same President Obama must be defeated. This defeat will, so he says, “allow the voice of democratic prophecy to speak once again in American life.”

Obviously, the good professor knows this will not happen under President Romney.  But the defeat of Obama is necessary to allow for true progressivism to return, he believes.

Let us look at history, shall we?  From 1968 until 1992, the Republicans won every Presidential election but one.  The Democrats finally got Clinton in ’92, but this was largely through the “New Democrat” strategy of adopting many laissez-faire Republican economic policies.  In other words, the Democrats accomplished their victory only by becoming much more like the Republicans on economic issues.  Not exactly what Prof. Unger is looking for.

Cast back a bit further, and we find the shoe on the other foot: From 1932 until 1952, the Republicans did not win a Presidential election. When they finally did win, it was with Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero and a man so friendly to the New Deal that Republican extremists suspected him of communism.  Clearly, the Republicans had to capitulate a good deal to the Democrats on economic policy.

In recent times, there are two instances where a party lost an election and four years later returned with a more extreme candidate: 1964 and 1980.  Goldwater was more extreme than Nixon, and he was crushed.  Reagan was more extreme than Ford, and he won handily.  So, it’s kind of a mixed bag.  (Not, of course, if you factor in charisma; then it is all quite explicable.)

The record is pretty clear: parties rarely favor their more radical economic policies in the wake of sound defeats.  They do just the opposite, trying to emulate and subsume elements of the winning party’s policies.  This is especially true for Democrats.  I therefore judge Prof. Unger’s plan a bad one.

(Video via Huffington Post.  Also check out this post about Prof. Unger at The Reaction.)

Via Chris Bodenner of The Dish, an article about the wisdom of Richard Nixon. This quote from him is amazing:

“I think of what happened to Greece and Rome, and you see what is left — only the pillars… What has happened, of course, is that the great civilizations of the past, as they have become wealthy, as they have lost their will to live, to improve, they then have become subject to decadence that eventually destroys the civilization. The U.S. is now reaching that period.” 

How interesting. Especially curious to me is that Nixon said that in 1971, and almost exactly nine years later, Ronald Reagan, in his acceptance speech, said:

“The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal and moral responsibility of Democratic Party leadership –in the White House and in Congress — for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us. They tell us they have done the most that humanly could be done. They say that the United States has had its day in the sun; that our nation has passed its zenith. They expect you to tell your children that the American people no longer have the will to cope with their problems; that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities.

My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view.” 

Kind of a major shift, no?

Mike Huckabee will not be running for President. Instead, he is apparently going to devote some of his time to selling videos such as this to educate children about American history:

All I can say is that, when I was a lad, it would have been my natural instinct to rebel against any message conveyed in such an obvious fashion as that. Certainly, every children’s program I watched that had a message made me viscerally want to contradict it. (Most of the messages, incidentally, were what the Conservatives would likely call Politically Correct, Liberal messages.)

In general, I suspect kids aren’t quite as malleable as people think, and more than ready to resist ham-fisted techniques, regardless of the message. I suspect that such efforts as the one you see above will be counterproductive.

But, as the title suggests, these seem like such poor efforts that I almost wonder if it’s a joke…

I am becoming increasingly inclined to think that Rick Perlstein is a genius. His books are both very excellent, and I have just got through reading his fascinating article on the lies the Republicans tell. Like all he does, it’s a sprawling piece, covering many people and incidents, but what interested me most was his contrasting the supposedly very honest-but-gloomy Jimmy Carter with the lying optimist, Ronald Reagan. Perlstein writes: “The Gipper’s inauguration ushered in the ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ era of political lying.”

Now, yes; Reagan is associated very much with optimism. (The word “sunny” often immediately precedes or follows the popular press references to him.)  Still, this isn’t all the Republicans are about. Paul Ryan’s whole budget plan is predicated on the idea of him being a man willing to tell the “tough truths” we need, but don’t want, to hear. (To hear the veracity of this claim questioned, see this, or anything Paul Krugman has ever written about Paul Ryan.)

So, the point clearly isn’t that Republicans sugarcoat everything; sometimes they say optimistic things and other times they say pessimistic things. The reason for all this, I think, goes back to the American exceptionalism thing; the Republicans don’t believe much stuff about America being flawed; they want to talk about the flaws introduced by those who are in some way “alien” to America.

The issue Perlstein explicitly raises is the matter of Climate Change–why are Republicans saying the science demonstrating it is false? One answer I can see is that they are all beholden to oil corporations. Another is that, as Perlstein says, they don’t want to hear they can’t use all the damn resources they please, if that is their wish. They feel, as the Governor of Louisiana said, that “Americans can do anything”.

You might say that the Republican version of events is optimistic and blithe. “We can use all the resources we want, at whatever rate we like, as intended by God.” is their view–correct me if I’m wrong. On the other hand, the fact that people complain of climate change requires, in the Republican version of things, a conspiracy of international Socialists and Dictators who control the Universities, the Democratic party, and many media outlets. This is not optimism.

Incidentally, I’ve written about this issue before, and I’ve always wondered: how many of the Republicans think of themselves as “lying for a cause”, and how many think it’s all completely true?