CORIOLANUS: Well, then, I pray, your price o' the consulship?
FIRST CITIZEN: The price is to ask it kindly.
-William Shakespeare, Coriolanus
Yesterday I rented Ralph Fiennes's film version of Coriolanus from the library. The same day, I read Jane Mayer's report, "Schmooze or Lose," in the current New Yorker. The Shakespeare play tells of an old Roman soldier at odds with democracy, resentful of the necessity of flattering the undeserving in order to get their votes in a consular election. He resents the flattery more than the democracy, though the two concepts may be inseparable in his mind and a contempt for civilians, if not for common people as a whole, is constant with him. Throughout the history of Western civilization, part of the case against democracy has been its supposed dependence upon such flattery of the rabble. The demagogue, product of democracy's decadence who sometimes became a tyrant, was one who didn't scruple, having no principles, at flattering the mob. He did it eagerly to get power for himself. Consistently, it is the mob, the masses, the poor, the presumably ignorant and ill-informed, who are presumed to want flattery. That craving inspires disgust in Coriolanus. "He that will give good words to thee will flatter/beneath abhorring," he tells a crowd protesting grain shortages. At his most benign, he is almost apologetic about having to curry favor with such people. "No sir, 'twas never my own desire yet to trouble the poor with begging," he says during a campaign appearance in the Roman Forum. There's the shame of it for him: campaigning is flattery and begging at the same time. You have to flatter those people because you need their votes. Why that requires flattery, or seems to, raises more questions about the Roman Republic than its historians or future dramatists cared to ask or answer.
"Schmooze or Lose" is a warning signal that President Obama may lose the fundraising race with Mitt Romney because he has gradually alienated many of his past donors, not because of his policies in office, but because of his attitude toward the donors. Mayer quotes an anonymous attendee at an Obama fundraiser at the Four Seasons Hotel, where the rate was $30,000 a plate.
“Obama is very meticulous—they have clockwork timing,” one of the attendees says. “After a few minutes at each table, a staffer would come and tap him on the shoulder, and he’d get up. But when people pay thirty thousand they want to talk to you, and take a picture with you. He was trying to be fair, and that’s great, but every time he started to have a real conversation he got tapped.”