On the bookshelf
‘The Persuaders: On the front lines of the fight for hearts, minds and democracy’
By Anand Giridharadas
Knopf: 352 pages, $30
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In 2020, bestselling author Anand Giridharadas felt fatalistic about America’s future. His previous book, “Winners Take All,” examined how global elites retain wealth and power at the expense of progress or fairness. Now he was noticing that people with whom he agreed on common political goals gave up trying to convince others of those ideas — let alone the basic realities of things like vaccines and electoral integrity. “It became, ‘Don’t bother,'” he recalls.
Giridharadas understood the impulse, but felt that giving in meant “essentially declaring the game over. If it is impossible to change mentalities, it is the end of democracy.
So he started spending time with people who still believed change was possible and committed to making it happen. The result is “The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy,” a book he calls “a tonic of hope.”
The author spoke to a wide range of activists and politicians, including Linda Sarsour, who helped promote more diverse viewpoints during the 2017 Women’s March; Diane Benscoter, who helps deprogram people who have been in cults; Anat Shenker-Osorio, a consultant who uses research to help clients understand how to motivate voters; and a former bartender named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He asked how they hoped to nudge, coax and drag America into a better future.
Sometimes, as in the case of Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, they begin to persuade people simply by pushing their ideas — like student loan debt forgiveness — into the public conversation. Others, like Cesar Torres, an undocumented immigrant who engages in “deep canvassing,” carry on long conversations to engage voters one-on-one on issues where they might be open to a second look at a idea.
“They took the book in this direction of being a more useful and practical book,” Giridharadas recently said in a video interview from his home in Brooklyn. “It is the book of this moment, when the country is potentially tipping towards fascism Where towards a true multiracial democracy, it has never been in the past.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Obviously, it takes a ton of hands-on work to move the needle on social, racial, and political topics. With a large percentage of Americans who don’t even believe the facts, can changes be made in time to save the country?
I’m as desperate as anyone from where we are, but politics isn’t meant to be easy or without conflict. We are historically a predominantly white, predominantly Christian, male-dominated society. But in our lifetime it has radically evolved in the direction of being a completely different place. So we’re in this turmoil for a reason, not just because we’re a nation of failures.
We had a genre revolution – which is good, but it’s complicated and a lot to manage. The technological revolution is crazy – no activity from the 1960s is the same today, especially with social media. And the demographic change has led us to become a color superpower in the near future. So of course our society might have problems and flare-ups and people who don’t appreciate change.
We need to talk to people about what’s going on – and I’m not just talking about white men who voted for Trump. Many people are confused. It’s slow, grueling work that requires being on the ground and engaged in the community. But not only do I think it works, I think it’s the only way to go.
In the book, Ocasio-Cortez makes a distinction between bipartisanship, which she sees as selling, and finding common ground with others. How do you explain that?
The standard Democratic playbook is often about reaching out at the expense of defending anything. You say “save the planet” and then try to persuade people by going in the middle, tempering real ambition, looking less and settling for a few tax credits. Then, on the side of activists, people sometimes defend their moral commitment without worrying about awareness.
But some of the cleverest persuasives in this book, including AOC, combine loyalty to your truth with moral commitment. and give a hand. These people say, “How do we frame these truths so that they are appealing to more people?”
Instead of saying Medicare for All — naming the concept after a government program — use the language of freedom. My idea is that it should be called FreedomCare. That’s what the right would do. It would really make people freer. But I’ve never seen Democrats talk about it using that language of freedom and independence — from your boss, from the bureaucrats.
The book is less about the conversion of MAGA die-hards and more about small changes among those who are open to change on a specific topic.
In our system, a 5% swing is the difference between two completely different lifestyles. Nobody talks about how you win back all the people who voted for Trump, but if a few million change, it’s a really different country. Is it possible? Yes, because it happened. Enough people saw Trump as president and didn’t like it. They changed their minds.
There are enough people who vote for things that look like madness but are in play. People can have 40% good in their hearts on an issue, with the awful part at 60%. Very few people are 100 to zero on anything.
But these true believers are storming the Capitol and persuading Republicans to take unbalanced positions. You argue that the return of politics to reality-based arguments involves the deprogramming of cults on a large scale.
It’s one thing to say I want low taxes and corporations should be left alone. We can haggle over that. But at least 40 million Americans are better understood to live in a cult, which is a sobering reality. We should try to crack down on misinformation and regulate media platforms, but this stuff is here to stay, so it’s a public health concern.
What we need to do is find ways to reach people. The spirit with which we approach them – heavily reliant on shame and making people feel stupid – is utterly wrong. We have to recognize that people want the world to make easy sense. And people don’t want to be anybody’s fool or pawn. So we have to say with love, “I fear that you are being misled by people who are using you for their own purposes and profiting from it. »
The heart of this response is to build the part of people in people that doesn’t want to be fooled, to compete in them with the part that wants the world to make sense of it. It’s a challenge, but it’s hard to find a more pressing one.