Can Americans still change each other’s minds?

“The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy” By Anand Giridharadas. Knopf. 335 pp. $30

“The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy,” by Anand Giridharadas. MUST CREDIT: Knopf

On Nov. 8, as polls began to close, I walked around a post-election celebration in Philadelphia with progressive activists and labor organizers, clutching a cocktail and chattering with friends, a well-excavated pit of dread in my gut beginning to deepen. Would the iron law of midterm elections wipe out Democrats from top to bottom – in Congress, governors’ mansions, courts and statehouses – elevating more climate-change deniers and election conspiracists to power? Or would the desire to protect abortion rights and voting rights overcome the statistical likelihood of ruling-party collapse?

In electoral terms, the extraordinary happened. Democrats largely held serve and in some cases made surprising gains. But that news disguised an intractable political situation: a slim Republican majority in the House; a slim Democratic majority in the Senate. Democratic power continued to be isolated in cities and suburbs, while Republicans maintained rural and exurban redoubts. We had experienced two decades of world historic catastrophes and social uprisings: the attacks on 9/11 and the launch of a global war on terrorism; the shocking and bigoted presidency of Donald Trump; the rebellions following the murder of George Floyd; a pandemic that claimed 1 million American lives. Despite it all, trends toward political polarization deepened, with no faction or party taking a durable advantage.

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Political scientists have documented the causes and effects of this congealed politics. Deindustrialization and the decline of the labor movement have produced an electorate divided along educational and geographic lines. Public goods, such as mass transit, serve increasingly narrow ideological constituencies, eroding their overall basis of support. Climate change will devastate urban and rural areas alike, but most organizers and politicians willing to take action to fight it are in cities. All of this makes it harder for people to speak to each other – let alone move each other – across political boundaries, the sine qua non of any democracy. Despite the gravity of the country’s overlapping crises, people who live in different areas live in wholly different worlds of reference. They watch different channels, speak different political languages and even seem to observe different realities.

Anand Giridharadas’s new book, “The Persuaders,” is an examination of organizers seeking to overcome this stasis. Structured as profiles of exemplary figures, the book presents these persuaders in turn as they discuss political and social boundaries that seem immutable and present ways to overcome them. An organizer of color grapples with the overwhelming Whiteness of the Women’s March; a founder of Black Lives Matter expounds lessons on “expanding the circle.” We watch an influential political consultant as she rails, entertainingly, against Democratic Party messaging that attacked Black Lives Matter protesters when elected officials should have been bringing the energy and meaning of those protests into the fold. We follow Sen. Bernie Sanders’s second run for president as he struggles with incorporating personal stories into his campaign. (Notably, none of Giridharadas’s persuaders is from the labor movement.)

Unlike the pungent writing of his last book, “Winners Take All,” which sought to bring down the carapace of the seemingly liberal worlds of philanthropy and Silicon Valley that actually insulate our plutocratic order and leave it more secure, “The Persuaders” exhibits a more searching, even sentimental, tone.

The opening section describes the efforts of Russian troll farms to exploit division via social media, with pseudo-right or -left accounts imitating the vocabulary of real ones. “Their talent was not inventiveness but rather the faithfulness of their mimicry,” Giridharadas writes. “For in America in recent years, this fatalism has been on the rise and the hope of persuasion in free fall.”

In the book, this lament alternates with hope stemming from figures who find the words and the moments to overcome this fatalism. Indeed, Giridharadas is so taken with his subjects that he is content to let them speak at length; a substantial proportion of the text is quoted material from his interviews. Perhaps as a result, much of the division he sees in our country seems to exist on the terrain of language. Stark difference comes down to word choice, narrative and messaging. Winning requires getting better at all of them.

Giridharadas is a journalist with some media celebrity, who has used the platforms given to him to criticize those platforms’ owners. In “Winners Take All,” he targeted the schemes by which wealthy elites seem to effect change but in reality perpetuate inequality, among them the rise of a class of “thought leaders” who give anodyne TED Talks that skirt the prospect of systemic change. Giridharadas himself has given two popular TED Talks, and his publisher, Penguin Random House, advertises him as a “thought leader” who is skilled as a moderator and public speaker. At the Aspen Institute in 2015, he chided his well-heeled hosts as purveyors of an “Aspen Consensus,” which holds that “capitalism’s rough edges must be sanded and its surplus fruit shared, but the underlying system must never be questioned.” In “Winners Take All,” Giridharadas confessed: “I earn a chunk of my income giving speeches,” and “I was attending conferences claiming to ‘change the world’ long before I came to see them as a charade. I have tried to navigate my life honestly and ethically, but I cannot separate myself from what I criticize.”

“The Persuaders” grapples with a form of this paradox. While some of the book deals with extreme cases of persuasion of opposites – winning over anti-vaccine skeptics and people captured by QAnon – it is at its core about political conflict with potential friends. Most of the fights it documents are internecine: among and between members of the left, broadly speaking. The political consultant Anat Shenker-Osorio, whose techniques receive a good deal of attention from Giridharadas, calls it “animating the base to persuade the middle”: in other words, ensuring that a core group gets bought in and then works to win over those on the fence. If the book has an argument, it is that to build the society we want, organizers and activists on the left need to develop the language to bring in more people. This may often feel uncomfortable or arduous, but it is essential to find the personal and political humility to do so; otherwise, their cause will remain a minoritarian and doomed project.

The heart of the book – constituting fully a fifth of its contents – is about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the most profoundly talented political communicator of our time. Giridharadas rightly marvels at the sheer range of tactics that the New York Democrat exhibits: calling out political enemies one day and “calling-in” potential allies the next; staging an occupation of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office one day, working with Pelosi on legislation to change funding for border enforcement the next.

Far from being a mere thorn in the side of power, someone who calculatedly and repeatedly infuriates, Ocasio-Cortez comes across as a nimble political operator who educates social movements as much as she draws on them; who plays the game when the right move isn’t to upend it. “All of this reflected,” Giridharadas writes, “an acute and unusually adept understanding of attention in the new era and how it could be marshaled for persuasion.”

Giridharadas’s focus on moments of persuasion sometimes has the effect of obscuring the larger structure that figures like Ocasio-Cortez are intent on changing. Regarding her introduction of the resolution to establish a Green New Deal, he quotes approvingly from an interview she gave to NPR: “If I had to decide, would I rather have the resolution passed or would I have rather preferred we start a national conversation about the urgency of the climate crisis, I would have chosen the latter every single time.” Giridharadas describes this startling admission as a “vision of persuasion oriented toward the long game, at peace with not even being around when your triumph finally comes, and grounded in the notion that whoever sets the terms and boundaries of what people are talking about will carry the era.”

In 2020, Ocasio-Cortez used the power she had accrued from organizing around the Green New Deal to cement a “unity platform” that brought much of the left’s priorities on climate action into then-candidate Joe Biden’s campaign – a triumph that Giridharadas lingers on. But his book was probably completed before the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s landmark climate bill, where it is difficult to find even a compromised version of this effort. Heavily reliant on the tax credit as a policy tool, the legislation offers minimal spending on everyday infrastructure like housing, and limited gestures at environmental justice, while mandating offshore oil and gas leases in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico for the next 10 years.

What does it mean when the left exerts cultural power that does not translate into political accomplishments? In the realm of ideas and language, the left is arguably more powerful than it has been for several decades. The “Overton window,” which measures the range of political ideas acceptable in the mainstream, has been opened wider than was ever thought possible. In recent years, the liberal polling and research firm Data for Progress has found that progressive policies, such as the Green New Deal and the PRO Act, which would make forming a union easier across industries, are popular with a majority of voters. But they are far from being realized.

“There is something dangerous about being large enough to be a political presence in parts of the country – and a subculture for thousands of activists – but far too disorganized and powerless to carry out your political program,” Bhaskar Sunkara recently wrote in the socialist magazine Jacobin. He was writing about socialism in particular, but the risk applies to the left more generally: that fighting on the field of language becomes the goal, and cultural power is mistaken for political power. “The Persuaders,” for all its acuity on the barriers that individuals face in winning over other individuals, and for all the fascinating messaging tactics it offers, is a part of, and speaks mostly to, this subculture. It presents those barriers outside of the structures that produce them, and without hazarding the organizational requirements to win a majority for the program its subjects support.

The United States may have largely staved off a revanchist takeover of statehouses and Congress. But another election is less than two years away. Our national chapter of the global right, and the climate emergency, remain existential social threats. For the moment, the left has many of the policy tools needed to fight them. What it needs is numbers – and will. At the end of “The Persuaders,” Giridharadas finds himself among political activists: immigration rights advocates from LUCHA, a progressive organization in Arizona; members of People’s Action, the national progressive network, organizing a rural listening canvass. People going door to door, organizing house by house, calling in not just potential allies but total strangers: This begins to resemble the massive organized effort that the left will need to win.

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Nikil Saval represents the 1st District in the Pennsylvania Senate. A former co-editor of the literary journal n+1, he is the author of “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.”


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