The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy

  • By Anand Giridharadas
  • Knopf
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by William Rice
  • November 28, 2022

Can Americans agree on anything at this point?

The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy

As the opposing sides in America’s ideological battle dig in ever deeper, Anand Giridharadas offers an alternative to all-out war. What if — rather than denounce all perceived opponents in ever harsher and more creative terms — we tried to convince some of them to adopt our point of view? In The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy, he explores how this deceptively simple-sounding task is already being done and urges us all to do more of it.

To the relief of many readers — and the disappointment of perhaps only a few, including this one — the book does not advocate a search for truth on both sides of the political divide. Giridharadas is clear on which side is right, and it’s not the Right. Of course, to the extent conservatism has been submerged in a vat of unhinged conspiracy theories and nascent authoritarianism, the views of its adherents don’t merit serious consideration.

But not all questions about, say, large-scale immigration are necessarily racist or reactionary; some are based in practical, logistical concerns. Similarly, expressing confusion and curiosity about the impact of rapidly changing understandings of gender on longstanding social structures can represent healthy caution, not intolerance.

Yet the underlying premise of the book is that progressives are on the correct side of every public issue, and the task is to enlighten sufficient numbers of the unenlightened to bring about the liberal paradise. As a progressive myself, I routinely push that agenda both personally and professionally. But I think an important part of being truly liberal-minded is imagining the possibility that you could be wrong — or at least, not completely correct. Neither Giridharadas nor any of the many activists he interviewed for his book seem to entertain that idea.

Instead, ideological encounters are presented as contests to be won, however gracefully. Summarizing the teachings of a mentor of superstar Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Giridharadas writes, “You needed your vision of progress to prevail over theirs…Retreat itself [on their part] was not negotiable.” But you could, through various techniques, make surrender more palatable.

Despite this philosophical blind spot, the book is full of important insights. The main one is that progressives trying to get things done are fed up with ineffective, intolerant purists. Among the many exhausted complaints quoted: absolutists incorrectly concluding “that finding a group of people who think like you and being loud about your ideas is somehow building power.”

Anyone fascinated by Ocasio-Cortez will be gratified by the book’s comprehensive and nuanced profile of the young politician. The author praises her ability to blend Bernie Sanders’ accusatory style (what’s wrong with “them”) with Barack Obama’s inspiring uplift (what we can do for “us”).

A chapter dedicated to the progressive messaging guru Anat Shenker-Osorio offers up pithy criticism of the Left’s tendency to get bogged down in programmatic minutiae, advising: “Sell the brownie, not the recipe.” Also, Shenker-Osorio has determined that “moderates” are not really firm adherents of a central path but “persuadables” groping for a worldview. Therefore, the way to attract them is not with middle-of-the-road mush but with the same kind of passionate, extreme ideology that energizes the base.

A chapter on cults and conspiracies posits that the only human instinct stronger than a desire for a simplified world is the wish not to be conned. So, the way to break the spell of disinformation is not to counter it with correct information but to sow doubt about the sources of the lies.

Thankfully, there are bursts of humor in what is otherwise a deeply sincere text. The author reports that in the Democrats’ political autopsy after their shocking 2016 presidential loss, “a thousand PowerPoint decks were born.” Sympathizing with another of Shenker-Osorio’s criticisms, Giridharadas decries the left’s preoccupation with “problems. Oh, how her fellow progressives love problems. Couldn’t get enough of them. Problems were, after all, their reason for being.”

He even takes a gentle jab at journalism and himself: “‘I don’t think anyone who has written about me has accurately captured who I am as a person,’ [AOC] told me, encouragingly.”

As someone who has knocked on thousands of doors on behalf of Democratic politicians, I was particularly fascinated by the concluding chapter on “deep canvassing.” Ordinary political canvassers are trained not to spend any time with identified supporters of your candidate’s opponent and very little time with anyone in order to reach as many voters as possible. Deep canvassers — who travel door-to-door on behalf of progressive issues rather than people — are trained to do just the opposite: actively engage opponents and take as much time as necessary to reshape their opinions.

Appropriately, the book itself deploys the methods of deep canvassing. It begins by laying out the problem, then helps readers explore and identify their feeling on the issue by discussing it from multiple angles. Finally, it offers up a solution intended to be more agreeable because of all the preliminary spadework. In this way, it does the progressive movement a great service. I only wish the thinking had gone a little deeper to better serve the whole, divided country.

William Rice is a writer for political and policy advocacy organizations.

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