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

Review by Brian Tanguay

Calling people out for their lack of political awareness or insufficient wokeness isn’t the problem with the political left; the problem is not calling people in. Advocates for transformative social, economic, and environmental justice must answer this key question: how do we bring along those who are not there yet, as well as those who are actively complicit in the status quo? Or to put it another way: how do we make space for the waking among the woke? 

In 2018, Anand Giridharadas published Winners Take All, a pointed indictment of the super wealthy and the ways they deploy their money and influence to buy political favors, avoid taxes, and use philanthropy to paint themselves as the solution to the very problems they cause. In the wake of that book it’s a safe bet that Giridharadas won’t be invited to the annual meeting of the super wealthy at Davos any time soon. Winners Take All called out pseudo-change initiated by billionaires for the sham that it continues to be. 

But that book led Giridharadas to search for people seeking to make structural change in our unequal society by democratic means, through electoral politics. Activists, community organizers, politicians, and campaign strategists focused on ameliorating the harm caused by decades of bipartisan policies that prioritize wealth and power. Paradoxically, Giridharadas discovered that such people were not only battling the immense power of the super wealthy, but often found themselves isolated, wrestling with factionalism and pessimism within their own ranks. 

Readers won’t find any activists or campaign strategists from the center-right in The Persuaders (Knopf), because, as Giridharadas explained in an interview with Intelligence Squared, conservatives are not trying to bring about the structural change he’s interested in, namely racial justice, a humane economy, and planetary sustainability. Men are mostly absent as well because by and large the vanguard is made up of women like Loretta Ross, Linda Sarsour, Alicia Garza, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ross is a long time social activist, Sarsour was one of the key organizers of the 2017 Women’s March, Garza is a founder of Black Lives Matter, and Ocasio-Cortez serves in Congress. 

These women, along with a leading consultant on political messaging for the movement left, Anat Shenker-Osorio, firmly believe in the possibility of persuasion, even against the headwinds of our polarized era. Each in their own way works to reach, energize, and activate more people, including those who appear, on the surface at least, opposed or hostile; all understand that  enlarging the political circle is absolutely crucial. 

“The left became focused on litmus tests around ideology and labels,” Alicia Garza has written, “that were and are largely irrelevant for millions of people who are trying to decide where they are going to place their votes.” If the goal is to weed out all but the truest believers, labels, rigid ideology, and purity tests work well, but building the broadest coalition possible requires making common cause and compromising with imperfect allies. Garza went on to say that Progressives — the source of most of the fresh ideas for making our society more equitable, inclusive and sustainable — too often seek united fronts when they should focus on building popular fronts.

At bottom The Persuaders is about the power of language and the framing of arguments; it’s also about the limitations of facts when it comes to changing minds and expanding circles of support. Facts alone are not enough. Based purely on facts it’s unlikely Donald Trump would have received 74 million votes in the 2020 election. What does work, activists have found, is non-judgmental listening and patient questioning that reveals the emotions people feel around particular issues. If someone’s mind can’t be changed, this practice might at least make them less certain of what they know. 

I’ve not encountered anyone on the Progressive left with a more incisive take on why Democrats consistently come across as muddled and milquetoast than Shenker-Osorio. For decades Democrats have been obsessed with policy positions that appeal to moderates and the white working-class. The problem with such positions is that Democrats too often come across as bland defenders of the status quo. To be sure, claiming to support working people and the less fortunate while simultaneously courting and satisfying campaign donors from Wall Street, Big Oil, Pharma, Silicon Valley and Pentagon contractors creates contradictions and accounts for some of the Democrats’ linguistic timidity and maddening Clintonian-style triangulation. 

Shenker-Osorio believes the term moderate is itself misleading because many so-called moderates don’t possess a fixed centrist identity. Instead they display the tendency to exist in a “suspended state of mixed opinions.” A better term for moderate is persuadable, the ranks of which are in a constant state of flux, year-to-year and issue-to-issue. Shenker-Osorio offers a formula for reaching this segment of the population: to persuade the middle, animate the base. Before identifying problems and possible solutions, talk about shared values. 

Giridharadas devotes significant space to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who burst onto the political scene in 2018 after improbably unseating a deeply entrenched Democratic incumbent. Among nationally prominent Democrats, Ocasio-Cortez may be the one who most embodies the communications savvy that Anat Shenker-Osorio advocates: drop the wonkiness and don’t address voters as if they’re activists; paint a picture of a beautiful tomorrow; and above all, sell the brownie, not the recipe. Aside from being telegenic, articulate, and adept with social media, Ocasio-Cortez is smart, does her homework, and understands from personal experience what it means to make ends meet as a wage earner, marking her as a rarity in a Congress replete with well-heeled people. 

“The tendency to write off,” Giridharadas writes, “is rooted in the assumption that differences of identity are unbridgeable, that people are too invested in their privileges and interests to change.” The persuaders profiled are working to prove that this assumption is untrue, and that people can change their minds — if approached with genuine openness, provided space to tell their personal stories, and allowed to make mistakes.