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

by Anand Giridharadas

Ebook, 2022


Vintage (2022), 338 pages


"An insider account of activists, politicians, educators, and everyday citizens working to change minds, bridge divisions, and save democracy"--

User reviews

LibraryThing member willszal
I was hesitant to pick up this book. Although I enjoyed aspects of "Winners Take All," Giridharadas is part of the global elite he is hoping to reform, so I was hesitant it felt like he was a less-than-ideal messenger to be covering this subject area. I read the book review in "The American
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Prospect," than had a personal recommendaiton from a friend who is an investigative journalist, who mentioned the ways the book covers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's story, which was enough to push me over the edge to get a copy.

It is a real page turner. I finished it in a few days. Giridharadas keeps the pace up, moving from the Internet Research Agency (a Russian propaganda house), to Black Lives Matter, to Bernie, to AOC, to the Unification Church, to deep canvassing.

It is a book about how people can change their minds, and how it is worth putting relationship with our fellow neighbors and citizens first to support that change. Unfortunately, it seems like the publishers wanted to avoid it benefitting mid-term results, by publishing the book too close to midterms to make a difference.

Again and again as I read the book, I kept thinking of my mentor, Carol Sanford. Giridharadas does an excellent job describing what Sanford means by the term "regeneration," without mentioning the term once himself. Trusting in the ability of your peers to change their minds? That's regeneration at work. Supporting people to reflect on their own learning journeys? Regeneration. Finding the nodal places for working on systems change? Regeneration. (In case your interested in learning more, Sanford has published six books.)

Although the book is supposedly about democracy, the practices and outlook that Giridharadas describes are relevant in pretty much any field.
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LibraryThing member BraveKelso
Anand Giridharadas, as a journalist and writer, has mainly written about politics and social issues. His approach is to gathers stories about a subject and tie the stories together. The Persuaders is about people working for causes - usually liberal causes - who are trying to overcome the
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disadvantages of liberal causes - the resistance of people to being changed, educated, or influenced by the persuasive methods used by communicators campaigning to political candidates, issues, and causes. The book has a story about how Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez achieved success in the 2018 Democratic congessional primary, and in Congress. It also discusses the need to listen to the people an influencer seeks to change, identifying areas of agreement, and the importance of acting like an organizer building a coalition rather than an activist trying to win an argument. Giridharadas discusses the time-consuming work of "deep" canvassing and the creative use of social media by skilled users.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
Based on interviews with activists, mostly women, including AOC, about what allows them to keep engaging with (at least some) people who don’t agree with them or who they don’t think of as their core constiuencies. It’s really good and there’s a ton in it. Activists like Loretta Ross, who
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began by trying to protect women from rape, recognize that it’s not their obligation to help men not rape, but they do it anyway. Ross talked about how to tolerate people who agree with you on most things, on 75% of things, or even 25% of things. “The movement is not therapy,” she told me. “It is not going to be your healing space.” Anti-violence movements can’t create safe spaces, only “spaces to be brave together.” Emotional labor and unearned grace was required, but not everyone is required to do it. “If you’re still raw with your own emotional healing, then you’re not going to be in any space to help somebody else do theirs. That’s why the whole concept of emotional labor has to be voluntary, because you’ll actually make things worse if you do it involuntarily.”

Another expert distinguished between united fronts and popular fronts, “alliances that come together across a range of political beliefs, for the purpose of achieving a short- to intermediate-term goal.” She argued that we should change our language for comprehension, not for comfort. So you don’t have to say “white supremacy” to someone who’s just learning about social justice, but you shouldn’t avoid the term to make white people feel better.

Some progressive tactics can be counterproductive—one chapter uses the example of a proposed Biden ad highlighting the violence and chaos Trump generated; it actually increased persuadable voters’ affinity for Trump because it was communicating that the world was a violent and dangerous place. The Frank Luntz of the left, Anat Shenker-Osorio, emphasizes having the conversation “you want to be having, not the conversation your opponent prefers.” While the left often runs from its base, you need a base “to champion your visions, loudly and often, to woo the undecided.” Mobilization and persuasion are linked, not opposed. If you’re not preaching to the choir, the choir won’t go out preaching the sermon to others: what she calls “engaging the base to persuade the middle.”

Shenker-Osorio has a particular view of moderates: they aren’t in the middle; they’re “confused, torn, not sure which pole is their pole. Which is different from saying they prefer the mean between the two poles…. I offer you a choice between a pizza and a burger, and you can’t pick … it doesn’t follow that you want a pizzaburger.” Instead, we should see “moderate” as temporary: “a situation, not an identity.” Moderates don’t hold fixed positions on policy issues. “What we actually see from persuadables is that they toggle between competing views of the way the world works, and whatever they hear repeated most frequently becomes ‘common sense’ and ‘what everybody thinks.’ ” Thus, the right strategy is “getting the base to keep repeating the set of messages that will activate those progressive narratives that already exist in people.”
Shenker-Osorio’s advice: “What is actually effective in persuasion is to say fewer things and say them more often.” You do want to alienate some people—“blue meat” is good because it clarifies things. Don’t be distracted by right-wing provocations that take us off our game.
Don’t lean in to fear: “making people more fearful over time makes them more conservative.” Voters don’t vote to reduce harm; they vote to create good. Thus, good political messaging shows people “what the world would look like if you won.” Thus, “ ‘Create a fair immigration process that respects all families’ is more persuasive, it is more mobilizing,” than “fight racist immigration policies.”

There’s really just one winning message: “We can have nice things.” Thus, we should speak about paying people enough to provide for their families; don’t say “paid family leave” but instead “pay people enough to make ends meet” and “you should be at your new baby’s side.” Don’t say “raising wages is best for the economy,” because that agrees to enter a debate about who’s better for the economy. “The economy is not real; as soon as you validate that frame, you become a runner-up on the issue whose salience you just raised.” People don’t care about more money for “the economy.” “They care about getting more money so they can feed their fucking family.”

That doesn’t mean giving up on all concepts: freedom is for us, as is any other contested term, like religion, spirituality, or being a good steward of the earth. But “protect the immigrants because they will mow our lawns and clean our houses—there is no progressive version of that.”
One of her most interesting points was that, while anger works as a kickstarter in union organizing, it doesn’t work well outside the workplace context. “Perhaps it was because people go to their jobs every day and have pain points that are clear and present to them, and they have also seen their workplace tangibly change over time, for better or worse.” For larger politics, starting with anger “doesn’t seem to make people believe things can change. It turns many people off of the political process.”

Instead, the formula she touts is: shared value, problem, solution. So: “No matter our differences, most of us want pretty similar things.” And one thing that many people share “is the desire to feel like good people.” But it is also important to identify villains, and not just what they’re doing but why: they’re trying to make you fear people who aren’t white because they hope to distract us from their failure to prevent and treat COVID. She advocates talking explicitly about race “as a thing opportunistic politicians exploit in order to avoid giving you those nice things they could be giving you.” The solution then requires naming how it would feel to have these things, and don’t be bipartisan: that’s just campaigning for the opposition.

What about disinformation? Here Giridharadas turns to experts on cults. This is a vicious problem, but warning people about attempts to manipulate them has promise. The only competition against the human desire for simple explanations is the desire not to be conned. Discrediting the source may work against disinformers too. “If you convey a blanket contempt for a person as a person, you are not in a strong position to harness some good, useful part of them against another part.” Researchers also have to simplify their own research, or someone else will; they should also bring story and emotion into their own narratives.

Finally, Giridharadas looks at an activist who is interested in making long-term change by rejecting certain beliefs: “that persuasion in politics doesn’t work; that people can’t and won’t change; that calling out every chauvinism everywhere is a moral duty, and failing to is complicity; that the views of the other side are deep rather than superficial.” His emphasis is on “listening and story sharing, non-judgment and vulnerability, an alternative to what he saw as the predominant approach to persuasion in his progressive circles—a combination of giving people the best arguments and information and shaming them for failing.” This is a risky approach, but when it works it is powerful and can help move people into activism: Canvassers spend a lot of time with each person, asking them what they think about a topic and then encouraging them to “pit some things going on inside them against other things going on inside them, to get them to re-rank these things.” Canvassers were supposed to avoid reacting, just show genuine interest in the subject’s thoughts. Then the canvasser was supposed to exchange a personal narrative and make analogies: “Was there a time you needed support?” Then and only then, the canvasser was supposed to make an explicit case and point out contradictions in what the subject said, and then respond to the subject’s concerns with talking points and facts. The idea was to help people make meaning of current events. It worked sometimes?

Overall the book is well worth reading for insights into progressive persuasion. I’ve skipped the AOC material but it’s a great look at her as well.
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LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — 2022)
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