Democracy relies on the idea that “you can change things by changing minds – by persuading.” Yet, with the advent of the internet and social media, the art of honest persuasion has faced new challenges. One can invent endless falsehoods and disinformation, then watch them spread worldwide over social media. Russia has excelled at providing misinformation in this way to turn Americans against each other and undermine American democracy. Many others have followed suit, doing their best to widen existing divisions, lower faith in American institutions, create distrust and blur the lines between fiction and reality. This toxic environment has brought enormous challenges to individuals and organizations trying to strengthen American democracy. In “The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy,” author Anand Giridharadas follows activists hard at work using the art of persuasion to enhance democracy and, in capturing their stories, addresses many hot-button topics in American society.
The individuals Giridharadas follows are working to create coalitions toward expanding democracy and ending racism, poverty and other societal harms. Giridharadas’ goal is to better understand their tactics and techniques towards persuasion and how they overcome barriers that have been magnified online.
One such barrier is the weaponization of “wokeness,” a term that describes the extent to which a person is aware of, understands and potentially accepts — or has “awoken” to — their own part within harmful societal structures, such as systemic racism.
In discussing these dynamics, the activists stress that “callout culture” doesn’t build a coalition. People are “called out” by others for perceived behavioral violations and thus criticized and condemned. Giridharadas writes that the “left” often spends more time and energy calling out their “ideological cousins than the very real enemies of democracy.” This division leads to dwelling within smaller and smaller circles instead of expanding the ranks.
Being “excessively woke” can create unneeded barriers. It’s much more effective, the activists say, to meet people where they are at. “Calling in,” where you hold people accountable but do so with love, is more effective. While it’s tempting to dismiss people who aren’t yet “woke,” you dismiss people who don’t fully understand an issue and potential allies.
Giridharadas attended multiple anti-racism trainings for white parents of children of color. Often, parents entered training with the expectation that “it’s the job of the trainer somehow to challenge them and make them feel good simultaneously.” Though the anti-racism trainers strived to “call in” white parents during the trainings and not use critical or blaming language, some parents became quite upset.
One white anti-racism trainer referred to herself as a “recovering racist,” because she was taught racist thoughts at a young age, was raised in a racist atmosphere and thus quite early on in life formed a paradigm of the world that included racist ideas. What some parents heard was, “You’re calling me a racist!” Persuading people regarding such a hot topic, even while using the right language and techniques, can be extremely difficult.
America’s right has seized on the notion that anti-racist training is all about calling white people racists, blaming and shaming them, skipping the part that explains how, although American society is systemically racist, it’s not one’s fault for having been raised in this society. With this false narrative from the right, any willingness to learn and grow ends and is replaced with anger and disgust.
Giridharadas then moves to explaining the persuasion style of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. AOC excels at the “inside-outside game.” The outside game involves working with grassroots supporters to maintain a constant, unbreakable connection, while the inside game involves effectively working for change with other members of Congress. Giridharadas describes AOC’s ability to turn small moments into big moments; this persuasion style, he writes, has allowed AOC to become a “righteous and radical thorn in the side of her new colleagues,” while at the same time being able to successfully negotiate and partner with allies.
The chapter called “The Art of Messaging” was particularly interesting. Within it, Giridharadas contrasts the persuasion techniques of the right and the left: “The right deeply understands people.” They give people a reason for being and provide simple answers as to why they may be suffering. The right uses metaphors to underpin their views and are experts at “ginning up white fear and perceptions of danger and violence and exploiting them to sell authoritarian rescue.”
The left’s messaging, meanwhile, often plays into the hands of the right. The left lets the right frame the message and tries to compete within Republican framing, which only strengthens the right. The goal should be to have the conversation you want to have, not the conversation your opponent wants to have. The left gives people facts, figures and logic, which seldom change people’s minds.
Democrats have failed for years in their efforts to court white working-class voters and the middle class. Giridharadas writes that trying to woo the middle is the Democrats “cardinal sin.” A better strategy is to avoid diluting the message by reaching out to the middle. Rather, strive to “thrill your base” while also intentionally angering “the people who aren’t going to vote for you anyway, but will do you the favor … of yelling your ideas all over town.” In other words, use the right’s tactics: inspire the right to advertise the left’s message and get them to discuss issues within the left’s narrative frame.
The left tends to be far too negative in its messaging, starting with a problem instead of a message of hope. It works better to “sell people on the beautiful tomorrow.” Giridharadas provides many examples of messaging that has been proven to be effective, such as “fund our lives” instead of “defund the police.” Instead of “abolish ICE,” use, “let’s create a fair immigration process that respects all families.” Instead of just “working people,” it’s “working people, whether Black, white or brown.” We all want individual freedoms, not just Republicans, and these freedoms include the “freedom to vote.”
Giridharadas closes with a discussion regarding the extremism of today’s right, writing that many right extremists are living in a “fully baked alternative reality,” such as QAnon followers. Giridharadas writes that the growth of cults is a public health problem, a “pandemic of lost minds.” The art of persuasion is especially difficult when trying to bring people out of a cult. Facts and data will be of no help.
“The Persuaders” is a useful handbook for those actively working to change minds throughout the community or just at the dinner table.
Read more of the Mar. 22-28, 2023 issue.