The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy
By Anand Giridharadas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2022
The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy is about social activists who try to win over the public without diluting their own moral judgment. They understand that winning elections requires reaching out to opponents in order to make broad coalitions. All interviewees have leftwing commitments, but the book’s advice is actually relevant to the entire political spectrum.
It is reassuring to see that in this time of profound polarization, some social activists are working to reach across quarrelsome political divisions. Since coalition building is something politicians have pondered for generations, this book cannot offer strikingly novel advice, although it does have much to teach us. The conclusions sound rather commonsensical. Sociologists confront the same criticism about their research. The defence is that good journalism and good sociology should be sophisticated versions of commonsense. If conclusions are counter-intuitive, they are likely to be wrong.
I offer a couple of examples of the book’s information. Moderates are persuadables. Moderates are consequently the first people to contact when building coalitions. Concentrate on the “not quite us.” Yes, they are imperfect allies, but to the extent that they have an outlook that is inconsistent and contradictory, they are bound to share values with leftwing activists. Emphasize these similarities. Meet the moderates where they are.
Second, do not try to be everything to everyone because it will prove to be counterproductive. It may even be a good idea to anger opponents. Paradoxically, in anger they will spread your ideas. Some of their moderate associates will see through the flaws in their reasoning. Call your imperfect allies in with love. Do not publicly shame them or call them out. Remember that you, also, took a long time to commitment yourself to the self-sacrifice of democracy.
Here is a quick look at some other advice. Today’s activism is a variation on old ideas. Pay attention to precedents. Other reformers have made similar protests and should be consulted, something that is both ethical and useful. Talk about the future you project rather than talking repetitively about present crises. The problem with problems is that constant talk about them encourages passivity. Giridharadas also advocates autobiographical story telling. It is emotionally effective and memorable.
For this volume, Giridharadas interviewed obscure but inspiring social activists who deserve to be named in a review: Linda Sarsour, Loretta Ross, Alicia Garza, Faiz Shakir, Anat Shenker-Osorio, Diane Benscoter, John Cook, Cesar Torres, Steve Deline, and George Goehl. Most of these people straddle significant social divisions, such as growing up as an African American child adopted by a Euro-American family. Celebrity interviewees include Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
This book will likely attract two types of readers, but one type may be dissatisfied. If from page one, you understand that The Pretenders is a contribution to contemporary history, you will enjoy the extensive biographical detail. At this level, the book is often excellent. You may read with interest how the interviewees developed their present opinions. Readers less likely to enjoy this book are those seeking only practical advice. As part of that group, I found The Persuaders to be a tough read. For me, the book first came alive in chapter three, which is about Bernie Sanders.
The Persuaders suffers from the absence of an explicit structure that is spelled out to readers. It opens with a delayed beginning, and when the central topic appears eleven pages later, it is, at least for me, described too superficially. Social scientists are more likely to lay their cards out on the table on page one and say something about their research methods. Giridharadas writes that the focus is on “change-making circles,” but it appears to be primarily about change-making individuals. He could have made the interviewees’ advice more evident with subheads, italics, or a summary in the concluding chapter. If you insist on a quick read concentrating on practical advice rather than recent history, turn to the index and start with entries for “persuasion” or immediately turn to chapter five on political messaging where advice does appear as chapter subheads.
Giridharadas seems to imply, incorrectly, that interviewees have come to conclusions about activism solely through personal experience. However, they must be reading something. What? Who? There is insufficient information about reading even though some interviewees have advanced university degrees.
If I simply name-drop one of my favorite old books about argumentation, it is philosopher Douglas Neil Walton’s One-sided Arguments: A Dialectical Analysis of Bias. A one-sided argument occurs when a speaker or writer presents two sides of a dispute while identifying, openly or secretly, with one side. An ethically sensitive one-sided argument requires that you are fair to the opposition and try to suppress your own close-mindedness and misinterpretations. Reflect on what is not being said in your political dialogues. A balanced argument helps people learn more about their own perspective when they make an effort to justify both sides. You are trying to find the truth of an argument, not just persuade. You are not supposed to function simply as a slick salesperson.
Are Giridharadas’s “persuaders” able to distinguish between truth and what they wish to be true? I don’t know. The characteristics of a “balanced argument,” according to Walton, are flexible commitment, empathy, open-mindedness, critical doubt, and evidence sensitivity (p. 32). The Persuaders is primarily about racism. I suppose that it is more difficult to meet Walton’s standards with respect to economic matters.
The Persuaders ends with the inspiring story of a hick named George Goehl, described as a “veteran progressive organizer in Chicago,” who turned his life around. Goehl is from small-town southern Indiana. So am I. Sometimes my parents, like Goehl’s, spoke a dialect of English that revealed the Southern roots of their ancestors. I, too, heard my parents say “warsh” for wash. Some neighbors used the delightful expression “roas nears” for roasted ears of corn. Like Goehl, I escaped to Bloomington, the best place to be a leftist in Indiana when I lived there. Giridharadas’ portrait of southern Indiana comes too close to a one-dimensional caricature. I could barely recognize the state in his book.
Readers of The Persuaders may want to check out Giridharadas’s electronic newsletter The Ink, which contains insightful opinion pieces and interviews with celebrities.