‘Giving up on the idea of persuasion is actually giving up on democracy.’
Part One of a conversation with Anand Giridharadas, author of ‘The Persuaders’ and ‘Winners Take All’
Anand Giridharadas is a writer whose books include the 2018 bestseller Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. His new book is The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy, which I reviewed for The American Prospect in October.
Earlier this week, I spoke with Anand about how different progressive constituencies have responded to The Persuaders, what connects his two most recent books, his faith in the democratic process, and more.
This is the first part of our conversation; you can read the second part here. The excerpts below have been condensed significantly and edited for clarity.
ADAM: The place I wanted to start was with the core arguments of The Persuaders. I’m curious how you sum up the book.
ANAND: The book starts from the premise that we have a problem in our politics and in American life and culture more generally. And the problem is the same, which is the problem of the write-off. There’s a tendency that has really grown and metastasized…to assume that people are not persuadable, they aren’t reachable. You can’t win back those Trump voters. You can’t win back people who don’t want to get a vaccine. You can’t pull people back from various forms of political madness or even cult-like behaviors that we see around us.
And, frankly, this [the tendency to write people off] is a problem that is particularly concentrated on the political left, among progressives and liberals. I mean, the right—and particularly the far right—believes deeply in persuasion, in a sense. They’re doing it 24/7. They have whole television networks that are devoted to trying to make people fear things they’re not currently afraid of and therefore move them.
But those who are on the pro-democracy side of things have, in many ways, turned their nose[s] up at the idea that persuasion is possible, that people can change. And in a moment when fascism is on the ballot in American life, in a moment when in our families and communities there are these seemingly unbridgeable divides—people who don’t believe in reality, or people who believe things that are in some ways inimical to progress and moving forward as a country for all of us—it is more important than ever to reclaim this idea of persuasion.
Because people do change. They can change. People change all the time. And giving up on the idea of persuasion is actually giving up on democracy. So the book begins from that premise.
ADAM: I wonder what reaction you’ve gotten from different constituencies, particularly the [Democratic] Party elites and decision makers [and] power brokers. What have they said to you about the book, which really challenges them in a way that probably, one hopes, makes them a little bit uncomfortable?
ANAND: I would love to be able to tell you that what I was saying in Winners Take All about the global super elite, or what I was saying in The Persuaders about this sneering at persuasion—I would love to tell you that I was just standing in the darkness by myself offering this thesis. I think the reality is with both books, the books reflect this quiet, invisible conversation that has been happening in a way—that’s the reason people were talking to me about it over the last few years—but maybe not out in the open or not explicit. Murmurings people were having.
I think that was true of [Winners Take All], where there was, in a lot of these philanthropic and elite spaces and beyond, [in] a lot of these NGOs that have to do a song and dance for billionaires every year, there were these murmurings. Winners Take All didn’t invent a concern; it reflected, and gave voice to, and created a permission structure for the airing of concerns that were just below the vocal cords.
I think The Persuaders has done the same in some of these political spaces on the left, where I think a lot of people have had quiet feelings that we have a problem with turning people away as a movement. We are more dedicated to purity than to expansion. We are too quick to turn on our own people when they get a small thing wrong, and sometimes take our eye off the ball of the Koch brothers and Kevin McCarthy and whoever else. We are at risk of forgetting where the median person is in this country—emotionally, spiritually, psychologically—and building a movement that is just too far ahead, rhetorically and intellectually, of where people are.
I don’t think I invented any of those feelings. I think those feelings have been there. A lot of the people I talked to for the book aired those feelings to me in a very public way, sometimes kind of [a] risky way, given their various involvements. And then my book came around, and…what I’m hearing from a lot of those people is, Yes, I’ve been fearing this, or, I’ve been feeling this, or, I’ve been complaining about this in my quiet way, or, I’ve been emailing my friends at the DNC about [this]. I would love to feel more original as a writer than I do. I feel the book reflects an ongoing conversation that, if anything, was just a little suppressed, or a little quiet, or a little not able to be vocalized out loud all the time.
I think what books do in general [and] this book is doing is, it creates a permission structure for all kinds of people who, because of who they are or what they do, may not be able to have this conversation by just trying to have it. It’s easier to say—if you’re the junior person in a movement or you’re the leader of something—it’s easier to be like, Hey, looky here, there’s a book. Why don’t we talk about that? It’s easier to point at an object and [say], How do we feel about this? It’s less onus on the person who’s trying to have that conversation. And so that has happened a lot.
ADAM: Maybe another way of describing a permission structure is to say that it articulates something that people feel or suspect, but haven’t necessarily been able to crystallize in a concrete way. I certainly found that with Winners Take All. It put into words something that my subconscious had been trying to understand, and it brought some clarity to that. I can see how this book would do the same for a lot of folks on the left.
ANAND: I think it’s a combination of two things. One, it’s articulating what maybe people haven’t. Two, [it’s] a writer being free to say what a lot of people with jobs are not. So I think it’s both. There’s just a lot of people who work in nonprofits or people who work in foundations or people who work for the Democratic Party. Their ability to just have this conversation out loud is limited. That’s what writers are for.
This is the first of a two-part conversation. The second part is available here. Read more from Anand in his newsletter, The.Ink.