‘I really believe in the sacredness of people choosing the future together.’
Part Two of a conversation with Anand Giridharadas, author of ‘The Persuaders’ and ‘Winners Take All’
This is the second of a two-part conversation. You can read the first part here. The excerpts below have been condensed significantly and edited for clarity.
ADAM: Early in [The Persuaders], you talk about persuasion as “the basic activity of democratic life.” One of the through lines, it seems, between Winners and Persuaders [is] this focus on how democracy works and how real, democratic social change does and does not happen. Whereas Winners was, to me, about the fake, self-interested, largely anti-democratic way of changing things—or appearing to change them—The Persuaders is about how to do the real thing. I wonder what you make of that idea that in a lot of ways these two books are both about democracy and democratic movements, but approach [it] from different perspectives.
ANAND: Yeah, I agree with that. A lot of people…are like, This makes no sense. Your last book was angry. This book’s hopeful. Have you changed? Maybe I was just hangry when I was writing [that] one, and I wrote this one on a full belly or something. That’s not what happened.
I’m not a religious person. I think the closest I come to any kind of deep faith is in democracy. I don’t think democracy is just a process of voting every two or four years. To me, it’s an evidence-based spiritual practice and commitment. I really believe in the sacredness, secular sacredness, of people choosing the future together.
Winners Take All was about my anger and frustration at the diversionary efforts to pull people away from that kind of real change—made collectively through democracy—and these kinds of Goldman Sachs- and Starbucks-led social change and impact funds and Bill Gates giving money. At a certain level Winners Take All was about people who cause problems, [who] are still causing them, cosplaying as the solvers of those problems.
But I think at a deeper level Winners Take All was upset about the gutting of the idea that we can solve problems together through talk, which is democracy, and the proffering of this false gospel that some bank can solve a problem like the racial wealth gap, when in fact a problem like the racial wealth gap is something that by definition we can only do together.
It’s not just that we are better problem solvers when we all choose the future together instead of outsourcing it to one dude. It’s not just that we make better decisions, which we do, and there’s a lot of evidence for that. It’s that there is something inherently ennobling and edifying about spending our time that way together. It makes us better to go through the motions of choosing the future together. It is a thing that forces me to listen to you and you to listen to me and me to try to understand what kind of arguments I can make.
That basic persuasion and conversation that is at the heart of democracy is good for us. It is like moral broccoli. It’s good for us to do democracy. Democracy is good for the soul. And so Winners was a critique of people trying to not just rule the world, but at some deeper level shut down this process that I think is really important for free societies: the habit of choosing the future together.
And The Persuaders then picks up where Winners left off, which is to say, if we shouldn’t fall for these diversionary efforts, what should we trust in instead? I think this notion of being able to talk to each other, being able to believe that people who are not with you today can be with you tomorrow, is at the heart of what democratic life is about.
What I identified in The Persuaders...was a new problem, was a different problem, than plutocrats trying to divert us with fake change. It was another obstruction to the real change via democracy that I believe in, which is fatalism about other people. They’re both books...that are consumed with democracy and with different sources of resistance to it.
ADAM: I heard an author say once that his book captured his thinking frozen at a particular moment in time, even though his own perspective and understanding of the world continued to change and grow after he put the pen down. I’m wondering [if] your thinking on these issues has changed at all since you stopped working on this manuscript. And, without asking you to pundit too much, how [do] you interpret the midterm [election] results through the lens of this book?
ANAND: I decided to frame the book as this larger, broader problem of the country not being able to talk to itself, and this absence of common ground, and the inability to have conversation. I think as the year progressed—and I finished it around New Year’s last year, almost a year ago—as the conversation has progressed, I think my sense of what the problem is has gotten sharper and sharper.
I don’t know that I would still change it. But I think in some ways my sense of it is less simply that we need to find common ground, [and more] that there’s a pro-democracy side and an anti-democracy side, and it’s really important that the pro-democracy side figures out how to win. And so a lot of the conversations I’ve been having are about, how can a pro-democracy movement acquire what it takes to beat back this thing?
There’s a couple of things that I think are in the book that have some explanatory power. As evidenced by the victories or minimization of defeats in the midterms, I think the Joe Biden presidency is shaping up to be an incredibly unexpected triumph. Not in every respect. Certainly not all the policy things that someone like me wants. But there is a way in which Joe Biden has delivered as a kind of unabashed champion of government action to help people in a way that his two predecessors as Democrats in office didn’t even seem to want to do.
I think it has a lot to do with what in the book I call the “orchestra principle.” I think there is a healthy dynamic among the Biden White House, their fellow moderates, progressives in government like AOC and Bernie, [and] activists on the outside who are hammering Biden but also in conversation with the Biden administration on things like student debt.
There’s a way in which the coalition is working. The big tent is big, but it’s actually functioning like one tent in a way that I think is one of the most underrated stories in Washington because...it’s like praising lunch in the school cafeteria. No one ever wants to say anything nice about this kind of thing. But I think these people are all playing nice and playing generatively together in a way that is remarkable.
I think the credit is omnidirectional. You know, I think someone like AOC is brilliantly holding a hard line on what real change is and what is milquetoast compromise and reminding people of that constantly, and being able to take the W when you get people with a completely different philosophical orientation than you to come half or a quarter way in the direction towards your goals.
I think this Biden White House respects its progressive frenemies in a way that the Obama and Clinton administrations did not. My feeling is the Biden White House views progressives as kind of the people who are fighting for what they would be fighting for if they didn’t have the complicated jobs they do—which may be letting themselves off the hook, but is a fundamentally respectful way to view them.
There’s a dynamic where they are finding a way to be at each other’s backs and be at each other’s throats at the same time as a coalition in a way that is actually really powerful, and helps explain Biden’s departure from the more classically neoliberal Democratic administrations of the last few decades.
ADAM: How do you think—or how do the persuaders who you’ve talked to for this book and elsewhere think—about the notion of grace, and when grace is appropriate and welcome? How do persuaders navigate the tension between humanizing other people and giving people space to change, and normalizing abhorrent views?
ANAND: I think that is one of the core questions in American life today. And I do not think it’s an easy one. Let’s take the two kinds of extremes you set up. You can imagine a position of maximum grace: just grace, grace, grace, grace, grace. And grace is a good value, right? But you could imagine a position where it’s just unlimited lifetime supply of grace to anybody and everybody. Let’s just understand these angry Trump voters. It must be so painful to lose your white privilege. And so on and so forth.
You can imagine that, and it would really come at the expense of any kind of backbone. It would really alienate much of the core Democratic base and betray much of the core Democratic base. So grace is a good value, but it’s not [an] infinite good. At the same time, holding the line and demanding that people come correct is also not an absolute value. Because if you had that value absolutely, you would be a very small movement.
And I think the challenge at the heart of what The Persuaders is trying to advocate for, the challenge is to find a way to integrate those things. How do we stand bravely for things as a movement, and have grace? Can we defend the honor and dignity and humanity of people of color who are at the heart of the coalition, and show grace, civic grace, about the fact that for many white Americans white supremacy is the most valuable asset they own, and rightfully trying to dismantle it, which is the correct thing to do, is going to be psychically difficult for them? Is there a possibility to have grace about the fact that me taking away this form of unearned capital from you—which I need to do in order for this society to be what it promised—that that could be hard for you?
I think if America is going to get through the next era with a semblance of liberal democracy intact, it’s going to be because a lot of people show civic grace. A lot of us are going to have to embrace that the transitional anxieties of moving to a more gender-equal, racially egalitarian country—of becoming the country the founding words promised but the founders weren’t brave enough to be—the transitional anxieties of getting there are going to be real. And they’re going to require a lot of us to show civic grace, without compromising on the ideals of this country and our own dignity.