About the Book by Anand Giridharadas titled “The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Heart, Minds, and Democracy”

From a New York Times review by Jennifer Szalai of the book by Anand Giridharadas titled “The Persuaders”:

If you take a look at what passes for political discourse nowadays, it’s hard not to succumb to fatalism. These are fractious, polarized times. Americans have made up their minds and there’s no use trying to change them. Disagreement is existential. Politics is an extension of war by other means.

Not so fast, says the journalist Anand Giridharadas in his new book, “The Persuaders.” There are plenty of people who continue to do the work of persuading others — something that, as Giridharadas points out, is foundational to democracy. The flip side of this, what he calls “the culture of the write-off,” is deadly — especially for progressive causes. Apathy ensures that nothing changes, or that nobody is held accountable when things get worse. Violence, once unthinkable, becomes normalized as the only alternative. As the lefty communications consultant Anat Shenker-Osorio told Giridharadas, “Our opposition is not the opposition. It is cynicism.”

In the last few years a number of books have taken a closer look at how political change actually happens in practice, including “Politics Is for Power,” by Eitan Hersh, and “The Quiet Before,” by Gal Beckerman (a former editor at The New York Times Book Review). For “The Persuaders,” Giridharadas talked to activists and organizers whose work, at the most basic level, entails “attracting more people to a cause today than believed in it yesterday.”

He begins with a short prologue recounting how Russian troll farms tried to disrupt these kinds of coalitions in the run-up to the 2016 election. It wasn’t so much that bots and fake accounts got Americans to believe the outlandish content of Russian disinformation campaigns — that’s a cheesy #Resistance fantasy. What those campaigns did was degrade how Americans encountered one another, amplifying a sense of bewilderment and disgust. (The F.B.I.’s Cointelpro, or Counterintelligence Program, did something similar in the 1960s, sowing distrust within leftist groups in order to destabilize them.) Why spend time trying to understand the political arguments of others when everyone is so hopelessly odious anyway?

This isn’t a book-length argument for centrism, insisting that political persuasion is all about watering down one’s positions and meeting others halfway. If anything, the people that Giridharadas talks to are critical of a Democratic machine that has too often tried to placate conservative interests. Shenker-Osorio believes that “longing to be palatable to the middle,” as Giridharadas puts it, is a loser’s game. When establishment Democrats try to adopt the right’s framing on, say, immigration by talking about how they also intend to “secure the border,” they end up looking like tepid versions of the right-wing original. “‘Oh, the border’s insecure?’” Shenker-Osorio says, mimicking the kind of voter targeted by this stuff. “‘I better go look for RoboCop, not the B-minus, flabby alternative.’”

Shenker-Osorio is one of the book’s most entertaining figures — funny and profane, a believer in the power of “generative alienation,” of sticking to a message that risks pushing some people away so that you can figure out who the real “persuadables” are. When it comes to outreach, she lights a firecracker; others pursue a more slow-burn approach.

Giridharadas follows some people in Arizona doing what’s known as “deep canvassing,” the time-consuming process of trying to understand why people aren’t voting the way you’d like them to and then trying to change their minds. Listening is an essential part of it; canvassers can build trust only if they first make people feel respected and heard. When people are given a chance to talk about their political beliefs, they often reveal “how emotional the process of opinion formation could be,” Giridharadas writes.

Emotions turn out to be a core part of this book. People don’t like to feel dismissed or condescended to — and nobody likes to feel stupid. You cannot persuade anyone by browbeating that person into submission. But you can’t be too nervous about people’s discomfort, either. Tiptoe too carefully around their defensiveness and you’ll probably be less persuasive than therapeutic. The same goes for the people doing the persuading — they should be prepared to feel uncomfortable as well.

The feminist activist Loretta Ross says that discomfort can sometimes be necessary for everyone involved. She is an exceptional, if extreme, example: Ross was a rape victim working at a rape crisis center who took it upon herself to start an education program for male prisoners convicted of sexual assault. She recognizes that there’s something unfair about this — the fact that the burden of change often falls on those who are already traumatized or vulnerable. Ross, who is Black, doesn’t “expect every Black person to be ready to have a conversation with a white person about racism.” But she herself is ready. “There’s enough work in the movement for us all to do different work.”

A chapter on Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is illuminating (if a little long — after a while, even the most gifted politician will sound like a politician). Giridharadas occasionally comments on Ocasio-Cortez’s attempts to strike a “delicate balance” and a “difficult balancing act” — walking the line between outsider and insider, radicalism and conciliation, righteousness and approachability. She says that the gruff implacability of her fellow democratic socialist Bernie Sanders was never going to work for a young Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx, like her: “I don’t have the built-in generosity and I don’t have the built-in trust that someone like Bernie does.”

In his previous book, “Winners Take All,” about the self-serving do-gooding of billionaire philanthropists, Giridharadas was writing as a critic. Here, he’s mostly writing as a champion — not necessarily a bad mode, though much of the book consists of Giridharadas handing over the mike, allowing his subjects to describe their own philosophies of persuasion. I usually want more friction in a book, but given his subject — how to save our imperiled democracy — perhaps reality has supplied more than enough of it. While the world seems to counsel despair, “The Persuaders” is animated by a sense of possibility: “Sometimes there were cracks that let a new thought in.”

THE PERSUADERS: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Heart, Minds, and Democracy | By Anand Giridharadas | 335 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $30

Jennifer Szalai is the nonfiction book critic for The Times.

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