Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'The Persuaders' examines the front line fight for hearts, minds and democracy


The writer Anand Giridharadas says he needed to persuade himself that there's still some point in persuasion.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I think if you look at our political debate, it's so easy to be fatalistic, for good reason. It just feels like people are immovable.

INSKEEP: Giridharadas is a journalist with definite political views. One of his books was about inequality - how wealthy elites lock in their gains. Now he's writing about how to change the system, which means changing minds, even when it doesn't seem worth the effort.

GIRIDHARADAS: What became very clear to me, also, is that this kind of contempt and writing each other off is also the road to civil war and the road to political violence. Because once you give up on the idea that you can change minds, you're kind of giving up on the idea of democracy.

INSKEEP: His book "The Persuaders" profiles people who have not given up. They're activists on the political left who recognize that if they're going to prevail in a democracy, they need to build political support.

GIRIDHARADAS: The most powerful example for me was this movement called deep canvassing, going door to door in Arizona to change minds on immigration. Arizona is one of the fastest browning states in this country - going through enormous demographic change faster than the country on average. And instead of spending three minutes and giving someone a flyer, you try to spend 30 or 40 minutes at one door talking to people and listening to them, more importantly, about why they feel the way they do. And, Steve, this is so counterintuitive for our culture today - right? - because we live in a culture in which you feel like you're supposed to call people out for saying all kinds of terrible things.

And what these canvassers do - they stand there and they listen. And then, having built a certain rapport of trust and relationship, they try to say, hey, but do you know any immigrants? Do the immigrants you know square with the view you gave me at the beginning? Or have you ever felt scorned and shut out because of factors beyond your control? People have epiphanies at the door. This is something I didn't think was possible, but I saw it happen.

INSKEEP: Would the left actually do better to change some of its program in order to have a broader coalition?

GIRIDHARADAS: That's kind of what the Democratic Party has done for a very, very long time. The problem with this approach is that it doesn't necessarily win over converts from the middle, and it certainly leaves your base cold. And what a lot of the persuaders I'm writing about - what they're essentially suggesting is flipping this model on its head. They're arguing for a version of persuasion from the left that is about standing bravely and committedly in your aspirations and your demands, fighting for a - an ambitious version of your values and, at the same time, reaching out through how you communicate it, how you sell it, the frames you're willing to use - making a Christian case for environmental stewardship, you know, maybe naming something like Medicare for All Freedom Care to actually play into deeply held values that Americans across the political spectrum have.

INSKEEP: The activists Giridharadas interviewed included a woman who worked in Kenosha, Wis., in 2020.


ARI SHAPIRO: More protests are expected tonight in Kenosha, south of Milwaukee. Yesterday, police there shot a Black man named Jacob Blake.

INSKEEP: Violent protests followed the police shooting. Giridharadas says amid the chaos, activists tried to come up with messages that went beyond protest against injustice.

GIRIDHARADAS: A wonderful group in Kenosha called BLAK, B-L-A-K, developed this way of talking about what they were for, and they threw a rally called Justice for Jacob. After an initial rally mourning, the second rally was a celebration of his life. There was barbecues. There was voter registration. There was a bouncy castle. And a beautiful video went viral around the internet. It's much better to say what you are for, to show what you are for and show that the kind of world you want is more appealing than the world being offered by the other side.

INSKEEP: But you follow up on a particular example here. Joe Biden, who was then, of course, a presidential candidate, cut an ad around the violent protests in Kenosha in which Joe Biden said violent protest is itself bad.


JOE BIDEN: I want to make it absolutely clear. Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting.

INSKEEP: Your activists felt that was a terrible thing for Joe Biden to say. Why?

GIRIDHARADAS: I think one of the most profound lessons I learned from Anat Shenker-Osorio was that you - we often pay attention to what we are saying in a conversation or a debate, but we are often blind to what conversation we have chosen to have, right? So if someone says to me, immigrants are animals, and I counter, immigrants are not animals, I'm correct that immigrants are not animals. Problem is, I have now gotten into a conversation about the animal-ness (ph) of immigrants. That's the wrong conversation for me to be having.

INSKEEP: Let me concede your point that if you respond all the time to the person who says the outrageous thing, you're fighting on their turf, and you may lose the argument just by even having the argument. But in this specific example, you have Joe Biden, who is a Democratic leader, wanting to appeal to a broad coalition of people and concludes that people of all races and income strata and everything else probably do not want shops destroyed and downtowns destroyed. And he stands against that. And he concludes that most people would like to have police protection and that defund the police is a very bad slogan. Why was that such bad politics for him to say those things?

GIRIDHARADAS: I don't think anybody was saying he should have said defund the police. And I'm not sure that Anat or anybody else would say there's no way to talk about rioting.

INSKEEP: But she did say he should not have done this ad condemning rioting.

GIRIDHARADAS: The ad was - the thesis of the ad was condemning rioting, right? Like, the - and the problem is what you do is you demoralize your own base because now it seems to your own base, which, in Joe Biden's case, was Black voters - you signal to your base that you are equating protests against injustice with the injustice itself. And there's just a lot of research that that just demoralizes your most passionate supporters. Once you talk, instead, about what is a world in which all of us can thrive - right? - Republicans may have a tougher time competing on that turf. And there may be a way to say things about riots or things about nonviolent protest. But I think lecturing people about law and order in that moment, which has happened so often with Democrats, feels like an insecure kind of grasp for the white moderate vote in a way that often doesn't succeed at wooing it and alienates people of color.

INSKEEP: The latest book by Anand Giridharadas is "The Persuaders: At The Front Lines Of The Fight For Hearts, Minds, And Democracy." Thanks so much.

GIRIDHARADAS: Thank you, Steve.