By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
An Oct. 26 town hall featuring journalist Anand Giridharadas in Seattle and his latest book, “The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy,” was met with enthusiasm, and enthralled an audience that was not ready to let him go, maybe ever.
Time ran over and both Giridharadas and the host, Naomi Ishisaka, pleaded jokingly with Town Hall to ask, “Just one more question?” “Two more questions?”
They succeeded, and edged in a rapid fire, “Are you going to run for president?” Answer: “No. “Is Trump coming back? Answer: “I think he probably will attempt to.”
Giridharadas called Trump-discrediting efforts on the part of the Left “detours”: “Investigation is a detour. Praying for these indictments—detour…Dunking on him—detour.” For Giridharadas, all of this is a delay when the country should not be sitting around waiting for Trump to run again.
“The only work we have to do is to build a movement that is bigger, better, feistier, more magnanimous, and open hearted, more strategic, more fun, more exuberant, more transcendent, than what they built. Everything else is a distraction.”
According to Giridharadas, it’s women of color who happen to be quite good at building this movement, and he features several in his book, about a third of which he says is about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), including never-before-published interviews. Giridhiradas believes many Democrats are not getting it right in terms of “persuading” voters to buy into their causes or candidates.
“The dominant approach to persuasion in the Democratic Party is persuasion through dilution,” Giridharadas stated, and every chef knows, he kidded (but not really), that adding water doesn’t make anything taste better. Take healthcare, a topic of great interest throughout the evening. And Barack Obama, who in Giridharadas’ view started with “a bold, noble ideal” that “everybody should have healthcare,” but then, in order to reach people, especially “white working class people,” this ideal became “diluted.” All this achieved, Giridharadas believes, is that those white voters still think people on the Left are Communists, meanwhile the Left’s own constituents are sad because “you have not done what they asked you to do.”
In an effort to relieve his own despair and outrage towards “the increasingly authoritarian and fascistic Right,” Giridharadas set out to interview activists such as AOC that he feels know how to “turn a thing against itself” rather than resist only. What does that mean? It combines characteristics Giridharadas has observed in the Left. One, that the Left often takes the “high road”—it will not stoop, so to speak, to dirty tactics. Two, that the Left seems to have already “written off” fellow citizens as “unreachable, unchangeable, they’re MAGA-heads, they’re anti-vaxxers, they’re…stuck in their white privilege…They’re never going to change,” so the only approach the Left uses is to “resist them, organize around them, mobilize our side, rally the faithful…circle the wagons. Not grow the circle because the circle can’t be grown.”
These qualities in the Democratic Party have been ineffective, in Giridharadas’ opinion. To counter this, he found people such as AOC who have “refused the write off.” Instead, they use techniques that don’t just play to those already on their side, but could win over those on the fence, who are “interested in the idea of building a movement…for progress, for greater inclusion, for continued and expanded democracy, for a society where all of us can thrive,” and importantly, “None of them are moderate, milk toast, mushy, middle people.”
Giridharadas raised examples, such as when AOC wore a dress emblazoned with “Tax the Rich” to a gala.
“She was criticized from every side…what no one understood among the haters was [that] she made the whole United States of America talk about her three words for two days,” and thus used her celebrity to garner attention for the causes important to her. This method in which AOC thrives in a system not designed for minorities, or women, “exploiting the cracks, using things against themselves,” came up again in answer to an audience question about how people of color should “persuade” when they are often taken at face value.
“There’s a reason this book is [about a] very large number of women of color…who are the persuaders,” Giridharadas explained.
“When we think about persuasion…we think about moderates and we think about…white guys trying to speak to the middle…This is really a different kind of book…about some very radical women of color who…are interested in reaching people in a way that some people in their own movements are less interested in.” What they try to do is make the Left more appealing. “What connects the women of color I’m writing about in particular,” Giridharadas stated, and what separates them “from some of their own allies is that they’re a little more attentive to the kind of evangelism-side of things. Are we winning? Are we connecting? But they’re all quite radical people, so none of them are like ‘let’s cut the loaf in half to reach people.’ They’re thinking about a set of tools that is really different.”
In other words, “How do we throw a better party?” Giridharadas and the activists in his book ask. To the Left, who do far too much lecturing, and not enough convincing, he suggests “more belonging and connection not just more righteousness, more facts and figures…which is not defeating fascism right now.”
In his view, the Left has to work on making its smart policies more appealing. For instance, who has made a video about what universal healthcare would actually be like? No one. To a local activist who claimed many people are on the side of a Washington initiative “Whole Health,” but none come forward to help, Giridharadas answered, “I would lovingly take issue with one thing you said, which is the persuasion work is done.”
Halfway through a question, someone’s phone rang. “That may be my mom calling,” Giridharadas joked. “Tell her I’ll get right back to her.” His manner, slick in black boots and rhinestone jeans, a voice hoarse from a cold—“Like our democracy, my voice is eroding. I have hope for them both.”
His biting humor, combined with equally biting political commentary made the almost two hour-talk go by in a flash, and ended with a standing ovation.
“There are a lot of forgettable rooms, forgettable places, and forgettable hotel rooms and just a blur of a lot of travel. This is one of the rooms that I remember,” Giridharadas said about Seattle and its Town Hall. “I always remember it to be such an engaged community.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.