Power, politics and persuasion: Why Democrats don't win — and how they can fight back

Anand Giridharadas' new book tackles tough questions: How to challenge dominant narratives — and win elections

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published October 30, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

A microphone on the stage with crowd in background (Getty Images/Krle)
A microphone on the stage with crowd in background (Getty Images/Krle)

According to Gallup, support for same-sex marriage has climbed from 27% in 1996 to to 71% this year. That fact alone should make it obvious that Anand Giridharadas is onto something in his new book, "The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy." As he put it in a tweet promoting an excerpt in the Atlantic: 

A lot of people -- well-meaning and malevolent ones alike -- want you to believe that trying to change minds is futile.

They are wrong.

On the other hand, more than 60% of Republicans still believe Trump's big lie about the 2020 election being stolen, according to a recent Monmouth poll. But changing the course of history — that is, winning the fight against resurgent fascism — doesn't depend on reaching those committed Trump supporters. It only requires shifting a few percentage points, either by attracting a few voters from the other side or convincing a few non-voters to vote.   

"The Persuaders" is about much more than just winning elections. It's about creating meaning and creating community, the foundations on which a flourishing democracy depends. It's about building a movement that speaks convincingly about a sustainable future that includes everyone. In a New York Times op-ed this month, Giridharadas warns, "The fascists are doing as well as they are because they understand people as they are and cater to deep unmet needs, and any pro-democracy movement worth its salt needs to match them at that — but for good."  

But with the midterm elections looming, which could seriously imperil the future of American democracy, my attention is drawn to that threat. I recently interviewed Rachel Bitecofer about the midterms, and I've followed Anat Shenker-Osorio's work for more than a decade. Although they come from different academic and ideological backgrounds and have different objectives, neither believes in "persuasion," at least not in the classic style of the Democratic Party establishment, meaning watering down the policies and messaging that the base supports in an effort to lure in a few elusive moderates. Inspirational persuasion is an entirely different animal. In this model, there's no either/or choice between boosting base turnout and reaching out to persuadable voters.

Turnout is persuasion

"I thoroughly believe that turnout is persuasion," Shenker-Osorio says in the book. "And if the choice is not singing in harmony, then the congregation is not going to hear the joyful noise.... And it's not out preaching and getting new adherents." Giridharadas expands: 

In Shenker-Osorio's vision of persuasion, you did indeed preach to the choir, so the choir would in turn conquer the hearts of the much broader audience in the seats — the moderates. She called it "engaging the base to persuade the middle." You didn't conquer the moderates by reaching out towards them and watering down your ideas beyond recognition. You won moderates over by so jazzing the base that they wanted to have what it was having.

Bitecofer's emphasis is more pugnacious but largely compatible, as with this sports-themed TV spot touting Democrats' superior performance on the economy. Her focus is on both positive and negative brand identity: Attacking Republicans, uplifting Democrats and energizing the base. She left the academic world of demographic electoral analysis to form Strike PAC, and thinks more in terms of fighting fire with fire, with an affinity for "Never Trump" ex-Repubicans. An April 16 tweet was typical of her approach:

The GOP's new Contract On America includes a 11 pt plan to raise your taxes by $4500, steal the $ you invested into Social Security & Medicare, & leave America's elderly either on the streets or living with their kids. Is it any wonder they want to hide it from you?

Shenker-Osorio has worked with a wide range of progressives on issue-based communication campaigns, while also doing path-breaking research — into the role of metaphors in economic thinking (her 2012 book, "Don't Buy It") and into development of the race-class narrative, along with Ian Haney López and Demos (Salon story here). Hers is more of an accentuate-the-positive approach. But that doesn't mean trying to win everybody over, as Giridharadas makes clear. 

Dial tests are used to track real-time responses to political messages. Shenker-Osorio noticed that Republican pollster Frank Luntz had defined a winning message as "that which raised base approval, raised moderate approval, and reduced opposition approval," rather than a message that raised all three measures, which was what Democratic testers looked for: 

It wasn't just that you shouldn't focus on pleasing the opposition and persuadables, at the cost of dilution, in order to win. It was that you should seek out ways to please your base, get it chanting in ways that encircled and wooed the persuadables, and, at the same time, alienate and marginalize the opposition.

This accords with three principles from an online guide Shenker-Osorio created that guided the creation of the race-class narratives: "1) Lead with shared values, not problems. 2) Bring people into the frame – offer clear villains and heroes. 3) Create something good, don't merely reduce something bad." 

The purpose of that work was to address racial justice and economic issues simultaneously in a way that unified progressives — the kind of broad-left coalition building that Giridharadas advocates, starting with the example of Linda Sarsour, the controversial figure who spearheaded the diversification of viewpoints and issues in the 2017 Women's March. 

Shared values, shared problems, shared solutions

"Some of the most dangerous and anti-democratic movements of our time," Giridharadas writes, "had managed, in spite of those features, to make their causes appear welcoming and make newcomers feel at home, whereas some of the most righteous, inclusive, and just movements gave off a feeling of being inaccessible, intractable, and alienating."

Neither Bitecofer nor Shenker-Osorio buys the classic Democratic Party notion of "persuasion" — watering down the policies and messaging that the base actually likes, in an effort to lure in a few elusive moderates.

There are multiple reasons for this, but one speaks to the fundamental difference between left and right. The right speaks for and from power and is about preserving it. The left is about challenging it. Whenever the right is forced to yield or capitulate, it seeks to reorder the terms of debate, allowing some who were previously excluded into the charmed circle. That also puts the right in the position of defining social relations, starting with who the heroes and villains are, and why. Those outside the circle of power are compelled to compete against each other, struggling against the defined social relations that are imposed on them. 

Movements on the left, then, must struggle to overcome that constant competition, which is precisely what the race-class narrative project was designed to do. Here's an example:

No matter where we come from or what our color, most of us work hard for our families. But today, certain politicians and their greedy lobbyists hurt everyone by handing kickbacks to the rich, defunding our schools, and threatening our seniors with cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Then they turn around and point the finger for our hard times at poor families, black people and new immigrants. We need to join together with people from all walks of life to fight for our future, just like we won better wages, safer workplaces and civil rights in our past. By joining together, we can elect new leaders who work for all of us, not just the wealthy few. 

This also fits within the broader framework discussed in "The Persuaders": "Shared value, problem, solution." Giridharadas describes this as "a callout sandwich: a generous heap of callout between two thick slices of call in": 

Call people — all people — in with that universally appealing paean to values. Call out the people getting in the way of those values translating into better lives. But neither start nor finish there. Remind people that if they come together, things can change and other worlds are possible.

One apparent point of difference between Shenker-Osorio and Bitecofer comes on economic issues. Bitecofer relishes attacking Republicans on the economy, as part of what she calls a "brand offensive" approach. "The economy is always going to be the No. 1 issue," she told me. "You can't cede ownership of the most important issue to the other party. You have to fight on that turf."  Shenker-Osorio tends to steer away from this area, as Giridharadas explains:

Worrying about what's good for Mr. Economy — that is the right's issue, the right's conversation, the right's question. Shenker-Osorio drew a contrast between that and, say, the concept of "freedom." That idea was contested. People on the right spoke of freedom from taxation and regulation and vaccines. But people on the left spoke of reproductive freedom and freedom from police violence and freedom from want. To frame your ideas in the language of freedom wasn't validating the right's frame. It was staking a claim to the idea of freedom as being as much yours as theirs. It was participating in the debate about what freedom is and who guards it.

"The right wing has named and claimed freedom for a very, very long time,"  Shenker-Osorio told me. "I have argued that it is just utter stupidity for the left to let go of freedom." Indeed, cognitive linguist George Lakoff — with whom she studied and worked at the Rockridge Institute — literally wrote the book about this, "Whose Freedom? The Battle over America's Most Important Idea," which I wrote about here in 2020. A decade later, the overturning of Roe v. Wade has placed the reproductive freedom model front and center as never before.  

Shenker-Osorio also argues that the left gave up the issue of "family" to the right for far too long. "There was no reason for the right to own 'family,'" she told me. "Its ideas weren't intrinsically pro-family in a way the left's weren't." Lakoff dealt with this in his 1996 book, "Moral Politics" (my review here), which explains conservative politics as rooted in the "strict father" model, found in books like James Dobson's "Dare to Discipline," in contrast to the "nurturant parent" model found in most parenting and child-care books. 

Marriage equality: Remaking common sense

As a diversity of family structures have replaced the male-breadwinner model, it has become easier to contest the right's claim to the concept of family. More than broad cultural change was involved, as highlighted by the dramatic change in acceptance of marriage equality, explored by Deva Woodly in "The Politics of Common Sense." She studied both the living wage and marriage equality movements across the first decade of their emergence, from 1994 to 2004, and found that while the marriage movement lost far more battles, it ultimately had a much greater impact.

"We have to think about social movement success in a kind of different way and over a longer time period," Woodly told me. "What social movements do is they change the political environment before they change individual people's opinions." That is, they change the ideas that people encounter, "and as they start to think more and more about those ideas, then social movements have an opportunity to begin to change people's minds." In the long run, that "changes the choice set that is available," and the marriage equality movement did that differently and more effectively.

"People were taking it as self-evident that people would prefer to have a living wage," Woodly said. "There was no mass campaign before Occupy to try to get people to think at regular intervals about why it was necessary and important to raise wages." As a result, "technocratic economic arguments from experts and elites" drowned out everything else. While the movement recognized the need to persuade politicians to act, they failed to understand the more basic need to change the political environment. 

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Marriage equality activists did that — because they knew they had to. Their arguments "caused people to think about the merits of marriage equality all the time," Woodly said. "Even when candidates were taking oppositional views, they were still talking about it all the time, which would raise the issue and the logic." As a result, that logic "became more and more acceptable to people as time went on. It became harder and harder for people to refute based on just simple base prejudice."

"We have to think about social movement success in a different way," Deva Woodly says. "They change the political environment" — the ideas people encounter — "before they change individual people's opinions."

Proponents of marriage equality, she argues, were able to shift the nature of the fundamental question from "Do you think that same-sex sexual relationships are gross?" to "Do you think that people who are in long-term committed relationship should have access to the same legal rights as married people?" and also to more philosophical questions such as, "Do you think that families come in all kinds?" or "Do you think that love makes a family?" 

The discussion about what was public versus private was what changed first, Woodly says, and for a while there were "majorities of people both disapproving of same-sex sexual relationship and approving of marriage equality." That eventually changed as prejudice faded, but it was what she calls the "decision rule" changed first.

"Defund the police" is actually winning

Something similar is happening now with the much-derided issue of defunding the police, as shown in a recently-released survey of Los Angeles residents. While 66% said they were very or somewhat satisfied with the overall performance of city police, there was overwhelming support for de facto defunding — even among households with police officers. When the question was asked directly, 69% said they were opposed to "defunding." But when asked whether they supported "reallocating parts of LAPD's budget to social workers, mental health care, and other social services," the same proportion supported it — and households with a police officer, that actually rose to 75% support.

The Los Angeles Times badly misrepresented these nuanced findings, and when Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps, tweeted about this, Woodly — whose most recent book is "Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements" — chimed in

I have been trying to tell y'all about the impact this discourse is having. This is how ideas become common sense. The top line isn't what changes first — the logic becomes acceptable then the policy preferences change. Usually takes about a decade.

"For me, watching the discourse on 'Defund the police,' I see a familiar pattern happening," Woodly told me. There was "a certain amount of unease," with majorities claiming to trust police, but also recognizing the issues of bias and excessive force. Most want to keep police budgets the same, "but also agree that policing needs to be reformed. So you see how all these arguments are not hanging together. There's instability here. You have both major political parties behaving as though this is absurd, obviously we're not going to do this, but I'm going to talk about it all the time. We're going to bring it up again and again, so you know that this is an issue that you need to be thinking about."

In other words, the same thing that happened with marriage equality is happening with police reform. "They're different issues, it's different time periods, and so it's not an apples-to-apples comparison in that way," Woodly said. "Yet I see instability in the opinion data. I see the ambiguity. This opinion that everyone is pretending is set in stone — that this will never work — is actually a moment where the possibility is just now coming to fruition."

Crime, the economy and national security are all closely identified with the Republican brand. Generally speaking, the more salient those are as election issues, the better Republicans are expected to do — even though their actual record in government  doesn't warrant it. So it does make sense to attack them on their actual record, as Bitecofer argues, even as longer-term social change will be needed to erode these pre-existing presumptions. 

"Defund the police" isn't dead, says Woodly. "This opinion that everyone is pretending is set in stone — that this will never work — is actually a moment where the possibility is coming to fruition."

It's noteworthy that the "family values" mantra doesn't work the way it used to — and the organizing Woodly documents played a key role in changing that. Something similar is called for in these other areas as well. Shenker-Osorio herself provides some hints of how this might happen. In "Don't Buy It!" she explains that conservative metaphorical models tell us that the economy is an autonomous, self-regulating body that makes moral demands of us, and punishes us when we go astray. Progressive models, which tend to be less clearly developed, tell us that the economy is a constructed object (typically, a vehicle) with use-value, one that exists to facilitate our dreams and desires. 

What I take from this is that the need to guide the economy — to drive the vehicle — is only going to keep growing. We need to drive that vehicle into a zero-carbon future, but also toward other broadly shared goals: an economy with more dignified work for all and less unaccountable power concentrated in a few hands. Movements working on every front that deals with the economy stand to gain enormously by changing the underlying "common sense" model of what the economy is, how it works and what it's for.

As noted above, there are multiple reasons why right-wing anti-democratic movements may appear more welcoming than progressive ones, particularly that the right speaks for power and is all about preserving it. That has consequences that are worth exploring. While conventional wisdom sees the so-called center as threatened by extremes on both sides, there is nothing symmetrical about the battle between entrenched power and those who challenge it. The Republican Party has always been more dominated by conservatives than the Democratic Party is by liberals, and over time that disparity has grown increasingly extreme. Polarization has been asymmetric, as political scientists put it: Republicans have moved much farther to the right than Democrats have moved left, and part of that shift has involved the erosion of the right's commitment to liberal democracy and the rule of law.  

Yes, there is polarization. But polarized positions in support of democracy and science are not "extreme," and neither is the broader issue consensus on the left on climate change, racial justice, reproductive rights, LGBTQ equality and so on. In this context, persuasion-based organizing strongly favors liberal or progressive positions over the long haul. If and when we see some comeback by "normal" or "mainstream" conservatives, we should expect them to claim some of these previously-extreme positions as their own, just as they've done in the past. In short, rather than constantly retreating — which demoralizes their base — Democrats should learn to fight, heeding both Bitecofer and Shenker-Osorio's advice.

But that's in the long run. What about right now, with a midterm election in 10 days that could severely erode democracy? Is it possible to craft a compelling persuasive message that might preserve the potential to do so much more? Former Republican congressman David Jolly, an ally of Bitecofer's, provided an example recently on MSNBC's "Deadline White House":

I think everything in the last six years leads to a very powerful contrast, and that is that today's Republican Party is fighting to cling to power, today's Democratic Party is fighting for you, the voter. Consider the Republicans through voter suppression, through election laws and gerrymandering, or through violence on Jan. 6: their main mission is to cling to power. The Democrats have demonstrated in the last six years that they are there to fight for the individual. There's the thread from protecting democracy to protecting the individual. 

In tangible terms, that means Democrats should send the message that they're fighting to allow you to vote and have your vote be counted, and be meaningful; to protect bodily autonomy and reproductive rights; to keep your kids safer from gun violence, in school and on the streets; to build a fairer economy that can lift everybody; to respect migrants who want to pursue the American dream and contribute to the economy; and to protect the individual dignity of every American, whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Is that enough to protect America's future, in the larger sense? Maybe not: There are more radical voices to be found in "The Persuaders" — women like Linda Sarsour, reproductive justice advocate Loretta Ross, Black Lives Matter activist Alicia Garza, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who are closer to my heart than David Jolly. But the message we need right now is one that can sway enough voters to keep hope alive that we can build a better world for everyone.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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