The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy
By Anand Giridharadas.
Hardcover, 352 pages, $30.
Reviewed by Gilbert NMO Morris.
Inflection points are transitional and transformative: And so are temporary dynamics of the compositional forces of our life-world—individual, socio-cultural, historical, and institutional—which gain their issuance by means so discrete and insular that they ignite unwittingly in full transformations before full awareness or adaptive rationalization, and at a pace and scale pressed through an evolving present. As social phenomena they constitute an undifferentiated “free energy” that renders moot our ability to divine a true alignment in or coordination of the complex of ideals we think to love singularly.
That’s the vortex in which all human sense-making unfurls.
In The Persuaders, Anand Giridharadas recognizes the “inflection point,” but will be forced to choose between posture, pace, and scale, in satisfaction of which it must be asked: at what stage of the temporary, transitional, transformative process is he operating, with what scale and scope, at what pace, toward what end?
In his previous work, Winners Take All (Knopf 2018), Giridharadas proved a talent with capacity for analytical torque, intelligent framing, and the courage to follow through, no matter upon whom his eloquent phrase-making vitriol fell. In this book, his thematising is panopolistic, yet niche-canvassing, “it’s pro-Democracy versus anti-Democracy…which means his frame…now absent the vitriol…is prolix.”
To that prolixity, we shall come to later, unavoidably.
Giridharadas achieved the thing for which he argues in this book, by this book. Mercifully, it is free of business school jargon or “roadmaps” toward becoming a “persuader.” (He does have a separate Guide to Becoming a Better Persuader.) Instead, the wisdom of his literary enterprise emerges from and disburses into every humane interaction in his reportage as an example of itself.
At stake are the processes by which America evangelizes itself as a democracy: an insurrection took place—and is ongoing—by Americans against America, both as a public and an institutional enterprise. As a catchall observation, political sentiment in America has atrophied to “factionalism,” or precisely that against which James Madison warned in Federalist No. 10, ergo, the inflection point.
Steve Bannon—the erstwhile Presidential advisor—was heard to have said on a series of American and British interview shows, rendered here in paraphrase, that the differences of the left and right are now too far gone to be settled within the present system of government. Confirming the level of contempt in which each side holds the other, he asserted further that we have a radical process—like “a call to arms,” and once we’ve fought it out, one side will emerge to reconstitute America. Against the wanton lets of this stylized belligerence, Giridharadas mounts less a call to action, and more a demonstration of the average everydayness of already occurring revelatory social dialogue, the aim of which is to show that the-more-in-common which Americans have (still) is greater and more fundamental than what seems to have factionalised their polity. From this realization—by practice rather than hope—faith in American democracy may be restored, sustained, and advanced.
There are references for this dialogical process.
The TIV peoples (1500 B.C.) in what is now Nigeria had no chiefs, no government, kept no records, had no concept of time. When discontent rose to a certain level, by genealogy and age they chose adjudicators (“Orya,” or if you please, “persuaders”) who heard from the main respondents and the broader cross-section of the whole people. They then rendered decisions to right the wrongs, which were infused with, whilst ensconced in, the social ideals of their life-world.
The ancient Greeks required a respondent to first explicate the ideas and concepts of opponents before assuming the right to offer alternative points of view.
The dialectic of Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach (1804-1872) (mistaken often to have been Hegel’s), called for an antithetical response to every thesis, from the deliberation over which would come a synthesis, which would spur thesis anew…and so on.
Giridharadas’ intermediating approach bests each of the foregoing by discovery; winnowing toward the best strategies; networking them toward a grander aim in which they are participants already, recording and reporting on structure, concepts and methodologies in The Persuaders. His availability, the availability of his subjects, their engagements with opponents, and the book itself function like a multi-system conversational interstice infused by proximal and distal dialogues.
A similar approach has been taken by organizations like helena.org and Consilience Project, which are dedicated to associating people of divergent views with the aim of having them listen and respond to the unfiltered perspectives of those with whom they suppose they disagree. For Habermasians committed to “communicative rationality,” Giridharadas discovers varieties of dialogic processes rather than insisting on formal modules for debate.
As a diplomatic envoy, one can assert both that disagreement is real, and yet disagreement is often a coincidence of certainties based on false premises. And so it is that the larger share of what is taken often to be “disagreement” is misunderstanding from misinformation, false filtered narratives, hubristic reactionary postures, and group-think tsunamis, all catalyzed at scale now through social media.
There are three frames—amongst many—distending beseechingly from The Persuaders:
A. A call to human value:
The story of US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) (AOC as she’s known affectionately) is not gainsaid as the book’s most evocative feature, both in Giridharadas allowing the story to be told and his telling of the story. There will be no spoiling of the treat that the reading brings. But so much as the following must be admired: I shall speak in the first person here: I don’t know the lady representative from New York. I don’t know her ideology. I am as likely to be, as anything, a Realist/Rastafarian/Libertarian/ Taoist/Lincolnian-Whig!
Yet each time one witnesses AOC putting someone to the question in one of those congressional hearings, I wish she represented me and that both those representing me and those to whom I am opposed would speak with her seriousness, sincerity, discipline, and her clear propensity, disposition, and inclination to advocate for human value.
I shall be so presumptuous as to assert that this is what Giridharadas is seeking: a polity, a world, in which we need not agree with each other, but in which we appreciate the moral and humane reinforcements which dialogue fosters. Even if it feels futile, “trusting the process” that though our myriad of values, ideals, and opinions are not reducible to each other’s, they inflect each the other’s transitionally in an unceasing transformative cross-pollination, in opposition to which hard ideological stances are a false intellectual virility that induces a refusal to engage, which ruins us all.
B. A Warning:
The “measles of mankind” is how Albert Einstein referred to nationalism; a social force which mistakes suspicion for intelligence; which draws conclusions from fears resulting in manufactured hate; the absolutist assurances of which are induced by an amorphing dissonance posing as folkloric legend, proselytized as that which “ought to be truth.” This disseminating dissonance was/is fertile ground for the transformative programs exploited by external forces—Russian botfarms more recently—that hardened not only attitudes, but crucially, as Giridharadas is at pains to show, its aims to indict political pluralism both as indicative cause and a menu of betrayals of some “true religion” whose God hears but one set of prayers.
In recent experience in the United States, the exploitation of this factionalism blunted the hubris of its superpower status, demonstrating that cyber-warfare is pernicious in its reconstitution of “hard” and “soft” powers. As Americans caught themselves thinking their thoughts were their own, those thoughts ceased in almost every thematic particular to be “American.”
The onslaught will not end with the current reprieve since the end of the Trump regime: “Botfarms” will give way to “deep fakes” and augmented reality, with the effect of coordinating and realigning manufactured hate into ever new, more ominous figurations; all likely to creep across the world like a contagion.
C. The Coup de Grace:
Here prolixity avails: although they haven’t, could the January 6th terrorist insurgents not have argued,
We are Lockeans of the Two Treatises on Government wherein John Locke (1632-1704) preserved a right of revolt by the governed against those who govern after many futile attempts to cause those who govern to adhere to the social contract from which their legitimacy derived. And after many remonstrances and protestations of outrage, owing to the refusal of those who govern to come to heel, revolt was the only recourse left to the governed against those who govern.
They could argue—as they did in Trump’s favor—that President Biden is a routine, rapacious, and unrepentant warmonger (as have been so many presidents of the last 120 years) whose path was moistened willfully by a complicit, conflicted media, which have been mainstay staging agents in a host of illegal coups, “black-op” destabilization programs, and “regime changes” by illegal uses of force, merchandising death, destruction, and misery across the world against the values upon which America was founded and upon which she had become the “last best hope for mankind.”
The January 6th malcontents may lean on a Princeton University study (“Testing Theories of American Politics,” Martin Gilens/Benjamin I. Page), where “multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” (Which is to say America is a plutocracy.)
This would imply that, potentially, Giridharadas invites dialoguers into a “burning house,” since the democracy versus anti-democracy frame may really be a meta-argument about differences in following the right procedure toward a “return-to-politics-as-usual” in a shared corruption of the “American ethic,” opposite to the American values explicated through the Declaration of Independence, the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, the 1872 (not today’s) Republican Manifesto, and the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President John F. Kennedy.
Invariably, there is a through-line presumption in The Persuaders: it is addressed to the “left political church,” persuading them that the self-righteous self-assurance of their rightness incites a visceral reaction on the right side of the political church; with the admonition—not that they (the left) should be persuaded—that they should resolve to persuade others. If AOC’s experience (the persuaded) vis-a-vis Hon. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) (the unpersuaded) exemplifies personal transformation, then the story of Anat Shenker-Osorio (ASO)—messaging warlord Valkyrie—posits the transitional process of persuasion at scale, with the aim of winning “hearts and minds” to the left church on its terms. “Pleasant words,” counsels Proverbs 16:24, “are like a honeycomb; sweet to the soul and health to the bones.” ASO embodies this mantra by holding the “through-line presumption” that the “left church” represents “normalcy,” “rationality,” and human value. In the equation of persuasion, therefore, one wonders what on the right is acceptable to be exchanged and adopted given the offering from the left, which by Giridharadas’ presumption, restores humanity to the right; or so it seems.
Ross, Garza, Shakir—each of Giridharadas’ discovered “persuaders”—assured in their AOS-style dialogical methodologies, also posture in their sense of ultimate rightness; which means their “change-maker” programs are not exercises in pluralism, but a rescue project in sense-making by those who can and do for those who have been drawn to near extremist mirages. Giridharadas assures us that the process of persuasion, in substance, occurs “at the end, not the beginning” of a more redemptive process of “care.”
Nonetheless, persuasion-in-practice is elapsing time against a composition of exponentializing forces—the vortex again—such that the subject matter in persuasion and the practice of persuasion itself exceed the inflection point at and through which it must succeed.
This is no reason for despair.
Focus must be given, amidst the thrall of countervailing forces, to structures, initiatives, and emergent programs/narratives that both advance and seek to impede the democratic process. In America these in their congruent incongruence are variously:
I. An emerging “vertical of power” in which the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary, superaided by state and municipal institutions, cultivate or enjoy the happenstance of a purest ideological alignment.
II. As Tristan Harris warned us in Social Dilemma (Netflix 2020), the limbic hunting “methodologies, digital leviathans” are reconstituting the pluralistic coordinating forces that democracies require toward extremes.
III. Gelatinous factisms reflecting preconceived, untested, vouchsafed shibboleths founded in self-desiring folklorism expressed as unstable “alternative facts.”
IV. Digitalization/Surveillance masquerading as “eGovernment,” eventually to be tied to Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDC), routing every constitutional norm and so superaiding the vertical of power.
Therefore, against these risks, if the pro-democracy initiative is to quicken causative meaning and moral potency by exposing the extremes as extreme, it requires a substantive agenda or it is merely a race against the January 6th insurrectionists over who gets to operate America’s 120 year warmongering ponzi, in which taxpayer funds support neither justice nor advance America’s interests. Instead, as was shown by Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler (1881-1940) (the most decorated US marine in history) in “War is a Racket” (1935), the proliferation of US wars finance death merchants, who provide the politicians who approve their contracts a revolving door to riches through unending wars.
Whatever one’s forward outlook, The Persuaders shows that in the world of the future, informal, self-directed, intramural dialogues will emerge, even if not as likely, as the better means of sense-making in a vortex of “information overload” with its attendant exhausting prolixities. Democracy—if it avails—will be functionally participatory rather than representative, owing to the ubiquity of enterprise technologies. But if Giridharadas’ admonition and examples are to gain causative and cultivate transformative potency, first we must persuade ourselves, as AOC was shown to have done, that we are ourselves persuadable.
That is the first time-saving battle of a potentially interminable war. But then, it was Marianne Moore who said reflexively, “There never was a war that was not inward.”
Ambassador Gilbert NMO Morris is an economist, neuroscientist, legal scholar, and diplomat. He was Professor at George Mason University, where he taught in four faculties, including History and Philosophy, Science & Religion. He lectured at the Smithsonian Institution Associates on the Structure and History of Revolutions. He was educated at the London School of Economics.
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