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The Art of Persuasion in a Polarized Age

11 minute read

Giridharadas is the author of The Persuaders: At the Center of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy. He is also the author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, The True American. He is a political analyst for NBC News and teaches at NYU.

The holidays are around the corner. A time for families to come together and, more and more, to come apart. As the nation fractures politically, so do our households, neighborhoods, and communities. For the majority of Americans who still believe in liberal democracy, in the idea that humans are created equal, and in fact-based reality, talking to those we care about on the other side can feel hopeless. Is there any point trying to reach these people? Is changing minds that don’t want to change a lost cause?

It isn’t.

A few years ago, as I felt myself succumbing to the same fatalism afflicting so many Americans, I set out to report a book on people swimming against the tide, refusing to write their fellow citizens off, pursuing persuasion in a time of polarization. I came upon a group of educators, activists, elected leaders, scientists, cult deprogrammers, messaging experts, and, above all, organizers, who I believe show a way forward even when things can feel so perilous and bleak.

Though their projects differ, what this group shared was an approach to changing minds in the face of rampant disinformation, social media platforms that reward dunking and hate rather than the pursuit of common ground, lie- and hate-spewing demagogues, and more. Their methods aren’t useful just for policymakers and party leaders. I believe they have much to teach all of us who want to get the country back on track, protect liberal democracy, heal our divides, and change what needs changing—if that is work you are ready and willing to do.

What follows are some of the lessons I learned from these gifted citizens about how you and I, working in our own communities, can be better persuaders.

1. Dig for what’s going on beneath the opinion

In an age of division, we tend to assume that people on the far side of an issue from us are fervently committed to that stance. We know ourselves to be complicated and torn, subject to all sorts of doubts, but we deny others that complexity. We imagine them to have a single story.

There are at least two problems with this attitude. One, it’s empirically false. Two, it’s self-defeating.

Sure, some of our fellow citizens— a large minority—are passionately committed to their ideological stands and have buttressed them with their reading and watching and associations. But a great many others are less steeped in the thinking behind the positions, more joiners than vanguards, more open to completely opposite ideas, too. This latter group holds strong opinions lightly.

What many of the persuaders I studied for my book taught me is that this less-certain group is ripe with opportunity. But winning them over requires discipline, empathy, and strategy.

Above all, it requires digging for what is going on beneath the outward stance—the candidate they adore, the position they hold on the border issue, the aversion they have to a policy you care about. “If we approach people with the idea that it’s normal to have complicated feelings, even if they have a Trump sign on their front yard, even if their public face expresses one thing—if we approach them with the assumption of ‘There’s something more going on underneath,’ oftentimes we find out that there is,” Steve Deline, a veteran organizer on LGBT rights issues, told me.

What may lurk underneath is the seedling of a contradictory opinion: they may fear invasion by “the illegals,” but they may also identify as champions of the underdog. They are put off by a trans relative, but they may once have been scorned and marginalized for their own reasons, and they never want to visit that on anyone. A remarkable experiment called deep canvassing, in which organizers around the country are going door to door, spending extended time with their neighbors, eliciting their opinions and trying to get them to grapple with these sources of dissonance, has shown great promise in pitting beliefs against other deep-seated intuitions people hold but perhaps haven’t connected to their prejudices.

What also often lurks beneath opinions is pain, stress, confusion, fear, and anxiety, especially in moments of profound change. In every area of American life, dramatic shifts over the last generation—in technology, trade, race and demographics, gender and sexuality, the economy, and more—have left Americans unsure of who they will be and how they will fit on the far side of change.

This doesn’t excuse the racism and misogyny that grow out of an allergy to change. But it does suggest that the remedy is helping more people make sense of these changes and find a healthier relationship to progress. It isn’t enough to be right about the future you seek. You have to sell it, even to those you fear and those who fear you.

2. Focus on the world you want, not what you oppose

As I was reporting The Persuaders, one of the most meaningful lessons I learned came from the political communications expert Anat Shenker-Osorio. In discussions about politics, she explained to me, the most important thing isn’t what you’re saying in a given conversation. It’s what conversation you’re having.

If someone at work or at the Thanksgiving table says to you, “Immigrants are animals,” and you respond that “Immigrants are not animals”—well, you’re right. But here’s the problem: You have now gotten yourself into a conversation about the animalness of immigrants. This is a bad conversation to have, because it takes place on the terrain of those who despise and degrade immigrants. Your position is the accurate one, but you are living inside their mental frame.

This has been a reality for millions of us in recent years. There are so many outrages all around us, 24/7—shocking legal infractions, barbaric comments, brazen power grabs. It can feel like a moral duty for a well-meaning citizen to pay attention to these outrages and respond to each one, to register that this is not okay; to tweet and vent to friends and family, so as not to let the unconscionable slowly become normal.

But here’s the thing. These outrages have locked many of us in perpetual reaction mode. The first thought we have in the morning and the last thought we have at night are rooted in something They Did. Not in the world we want, not in the beliefs we have, not in the policies we favor. Even in feeling like we are civically engaging by paying heed to moral outrages, we are living on the conversational turf of others. We are kept off our game. We are living in someone else’s moral universe.

Instead, Shenker-Osorio says, “say what you’re for.” Paint for your relatives and friends and co-workers and neighbors a vivid picture of the community and country you want to see. Make them see it. By no means should you ignore the monstrosities around you. But fit them into a bigger story of those who seek to obstruct the good things you’re fighting for, for their own narrow, nefarious ends. A great deal of research shows that what moves persuadable voters isn’t watering down your views, despite this being the common approach of so many politicians. It’s making undecided voters feel that your ideas are the more normal ideas, that they are common sense, that everyone they admire subscribes to them. Make the people around you know that’s true.

3. Don’t blame the victims of disinformation. Help them

Frighteningly powerful actors are, for purposes of profit, spewing false information into the ether. Millions of our fellow citizens are ingesting it and poisoning their minds. By some estimates, more than 40 million Americans believe in the delusions of the QAnon conspiracy complex alone—beliefs that helped motivate the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Media barons and conspiracy theorists are minting money and influence by spreading lies about vaccines, about racial “replacement” theories, about mass shootings.

These lies aren’t finding their deserved place in an open marketplace of ideas. They are forced into the minds of millions by people with the influence to make their content unignorable and the ability to calibrate them to the fears and anxieties permeating society.

When our friends and neighbors fall prey to these cons, we in the evidence-based world often make the mistake of condemning them as harshly as those who have conned them. On one level, this is natural. We know our outlandish climate-denier uncle and can access him; we don’t know Rupert Murdoch or have his cell number. But on another level, it makes no sense. If we truly believe the spewers of disinformation are abusing their power and manipulating people who lack the resources to resist their sway, why do we also blame their manipulees?

This isn’t just a moral issue. It’s a practical one. When we make people who have succumbed to disinformation or cultlike manipulation feel stupid, we can drive them further into the arms of the con, as the cognitive scientist John Cook, who studies disinformation and its remedies, explained to me. What I learned from Cook and others is that there is a primal need all of us have that disinformation taps into: the desire to have the world make sense.

But there is a second need we tend to share, which has the potential to compete with that first need: the desire not to be anyone’s fool. What works in winning people back from disinformation and manipulation is showing genuine concern for them—concern that people with a vested interest in toying with their minds for selfish purposes are tricking them through classic methods of manipulation. If explained, these methods can be seen for what they are.

For his part, Cook has created a project called Cranky Uncle, which is teaching people how to talk more effectively to their own relatives and friends. And he is building a suite of educational tools to help fortify the next generation of students against disinformation by teaching them the most common tactics employed by those who would con them.

4. Talk less. Do more

The anger and vitriol and division all around us seem to suggest the need for more dialogue as a path to healing. But something I learned from many of the organizers and educators I studied for The Persuaders is that dialogue stands on a foundation of trust and good faith —and words actually may not be the best way to lay that foundation.

What if, as Americans, we need to do more with each other in this moment rather than talk more? Attend meetings together, build things together, administer bodies of water and develop kids’ sports leagues and build community centers together?

The kind of civic repair America requires depends on people not thinking their peers are out to destroy them. It depends on a reduction in the present levels of contempt and dismissal in society. Anger and division are one thing— and frankly, they’re normal in a democracy. But contempt and dismissal, which have exploded in the U.S. in recent years, are different. They don’t drive people toward further engagement with the ideas of others; they turn people away from engagement. They undermine the premise of democracy: that it is possible to choose the future together.

And we’re not going to fix that by talking. Not at first. Instead, find ways to associate again—association being one of the key words used by the French aristocrat who best observed America in the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville. Focus on creating spaces where it is possible for people to meet and engage and trust each other despite their differences. Let the talk happen when it does.

With reporting by Simmone Shah

Giridharadas is the author, most recently, of The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy, from which this essay is drawn.

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