By Anand Giridharadas
Mr. Giridharadas is the author, most recently, of “The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy.” ( long)
Polls swing this way and that way, but the larger story they tell is unmistakable. With the midterm elections, Americans are being offered a clear choice between continued and expanded liberal democracy, on the one hand, and fascism, on the other. And it’s more or less a dead heat.
It is time to speak an uncomfortable truth: The pro-democracy side is at risk not just because of potential electoral rigging, voter suppression and other forms of unfair play by the right, as real as those things are. In America (as in various other countries), the pro-democracy cause — a coalition of progressives, liberals, moderates, even decent Republicans who still believe in free elections and facts — is struggling to win the battle for hearts and minds.
The pro-democracy side can still very much prevail. But it needs to go beyond its present modus operandi, a mix of fatalism and despair and living in perpetual reaction to the right and policy wonkiness and praying for indictments. It needs to build a new and improved movement — feisty, galvanizing, magnanimous, rooted and expansionary — that can outcompete the fascists and seize the age.
I believe pro-democracy forces can do this because I spent the past few years reporting on people full of hope who show a way forward, organizers who refuse to give in to fatalism about their country or its citizens. These organizers are doing yeoman’s work changing minds and expanding support for true multiracial democracy, and they recognize what more of their allies on the left must: 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
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In their own circles and sometimes in public, these organizers warn that the right is outcompeting small-d democrats in its psychological insight into voters and their anxieties, its messaging, its knack for narrative, its instinct to make its cause not just a policy program but also a home offering meaning, comfort and belonging. They worry, meanwhile, that their own allies can be hamstrung by a naïve and high-minded view of human nature, a bias for the wonky over the guttural, a self-sabotaging coolness toward those who don’t perfectly understand, a quaint belief in going high against opponents who keep stooping to new lows and a lack of fight and a lack of talent at seizing the mic and telling the kinds of galvanizing stories that bend nations’ arcs.
The organizers I’ve been following believe they have a playbook for a pro-democracy movement that can go beyond merely resisting to winning. It involves more than just serving up sound public policy and warning that the other side is dangerous; it also means creating an approachable, edifying, transcendent movement to dazzle and pull people in. For many on the left, embracing the organizers’ playbook will require leaving behind old habits and learning new ones. What is at stake, of course, is everything.
The right presently runs laps around the left in its ability to manage and use attention. It understands the power of provocation to make people have the conversation that most benefits its side. “Tucker Carlson said what about the war on ‘legacy Americans’?” “Donald Trump said what about those countries in Africa?” It understands that sometimes it’s worth looking ridiculous to achieve saturation of the discourse. It knows that the more one’s ideas are repeated — positively, negatively, however — the more they seem to millions of people like common sense. It knows that when the opposition is endlessly consumed by responding to its ideas, that opposition isn’t hawking its own wares.
Democrats and their allies lag on this score, bringing four-point plans to gunfights. Mr. Trump’s wall was a bad policy with a shrewd theory of attention. President Biden’s Build Back Better was a good policy with a nonexistent theory of attention. The political left tends to be both bad at grabbing attention for the things it proposes and bad at proposing the kinds of things that would command the most attention.
An attentional lens, for example, would focus a light on the pressure applied on Mr. Biden, successfully, to wipe out some student debt. In a traditional analysis, the plan is a mixed bag, because it creates many winners but also engenders resentments among nonbeneficiaries. What that analysis underplays is that giving even a minority of Americans something that absolutely knocks their socks off, changes their lives forever and gets them talking about nothing else to every undecided person in earshot may be worth five Inflation Reduction Acts in political, if not policy, terms.
North Star caucus members
antiracismdsa (blog of Duane Campbell)
Hatuey's Ashes (blog of José G. Pérez)
Authory and Substack of Max Sawicky
Online University of the Left
In These Times
The American Prospect
Black Agenda Report
Dollars and Sense
Working Families Party
Poor People's Campaign
Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism
Progressive Democrats of America
Democracy for America
Black Lives Matter
Movement for Black Lives
The Women's March
Jewish Voice for Peace
National Abortion Rights Action League
National Organization for Women
National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights