Anand Giridharadas: ‘The fascists are better at politics’

Anand Giridharadas: ‘The fascists are better at politics’

The first time I encountered Anand Giridharadas, the leftwing American journalist, he seemed to be a potent symbol of America’s political tribalism. It was October 2020, and he was participating in a sustainability summit organised by the National Association of Corporate Directors along with Glenn Hubbard, dean of Columbia Business School — and myself.

I had clicked on to Zoom expecting a worthy debate. Not so: as hundreds of American directors looked on, Giridharadas lambasted Hubbard and the audience, accusing them of being so complacent about the world’s woes that “a lot of your children and grandchildren do not respect your work!”.

It made headlines, prompting some directors to “rage-quit” the meeting out of sympathy for Hubbard — and the NACD to later apologise to me (which I found needless and somewhat bizarre, but such is the ideological polarisation in America today).

Now, two long years later, I find myself sitting in a noisy Chinese restaurant in Midtown Manhattan preparing to meet the firebrand author. But in the intervening years, something rather peculiar has occurred.

Giridharadas shot to fame in left-leaning and youngish circles by writing Winners Take All, a bestseller that accused America’s elite of using philanthropy as a tool to avoid tackling inequity. His new book, The Persuaders, has a very different message: it urges leftwing voters and activists like him to stop yelling at opponents.

Instead, as 2023 approaches, he now wants the left to “persuade” the people it dislikes to embrace some radical ideas — with empathy. Unless the left can do this, he adds, we will see the west sliding deeper into the pit of populism next year.

So why has he changed tack? Is his advice even remotely feasible in a country where tribalism is so rife that two-thirds of Republicans (and only slightly fewer Democrats) tell pollsters that their opponents are not just ideologically wrong, but morally bad people? And could it help the Democrats win in 2024?

Giridharadas slides quietly into the restaurant, dressed more like a fashion designer than political revolutionary: a coif of elegant, silver-streaked hair, a black leather jacket and trendy black trousers flecked with white dots.

We are promptly ushered to one of the best tables in the house; Giridharadas is such a regular in this Midtown haunt that when his wife gave birth nearby, they ordered its food to celebrate “and they sent along a bottle of champagne. It’s one of my favourites,” he observes.

Like his jeans, the food comes with a sophisticated twist. Unlike most Chinese restaurants in New York, this one — Café China — serves Sichuan food, from a region famed for its spiciness. “It was created by a husband and wife, but neither had experience in food before,” he explains. “They started it as a normally priced Midtown restaurant but then got a call and were told [it] had won a Michelin star. They didn’t even know then what it was.” 

What does he recommend? A waiter points at a QR code on the table. “I hate those,” Giridharadas complains, and a paper menu is conjured up. “The spicy Kung Pao chicken is amazing — I learnt to make it myself in the pandemic when this place was closed and I missed it. The spicy beef is good, and eggplant and garlic sauce and okra and mother-and-father tofu . . . ” He is such a foodie that I suggest he orders for both of us. 

Rice? Giridharadas shakes his head; I guess that he like many trendy New Yorkers shuns carbs to stay slim. Wine? Warily, he orders a glass and I follow suit.

To break the ice, I ask him a question that cuts across political tribes: where did he spend the pandemic? “Upstate New York,” he says. One of his children has had lung problems, he explains, so although he normally lives in Brooklyn he and his wife went to the countryside to isolate. He tells me that his wife — like him — comes from a family of Indian immigrants to America, although they met in India many years ago. “It took me years to persuade her to marry me — but I am persistent,” he says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “And patient.” 

What does his wife do? “She is a conflict resolution facilitator.”

I laugh — and wonder if this is why Giridharadas has suddenly changed tack. He started his career as a reporter at the New York Times. But he was so outspoken in expressing his anger towards Donald Trump (and others) that he parted company with the paper and became a successful freelance writer and activist instead. “In 2016 [when I was at the NYT] I had several disputes about how to write about Trump . . . I couldn’t use the word demagogue,” he laments.

“The people making these decisions are trying to defend a certain type of journalism, and I deeply empathise. But the problem is that we live in a moment when there are people devoted to destroying the values on which this journalism was created. So we have to be honest.” 

Café China
59 W 37th St, New York, 10018

Poached okra $12
Mala daikon $10
Husband and Wife special $16
Kung Pao chicken $18
Braised pork $20
Purple rice $3
Glass of Sauvignon Blanc $12
Glass of Albariño $16
Bottle of sparkling water $8
Total (inc service) $138

So is it your wife who convinced you to embrace persuasion — not fighting? Giridharadas insists the couple keep their work separate and notes that she backs his politics. By European standards, this is fairly standard left-of-centre stuff; he supports, for example, universal healthcare and tax increases for the rich. In today’s America, however, these views are reviled as “socialism” by rightwing voices. Hence the conflict at the NACD.

A waiter brings our glasses of wine, and I take a wary sip; the Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and delicious. He sips too, and then admits that during the confinement of Covid he looked closely at what she did in her work — promote reconciliation — and saw its value. This coincided with another crucial, more practical realisation: he reluctantly concluded that the tactics the left have used to press their case look increasingly ineffective against the swelling might of populism.

“If the definition of fascism is the use of state power to throw out election results and legitimise the use of violence in politics, there are people [championing] that now — and they are outcompeting us,” he rails. “This age of tribalism is not really about right or left any more, but about a pro-democracy and anti-democracy movement. The pro-democracy side has a fatalism about the impossibility of bringing people over from the other side — and that is a recipe for tyranny.” 

The waiter arrives with a collection of small dishes of daikon, beef, okra and rice. I taste them gingerly; having visited Sichuan, I know its cuisine is fiery. The beef is too fatty for my tastes, but I wash it down with a sip of tart wine. We toast and clink glasses.

But isn’t Joe Biden performing better than expected, I ask. In November, the Democrats defied predictions by hanging on to far more seats than expected in the midterms, and Trump has since appeared to sink in the opinion polls. “This is not a book aimed at Biden and the moderate moderates. My message is for people who are strident, who want fundamental change. What I am asking those people to think about is: are they reaching out to people beyond their community, or just talking to each other?”

My instinct is to say “no”. The (mostly) young leftwing activists I have encountered seem to have absolutely no desire to talk to Trump supporters; indeed, many are seething with fury at centrists such as Biden. But Giridharadas firmly believes this can change. Thus his book relates stories such as that of “Linda”, a black feminist activist who helped to organise the 2017 Women’s March in defiance of Trump — and who successfully worked with a very different tribe of progressive and privileged white women, even though these groups are often (at best) warily suspicious of each other.

It is an admirable example of trying to beat tribalism. But, as his book makes clear, the act of building bridges — even just inside the Democrats — is very time-consuming, requiring oodles of energy, patience and wisdom. Will activists in 2023 really have the resources to do this? Won’t they consider this selling out?

He shakes his head; he is not asking progressives to abandon their message about the need for radical change, he stresses; but what he really wants is for progressives to gain respect for ordinary people’s lives. That means that the elites who have come to shape — if not dominate — so much Democrat policymaking have to get out of their ivory towers (or smart Chinese restaurants) and display empathy for ordinary middle-of-the-road working Americans; particularly given that the latter have been drifting Republican in recent years.

“The fascists are better [than the left] at politics — at messaging and providing people with a transcendental experience, with narrative,” he declares. More specifically, the right excels at “meaning-making” — or the creation of stories that enable people to frame their lives. “We [on the left] tend to miss an emotional and psychological reptilian brain approach to politics.” To illustrate his point, he cites the contrast in approach between the leftwing MSNBC television channel (where he is a contributor) and the rightwing channel Fox.

“MSNBC is not the mirror image of Fox — Fox is all about meaning-making. Each week it takes local stories about a real person in their life and blows them up to national news. It can be something like workers getting diversity training in the office, or seeing Spanish-speaking cashiers at the supermarket — it tells the tale about how people feel,” he explains. “But MSNBC is national, not local, and it talks about policy, not ordinary people. There is a deficit of meaning-making on the pro-democracy side.” 

Ironically, one exception to this, he concedes, is the president himself. “I was wrong about Biden before — I underestimated him. Biden is the almost perfect figure to talk to white Americans, men and older Americans about what they are feeling right now — which is fucking confused. Radicalisation always starts with confusion — the right gets that, but the left doesn’t.”

Does that imply he thinks Biden can win again against, say, Trump? “If Trump ran against Biden now I don’t think he would win. But it is probably 51-49 and that is scary since what is being offered on the other side is a descent into madness.” 

He is talking with so much passion that his food is largely untouched. But I munch on the okra and daikon with enthusiasm, enjoying the fiery flavours. Giridharadas seems so determined to embrace this new path of “empathy” — and soft persuasion — that I wonder whether he now regrets his furious fight with Hubbard and the other corporate directors in 2020. In retrospect, did it help or harm his cause?

“We need to recognise that you need to speak to people in different ways at different times,” he adds. “That day I was playing on a string that corporate directors would care about — their children. They don’t really care about redistribution or the fact that the social-mobility ladder has crumbled. But the idea their children might not respect them does tug at their heart.” 

I agree, and tell him business leaders often tell me that they first began to take note of issues such as climate change or sexual harassment when their own children started yelling at them over the dinner table. “I know — I meet these kids all the time who tell me “my Mom and Dad does this”, with big jobs, and then they leak me information. I think that the children [of America’s elite] are turning into the most socialist generation this country has ever produced!”

I blink, and ask him to name names; he declines. But I suspect his comment about the “socialist” kids is correct: as a Pew survey recently showed, some 44 per cent of Americans aged 18-19 have a positive view of socialism, while only 40 per cent say they like capitalism; among the 50-65 cohort the ratio is 62-32 the other way.

A new selection of spicy dishes arrives: a sizzling chicken dish and some steaming purple rice that I ordered. He takes a spoonful of chicken but ignores the rice. I press him on the 2020 fight again: does he think this persuaded any corporate directors to change their mind?

It seems not; he explains that his angry attacks that day were primarily designed to create noise to spark media coverage of his ideas, not “persuade” others. But then he pauses — mid-bite — and corrects himself. “Oh! But there was Hubbard’s book . . . !” 

The book in question is Hubbard’s The Wall and the Bridge. It was published 15 months after the NACD fight and urges corporate elites to emerge from their cosy, privileged lives and start interacting with the wider world to create businesses that serve all stakeholders.

In 2022 these themes sound almost commonplace, given the rise of the Environmental, Social and Governance movement. But stakeholderism was heresy a couple of decades ago in the Republican circles and corporate world that Hubbard hails from; back then, shareholders reigned supreme.

So what does he make of the fact that some of Hubbard’s ideas carry echoes of his — or vice versa? Does this suggest that behind the public, tribal fights, American political adversaries are moving closer — and/or have more in common than we realise?

Giridharadas seems unsure. He is no fan of ESG, since he thinks that this — like philanthropy — is used by elites to prevent structural reform. “A company like BlackRock does not want a world where we take on climate change as we should, so it counter-offers with ESG,” he says. “Starbucks and Goldman Sachs talk about narrowing the racial wealth gap — but Goldman helped to cause a financial crisis which destroyed racial wealth and Starbucks has been busting unions!” 

It does not sound very conciliatory. But, if you strip out the bitter history and simply look at what Hubbard and Giridharadas are saying today, it seems to me that there is more in common between the men than divides them. It is almost cheering.

A waiter offers dessert. We both decline; my stomach is bursting with the spicy food, and I regret having mixed it with white wine. As we head out into the filthy bustle of midtown Manhattan I ask him if he would be willing to have a rematch with Hubbard and the corporate directors. Maybe it is time to see if they can find common ground? Maybe with their “socialist” kids?

“Name the date!” Giridharadas says, with relish. I hope he means it; heaven knows that America’s fractured landscape needs to heal in 2023, or at least become a little less angrily divided.

Gillian Tett is chair of the editorial board and editor-at-large US of the Financial Times

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