As the far-right movement continue to expand its influence over American politics and appears poised to win several races in Tuesday’s midterm elections, one expert says pro-democracy forces need to try and beat them at their own game.
Anand Giridharadas, a former foreign correspondent and columnist and author of The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds and Democracy, argues the march towards fascism and authoritarianism can be countered using the same methods that have been successfully employed by the right wing: addressing people’s real concerns and emotions. But he adds there must also be a shifting of the conversation away from fear and anger.
“The notion that people’s minds can’t be changed simply isn’t true,” he told Global News Tuesday as voters were still casting ballots across the country. “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”
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Republicans appear set to gain control of at least one chamber in Congress and deliver a rebuke to Democrats and President Joe Biden, who have spent the past two years with a united government.
A majority of Republican candidates have either questioned or outright denied Biden’s election victory in 2020, echoing false claims of fraud and distrust in the system from former president Donald Trump. Some candidates have openly vowed to make it harder for Democrats to win in the future by changing state voting laws.
Despite warnings from Democrats of the threat to democracy, polls have shown rising inflation and crime are top of mind for voters, amid relentless Republican messaging that argues Biden and leftist policies are to blame.
Giridharadas says those arguments have been successful because they prey on emotions like fear and anxiety while also giving people a sense that they’re part of a movement to “take back” America and restore order to a chaotic world.
Biden and his party have tried to point to actual policy achievements, like the Inflation Reduction Act and landmark infrastructure funding, that have sought to improve people’s lives and communities while addressing the rising cost of living, as well as progressive issues like climate change.
But Giridharadas says that “cold” policy talk has little chance of drowning out the more emotional narratives being delivered by the right.
“I think Democrats in the U.S. have gotten into a pattern of imagining where they wish voters were and speaking to that high-minded person … and not really being a ‘gutteral’ party, not able to speak to the gut, not able to speak to the reptile brain,” he said.
Making that shift would also require adopting a more aggressive stance, he adds.
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“With all due respect to Michelle Obama, who some years ago said ‘when they go low, we go high,’ I think it’s also possible to say, ‘when they go low, we hit harder,'” he said.
For years, researchers have pointed to various reasons why political polarization has increased and more voters are embracing anti-democratic positions. Some have blamed the rise of social media, where users are less willing to listen to opposing viewpoints and are quick to resort to anger. Others say far-right figures have exploited a real sentiment among citizens that their lives, both economically and socially, have gotten worse while establishment politicians offer no real solutions.
For Giridharadas, there is another reason: conservatives in the U.S. are desperately trying to subvert decades of social progress that has made lives relatively better for women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ Americans.
“Many, many Americans celebrate this, are part of these changes, are pushing for these changes, want to live in that world,” he said, “and a minority faction has decided they would rather burn it all down than share the country that we all inherited.”
Although the economy and crime have dominated the midterm campaigns this year, there has been a notable rise in right-wing rhetoric targeting transgender people and warning of so-called “groomers” indoctrinating children with gender-inclusive education, without any evidence to support such claims.
Right-wing media figures and politicians have also increasingly embraced the “Great Replacement” theory that suggests Democrats are importing voters from other countries to keep them in power. The conspiracy has risen in reaction to reports racialized Americans will eventually outnumber whites, despite the growing support for Republicans among Hispanics.
“They are not an inspiring, bold movement of big ideas for the future,” Giridharadas said of the far-right. “They are a sad movement of reaction clinging to the past. They are barnacles on our progress.
“I don’t live in their world. They live in my world.”
Democrats, therefore, have an opportunity to tell “a patriotic, galvanizing, thrilling story about America” and “the effort to build an incredible, multiracial democracy,” he said.
“That story needs to frankly out-compete the story of those who would break the country rather than share it.”
Giridharadas doesn’t discount the influence of social media and its ability to easily spread disinformation. But he sees the issue as endemic rather than something that can be fully stopped, and suggests education focused on how to resist falsehoods and conspiracy theories should become a key facet of modern life.
He also says more American allies, including Canada, need to be frank about what’s happening in the U.S. and call it out.
“It would be great to have more world leaders speaking out about the erosion of democracy in America, the way world leaders so confidently speak about that happening in so-called ‘third world’ countries,” he said.
Combined, Giridharadas says these strategies could determine if the defeat of anti-democratic forces in one of the world’s oldest democracies happens in the short term or decades later.
“If it’s going to be put down quickly, it’s going to be because we up our skills at persuasion, at changing minds, and actually believe again that it’s possible to defeat this revolt against the future by persuading,” he said.