Anand Giridharadas is not your typical populist. He hails from a wealthy suburb in Ohio, Shaker Heights, which was once considered the richest residential area in the United States. In 2003, Giridharadas graduated from the University of Michigan with an honors degree in history. Shortly thereafter, he got a consulting job at McKinsey & Company. Eventually, Giridharadas would return to school — this time, Harvard — where he pursued a doctorate.
Though great for a résumé, none of these credentials scream “champion of the working class.” And yet, Giridharadas has become best known for his scathing critique of contemporary capitalism and the inequality it generates. His latest book, “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” lays out the case in full.
“Winners Take All” made The New York Times Best Seller list, thanks in large part to Giridharadas’ promotional efforts. He appeared on popular television programs such as “The Daily Show” and “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” to present his central thesis. Audiences were nothing but receptive to Giridharadas’ message, which is somewhat strange given its content.
To be clear, Giridharadas does not come as the bearer of good news. Nor does his critique of the economic system stop at insisting Jeff Bezos pay his fair share in taxes. This is relatively low-hanging fruit and tells us nothing we do not already know. Instead, he chronicles a tale of exploitation.
“The people up above are up above because they are stepping on people down below. And the people down below are down below because they are being stepped on,” Giridharadas told Trevor Noah as “The Daily Show” live audience applauded.
This is what separates Giridharadas from people like, say, Senator Elizabeth Warren. The latter’s approach is to accept capitalism — Warren has said she is “a capitalist to [her] bones” — but assert that modest tweaks are needed to ensure everyone is treated fairly. Giridharadas, on the other hand, does not do this. Sure, he believes in things like higher taxes on the ultrawealthy and strengthening the regulatory state. But he goes deeper. Fundamentally, Giridharadas stands in opposition to the very power asymmetries that lie at the heart of the capitalist superstructure.
Later in the interview with Noah, Giridharadas skillfully parallels contemporary capitalist exploitation with chattel slavery. Though not novel, some might consider this a fairly radical point. But the live audience did not seem to think so. The way Giridharadas framed it just made it sound like common sense. And, as he finished his answer, Giridharadas was met with more raucous applause.
Why does Giridharas resonate so well? Wherever you stand politically, it is undeniable that he is a stunningly effective orator. Perhaps Giridharadas’ biggest strength is his plainspoken tone. He does not rely on “sounding smart” through the invocation of esoteric economic theories or inaccessible academic jargon.
Indeed, he does not have to. Giridharadas can get his point across simply by calling attention to easily observable facts of economic life. He channels widespread discontent while rejecting the divisiveness that characterizes so much of today’s vacuous political discourse.
Democrats could learn a thing or two. As the de facto party of the working class, Democrats need to speak to the issues that make Giriharadas’ work so important. And right now, with a handful of notable exceptions, they are failing miserably.
“There’s almost this kind of intellectual flabbiness that sets in … where Democrats are unable to take things that would make 90% of people’s lives better and sell them to 51% of people. Whereas Republicans are able to take things that make 1% of people’s lives better and sell them to 51% of people,” Giridharadas told Andrew Yang, former Democratic presidential candidate, on his podcast “Yang Speaks.”
Giridharadas is right — the Democrats are underperforming. There are far more Democratic voters in the country, and yet they basically split elections with Republicans. Looking at politics as the numbers game it is, the Democratic Party should be the dominant political force.
Of course, part of this has to do with electoral cheating. We know that things like gerrymandering and voter suppression disproportionately harm already marginalized communities that tend to vote Democrat — and these policies are implemented for that reason. But another piece of the puzzle is subpar messaging.
The Democratic Party’s problem is technocracy. Like Latin, it is a dead language. Incremental change is an idea only the supremely charismatic can sell. The average person simply does not have an appetite for block grants or means-tested benefits. Many of them do not even know what these things are or how they function — and can you blame them?
One of the beauties of Bernie Sanders’ campaign was that he did not follow this failed model. Sanders preached bold, easily digestible agenda items. Policies were given self-explanatory names — Medicare, Housing and College for All. This simple brilliance helped propel an unknown senator to the highest heights of political stardom. Again, Democrats should take note.
Communication is everything in politics. To be successful, candidates must fit their rhetoric to meet constituents where they are. That does not mean politicians should just blindly follow the majority opinion on every issue. Indeed, Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” But that consensus can only be forged from a point of common understanding. Anand Giridharadas knows this, and is warning Democrats to take heed before it is too late:
“Not having an understanding of where that waitress or truck driver is psychologically… because you’ve allowed yourself to become the Harvard party over time, is so profoundly dangerous.”