Matthew Goodwin on Why the Last Decade of Politics Has Been So Bizarre
Yascha Mounk and Matthew Goodwin discuss the political perils (and opportunities) of shifting political constituencies.
Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. He is the author, most recently, of Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Matthew Goodwin discuss the left’s transition from a focus on the working class to college-educated professionals; how leaders like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were able to broaden their electoral tents in the 1990s; and why the “cultural dimension” of politics isn’t going away.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: For the last few years I've been trying to think through the very significant change in the partisan alignment of the left and the right in most Western democracies, and perhaps particularly in Britain and the United States.
Why is it that 40 or 50 years ago, if I wanted to know who votes for Labour or the Conservatives, or for the Democrats or the Republicans, I could ask them straightforward questions about economics, the welfare state and taxation, and today, it feels like the answer to those kinds of questions doesn't correlate very clearly with whether you vote for Labour or Conservatives or Democrats or Republicans. What happened?
Matthew Goodwin: I think two things have happened. On the demand side of politics, we've seen the rise of what political scientists often call the “cultural dimension” in politics. Particularly from the 1980s onwards, we've seen the rise of globalization, high rates of migration, and ethnic and demographic change pushing through new issues relating to identity and culture which have become far more salient and are now expressed in the emerging debates over so-called “cultural war” topics but are really questions that are much more about “Who are we?” rather than “What do we have?”
But secondly, I think the supply side has changed as well. Some parties have simply been much better than others at appealing across those traditional party lines. If you look, for example, at Britain's Conservatives during the Brexit wars, if you look at Trump's Republicans, some conservatives have been very in tune with this unfolding realignment and they've been very adept at exploiting it and pulling it into politics. And some politicians, mainly on the left but not exclusively, have been, in my view, very bad at understanding how the tectonic shifts of politics have been changing. They've remained very wedded to this view, largely left over from the Industrial Revolution, that the foundation of politics is mainly about class and redistribution, and they have been very reluctant to enter into these new debates about identity and culture. Now that is beginning to change. You look at center-left leaders like Keir Starmer, and you look at how they change their positioning on issues like Brexit, patriotism, and defense; how Joe Biden has positioned himself on some issues, which are clearly designed to reconnect with working class, non-college-graduate voters that the Democrats have lost. You're beginning to see changes now on the supply side on the left. But, essentially, politics has become two-dimensional. It's not just left and right, it's now left and right and liberal and conservative. And that's pushed us into this new space. And it's created lots of opportunities for new insurgents, green parties, and populists. But it's also made it harder for the established parties to really respond to that.
That to me is essentially the story of the last 50 to 75 years in the politics of many Western democracies: we've left that first era of classic left and right politics, and we've entered into this new second era from the 1980s. And we're still living in that.
Mounk: One way of telling the story is to think about two “dilemmas.” The first dilemma was formulated by Adam Przeworski, an accomplished political scientist, when he pointed out that the Labour Party and the Democrats were trying to broaden their electoral tent from being mostly based on the working class to getting more and more of the vote in the professional managerial class.
What was the nature of that dilemma? And why do you think that to understand what's going on today, we have to think about a “second dilemma?”
Goodwin: In the 1980s, academics, politicians, and activists realized that the left was facing this very difficult dilemma between holding onto the traditional working class, which at that point, especially in democracies like Britain, was mainly white, and simultaneously reaching out to a more affluent, socially mobile and increasingly university-educated middle class. That tension really dominated left politics from the 1980s through to the 2010s. It still remains with us today, and those two groups have really been pushed apart not only by their economic experiences but by the fact that they hold fundamentally different sets of cultural values. We saw that in Britain, most noticeably during Brexit, when you have 150 Labour-held seats where voters decided to leave the European Union—were much more culturally conservative than many of their middle class, university-educated Labour MPs. And of course, you saw it with lots of areas that ended up flipping from Democrat to Republican in order to vote for Donald Trump.
That first dilemma still today remains very salient for left parties. But it's been joined by this second dilemma. One of my frustrations with my left progressive colleagues is that, historically, they've often argued that we can basically circumvent that first dilemma by doubling down on this notion that “demography is destiny;” that, basically, left parties can essentially not worry so much about the white working class because they are accumulating more and more support among groups that are on the rise—the graduate class, minority ethnic voters, and urban voters. Then you saw this in books like America Ascendant by Stanley Greenberg. You've seen it in arguments by prominent journalists. Jeremy Cliffe and others have talked about the “Londonization” of the country—that, actually, the future is with this newly ascendant emerging alliance of middle class graduates and minority voters, and that’s perhaps [even more true] in the United States. Ruy Teixeira was one of the leading voices arguing for this rising Democratic electorate.
Mounk: But his thesis has often been overstated and misunderstood by Democratic politicians and strategists, and in the pages of Persuasion, on this podcast, and in many other fora including The Liberal Patriot, he has now become the principal critic of this set of assumptions. Ruy is a very interesting figure in both helping this thesis get a larger audience but also in pointing out the flaws of a sort of simplistic reading of it that ended up being so influential in the world of Democratic politics.
Goodwin: And I should add that I'm a big fan of his work. What that narrative lost sight of—firstly, it exaggerated, as you say, the pace of social and demographic change. These groups were not growing as quickly as many people thought they were. And one of the reasons why Boris Johnson, for example, was able to win the largest majority for any Conservative since the days of Margaret Thatcher was because many of the sort of very strong ‘Remain’ voters who wanted Britain to stay in the European Union, who loathed everything about Boris Johnson, many of these university graduates and also minority voters concentrated in the same types of areas—in the big cities and university towns. And in the first-past-the-post system, you need to build that widespread support. You don't want narrow, concentrated support. So the narrative also overlooks the importance of geography.
But it also overlooks the growing divergence in the policy preferences of white graduate liberals, on the one hand, and minority working class voters on the other. They do look at a lot of these increasingly salient cultural questions around identity, gender, history, and policing in a very, very different way not only in America but also Britain. We can see that over the last five or six years, particularly since the Trump and Brexit revolts, white, affluent, middle class graduates have basically doubled down on social liberalism and radical progressivism. And I completely understand that reaction. But what it's done is it's pushed them—and, I would add, the institutions they tend to dominate in politics, media, and culture—further away from many of these voters that are within the left's alliance. Today, so many minority voters, for example Hispanic Latino voters, are drifting rightwards. If you look at British Indians, on many questions related to teaching gender identity theory in schools, rapid social change, high levels of migration, they don't share the [opinions] of their white graduate liberal counterparts who dominate the most influential positions within the Labour movement.
The second dilemma is really going to be difficult for left parties because it's also exacerbating their much weaker relationship with what remains of the white working class, which we should remember is still a very large voting bloc in its own right. White working-class voters in England, for example, represent very large chunks of the vote in regions outside of London and the university towns. And if you look at all the survey data that we have, it shows pretty clearly that over the last ten years, they feel that the Labour Party has routinely prioritized minority group interests over the wider majority. Justin Gest and others have written really good books about this that have thrown light on this sense among voters that actually Labour elites are no longer really interested in the white working class, or even worse, they sort of look down on them with suspicion if not contempt. It’s going to be really, really difficult for left parties, because they're now facing this new challenge of trying to come up with a unifying narrative on culture. That's a very, very difficult thing to do, especially when conservatives are now grasping the fact that there's a lot of opportunity for them to drive a wedge through the left electorate in the same way that they did during the 1980s and mid-1990s, carving off working class voters and nongraduates, many of whom went to national populist parties, and many of whom went to conservatives like Boris Johnson. I think the second dilemma is going to be as problematic for left parties as the first.
Mounk: What was it that allowed some politicians to hold this coalition together? There’s two readings of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. You could say that they put together a political program for the first dilemma and, in a way, we have a model for how to do that. Now, I think the counterpoint to that might be that it actually was only possible in a particular historical moment; that even though the first dilemma was formulated in the 1980s, it wasn't as strong in the 1980s, because there was still such strong working class feeling in some of those working class towns in Pennsylvania and Red Wall seats in England's northeast that you could take for granted a certain set of constituencies and really go after the middle class vote. And over time it's eroded so that today you wouldn't be able to recreate that coalition.
What's your assessment here? Do you think that there was a set of political recipes which showed left wing parties how to solve the first dilemma, or do you think that those, in a way, cannibalized support for left parties among the working class in such a way that they were only feasible for a limited period of time?
Goodwin: Sequencing in politics is very, very important. I think timing is very important. Blair and Clinton, in many ways, were lucky. We have to remember that they were a generation of center-left leaders who were not just charismatic, not just telegenic, not just incredibly competent, but they were also leading their parties before this cultural dimension took over in politics—the rise of security threats, 9/11, the rise of immigration as an issue, the increasingly fraught debates over culture wars. I know you had some culture wars in America in the 1980s and 1990s but nothing like today.
Blair understood the dilemma. There is a reason that he said that Labour would be “tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime,” because what he was doing, even in the late 1990s, was locking down the socially conservative or authoritarian section of the Labour electorate. And he was saying to them, “Look, I get it right on this emerging cultural axis. I'm going to speak to your concerns.” And one thing lots of people in Britain and elsewhere overlook is that Labour traditionalists, or voters who are left on the economy and right on culture, were by far the biggest group within the Labour electorate until 2015. They massively outnumbered what we might call “Labour cosmopolitans,” who are left on the economy and left on culture. This was not an insignificant problem that Blair had to overcome. In many of those working class areas, he was dealing with voters who were instinctively opposed to globalization, immigration, and Britain's relationship with the European Union. But what happened during New Labour—and I would argue what happened in America in some respects during the 2000s as well—is that you basically began to see those relationships fragment. We had new parties breaking through. And by the time you got to the 2010s, a lot of things that happened during the New Labour years really began to pick up momentum. So it wasn't that Blair solved the first dilemma. I personally think he was lucky in terms of timing. He was also shrewd in terms of doing what he could within that context to try and speak to it.
But by the time you get into the aftermath of the financial crisis, we have the refugee crisis in Europe. Then we have the Brexit referendum in 2016. By that time, what you're seeing are record numbers of working class voters, non-college-educated voters, and older voters moving away from Labour at a very quick speed, and this becomes the foundation of the political realignment. Americans listening to this will see a lot of parallels with the Trump election in late 2016. And this brings us back to geography because the nature of that first dilemma for the left really was problematic because of geography and that those voters were much more efficiently distributed around the system than many of the voters who dominated left parties, the so-called Brahmin left. Geographically, they couldn't match that challenge.
Ultimately, the left has to solve this dilemma, otherwise it's not going to have a viable electorate going forward. If it becomes dependent upon declining numbers of non-white minority voters and white liberal graduates, that's not going to be a viable coalition under our first-past-the-post, majoritarian system going forward. And there are people obviously watching the American debate from the UK who say, “Well, the answer to this is to increase the salience of economic issues and downplay the salience of cultural issues which are dividing these groups.” I'm less convinced that's a viable strategy because I spend a lot of my time in focus groups with voters and everybody's talking about these issues. The narrative that you often hear is that nobody wants to talk about culture wars, they want to talk about the cost of living—I personally just don't think that's realistic or viable anymore. Parents do want to talk about what their kids are being taught and lots of voters do want to talk about how the history of their country or their culture is being debated and reframed. The genie’s out of the bottle on that.
I think the unifying narrative is to stay focused on anti-discrimination, anti-racism, to tone down and distance itself from the more excessive and, I would argue, contested positions around gender identity theory, and also, if possible, increase the interaction between many of the white graduate liberals who are running left parties today and many of the people who are voting for them.
Mounk: To what extent do you think it is possible to formulate a conceptual message on some of those issues? Part of the problem, it seems to me at the moment, is that neither side of the cultural divide in the United States (and perhaps the same is applicable in Britain) is able to speak consistently to the majority view on many of these cultural issues and that majority view actually strikes me as being quite reasonable. You might agree or disagree with some of the specifics, but, broadly speaking, it is that we need a lot of police on the streets, and cops should not discriminate against people on the basis of their skin color, and instances of terrible police violence are unacceptable. We should be very upfront about the terrible aspects of American history and the terrible suffering involved in chattel slavery and the long-lasting effects of it, but we should also be proud of the founding principles of the United States and the great achievements of statesmen from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln. We should, of course, treat trans people with dignity and respect and, in most or all circumstances, allow them to live in accordance with their gender identity, and so on.
Do you think that there is a possible solution to a second dilemma here, that is, in principle, up for grabs to left-wing parties or right-wing parties, and that would be able to appeal to a really broad cross section of the population?
Goodwin: Your description of the fault lines corresponds quite well with much of the data that I've seen, and certainly the data that we have in the UK. There is a specific problem, I think, for the left, and I don't want to just bash progressives, but on a lot of the data that is out there, for example, the work by More in Common, among others, it is quite striking how differently they see the world from pretty much every other group.
The average voter basically says, “I'm not particularly proud of what my country did in the past.” Let's take Britain's empire as an example. Most people say, “I’m not really proud of it, but it happened. We need to learn to live with it and move on.” Progressives take the view that we cannot move on as a society unless we have addressed and dwelled on this historical injustice. You take an example like racism and the prominence of racism. Most people, on balance, do not think their society is very racist. They accept that there is discrimination and that some minorities are discriminated against. They are firmly opposed to that. Radical progressives are instead completely convinced that their society is institutionally and very racist and that that is one of the most pressing social problems facing the country. And I could go on. At what age should we be teaching kids about puberty blockers and transitioning? The average voter says, “Not until they're 16 or 17 should we even be talking to them about these ideas.” Radical progressives tend to say, “I'm happy to do that when they're still 8, 9, or 10 years of age.” They do consistently adopt this more radical view compared to other voters. This is where I'm more pessimistic: you need to convince and demonstrate to that very influential group within the left coalition that they are very adrift from the rest of the country on these issues, and they are making life much harder for center-left social democratic parties, and they ultimately need to think about how they can forge a compromise and a consensus around these issues.
Mounk: You've been chomping at the bit to bring this discussion back to the United Kingdom, and I do want you to help our listeners who may be outside the UK understand the very strange political transformations in the country over the last decade. Talk us through this dizzying 10 years. What happened?
Goodwin: It was a decade of extreme political volatility that left a lot of people's heads spinning. But I think Americans can actually take a couple of lessons from what's happened here in Britain. The fundamental story that I try to tell in my new book is that both left and right essentially lost touch with a large chunk of the country. They lost touch with the values that were being held by many working-class voters, many non-college-educated voters, many pensioners and many voters outside of the cities and the university towns. And it was that disconnect that essentially allowed the rise of, firstly, Nigel Farage, who was a Donald Trump ally, a populist who campaigned to leave the European Union and lower immigration. And of course, this was interesting because, historically, Britain was one of the few democracies in the world that was never supposed to have a successful populist movement. If you go back to the 1950s, academics used to say that Britain was the quintessential “civic culture.” We weren't like the Germans and the French and the Italians. We weren't emotional. We weren't divisive. We weren't polarized. We didn't like messianic leaders. We were deferential, polite, and consensual. But by the time you got to the 2010s, this yawning chasm between the values of our leaders in Westminster and a large chunk of the country really made the rise of populism possible, which put enormous pressure on David Cameron, who was forced to call this referendum on Brexit. Brexit, in turn, then created this window of opportunity to have this full-blown political realignment, whereby Conservatives (like Republicans in the US) had a huge opening to carve out new space among blue collar workers in the Red Wall, which is our equivalent of your Rust Belt, and to basically eat their way through northern England, winning over voters who had only ever voted for the Labour Party.
Boris Johnson delivered on that new electorate, and he promised them that he'd “get Brexit done,” that he'd lower immigration, and that he'd reform the economy so it was less dependent on London. And his reward was the biggest majority since the days of Margaret Thatcher. And, you know, if you're being sympathetic to Boris Johnson, you'd say, “Then along came COVID and his premiership was blown apart.” If you're critical of Boris Johnson, you'd say, “Well, then he proved himself to be completely unfit for high office.” It's left us where we are today, which is a realignment that is only halfway done. A labor party that has sensed its opportunity to get back in the game and this is where there are parallels with the Democrats. What has Keir Starmer, the new leader of the Labour Party, done well, he's accepted the Brexit vote. He's talked about the need to invest in Britain, to buy in Britain, to spend more money on areas outside of London, to tackle inequality, to invest in defense and security.
If Americans are interested in a lesson for how a center-left party can get back on its feet, can push back against conservatives, can begin to appeal back to the working class voters they lost, and can reposition themselves for a renewed period in power—the Labour Party hasn't got everything right, but it's certainly got a lot of things right. Which is why we're currently headed for the first Labour majority government since the era of Tony Blair, who was in fact the last Labour leader to win a majority, in 2005.
Mounk: When Johnson won this huge parliamentary majority, it did seem as though he had hit upon a kind of political recipe, which is to be robustly center-right on culture without being bigoted or extreme in the kind of way that Donald Trump was, and moving the party firmly into the center or even the center-left on economy. As you outlined, that promise didn't work out.
Did it not work out because of Johnson's deep personal failings and the unlucky timing of the pandemic, or did it not work out because, actually, in practice, it is impossible to keep together the kind of political coalition that conservatives had built?
Goodwin: To understand how the Conservatives lost this realignment, you have to understand Boris Johnson. People who compared him to Donald Trump never understood who he really was. Boris Johnson at heart is a liberal. He's very relaxed about multiculturalism and immigration. He campaigned for Brexit but not to do with reasons around migration. He comes from a tradition within the Conservative Party that is really passionate about free trade and very skeptical about anything that looks like protectionism or bureaucracy. If you really want to understand Boris Johnson, you have to understand the fact that he just wants to be liked by everybody. It’s not an easy thing for a Conservative to win London twice, but he did it. And when he became prime minister, he found himself in a very awkward position because he won this massive majority by winning over the largest number of working class voters since the days of Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War, and realized he had to deliver to these voters who were looking for a lot of things that I think Boris Johnson and many other liberal conservatives who surrounded him didn't want to deliver.
The US Republicans, to be blunt, have a much stronger understanding of who's voting for them than many of the British Tories, who then proceeded to basically prioritize many things that their new post-Brexit voters didn't want. They prioritized the deregulation of financial services. They liberalized the immigration policy regime in a way that even David Cameron didn't do. Yes, they stopped migration from Europe—people essentially couldn't come to the UK from the European Union. But Boris Johnson liberalized immigration from many other countries around the world, which has now created record levels of migration into the UK: we have 1.1 million visas issued last year, and that was mainly a legacy of Boris Johnson.
His party never really grasped the need to genuinely improve regions outside of London. Boris Johnson's signature policy, not dissimilar to Joe Biden's, was “leveling up” the country by investing through infrastructure in regions in northern England. But that policy was never seriously fleshed out. And the traditional south were very upset with all this money going to these northern working class voters. And it was another example of how the problem was a supply side problem. Conservative elites were never really comfortable with embracing this political realignment.
And then you get the really just crazy moment in British politics, which I'm sure your listeners will remember—the bizarre premiership of Liz Truss, the shortest prime ministerial term in British history. Truss comes along as a newly appointed successor to Boris Johnson and proceeds to introduce a sort of New Right agenda: more deregulation, pushing for a free trade agreement with countries like India, very comfortable with immigration, very comfortable with removing caps on bankers’ bonuses, basically trying to build this Davos-on-Thames economy, which if you're working class, non-graduate, and culturally conservative, is the very opposite of what you thought you were getting when you voted for Brexit in the first place. Today, the Conservatives now have 21% of the vote, which is a historic low. We've never seen numbers like this before. And Rishi Sunak, who has become the new leader, is now scrambling around trying to find ways to put back together this post-Brexit coalition, like Humpty Dumpty. Why does this matter for Americans? Because it showcases what happens when a political party inherits a realignment and it doesn't really understand what to do with it, how to hold it, how to expand it, and how to turn it into a coherent policy agenda.
Mounk: Let's talk about Keir Starmer. For a long time, the common assessment of Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party seemed mixed, which is to say that he was moderating the party, but he didn't seem to have that much charisma and he didn't seem to have that much of a clear political vision. And yet, he is now riding high in the polls in a nearly unprecedented way and he does look likely to be the next prime minister.
Have people underestimated the coherence of Starmer’s project for the last few years? Is there a recipe to success for left wing parties to be found in Starmer’s Labour, or is he, to a large extent, the beneficiary of the dissolution of the Conservatives?
Goodwin: Again, it's a bit of everything. The old saying in British politics is that “opposition parties don't win elections, governments lose them.” There is a lot of that going on at the moment. The incumbent Conservative government has made so many mistakes and unforced errors that life has been very easy for Starmer and the Labour Party. But it is also true that he brought to the Labour Party two things that voters routinely prioritize around the world. One is ideological moderation. He has moderated the party's positions. He has dealt with the issue of anti-Semitism that plagued Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. He has repositioned the party so it's closer to the median voter on many of these issues that we discussed, such as Brexit, security, wanting to believe in the country they live in and not wanting to hear all the time about all the things that are wrong with Britain. And he’s flexed his patriotic muscles and that has helped.
But I think at the same time, anyone who works within or around the Labour Party will also tell you that things are still vulnerable. Starmer doesn't have the charisma of Tony Blair or Bill Clinton, for example. His leadership ratings have improved but they're still very flat. I sit in focus groups with lots of voters who sometimes tell me they don't really know who Keir Starmer is, which is quite remarkable. He has a problem on his left flank. Many Corbyn supporters are now absolutely openly hostile towards Starmer and his leadership. That may be pointing to a problem with turnout and mobilization at the next election. And the Labour brand still has two core problems. Yes, they are now seen as being better on the economy. But there is still a suspicion among voters that Labour is not good in a crisis and is not a sound manager of economic issues. And Labour is still not trusted on the immigration question, which is the third top issue for voters. Many people still associate Labour with what they perceive as an immigration crisis in the 2000s and the 2010s. Starmer has to find his version of ”tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” He has to find his version of Tony Blair locking down those Labour traditionalists by appealing to their instinctive patriotism and their instinctive desire for a strong national community with strong borders, and that will ruffle feathers within the Labour Party. But if he is to win a majority, he's going to have to win back working class voters in England.
Here’s just one statistic which I find absolutely mind boggling: the Labour Party, the main opposition party, has still not won the popular vote in non-London England since 2001. In other words, for more than 20 years, once you take away the capital city, the Labour Party has not won the popular vote among non-London, England. It's still grappling with the first dilemma.
Mounk: As a final question, let’s widen the angle again. One of the themes in this conversation is the way in which political elites and party leaders often fail to understand reasons for their own success and end up screwing it up.
What is the basic nature of the partisan or social divide in the United Kingdom and the United States in the middle of the 2020s? What is the basic dividing line that's going to be deciding our elections going forward?
Goodwin: It's a big question. But the politicians and the parties which thrive in the years ahead are going to be the ones that offer a compelling narrative around the theme of “security,” both economic and cultural. It is going to be a narrative that will speak very loudly and convincingly to voters' desire for a much greater degree of economic security amid all of the things that we're seeing at the moment but also a strong desire for cultural security and protection from an array of perceived threats that they feel. The idea before the pandemic that we were entering into this sort of “Roaring ‘20s” has been rapidly replaced by a very threatening environment for voters where they are rapidly falling down the hierarchy of needs. They are focusing very squarely on those guardrails that they look to as a source of security—family, identity, community—that they've looked to historically. This is why we often talk about the formula of leaning a little bit left on economic issues, leaning a little bit right on cultural issues. It’s a bit simplistic, but the reason Keir Starmer is doing well is basically because he's beginning to do that. If you look at why Biden has perhaps outperformed some expectations—I can see some pretty clear appeals to workers and non-graduates around things like infrastructure and so on. He's not gone as far certainly as Starmer has. But I think it is going to be this theme of security that is going to really permeate both economically and culturally.
2024, for both the UK and the US, will be an enormous year politically, and it's going to have all kinds of interesting implications for those of us who watch politics and study it, and I think there are going to be some really interesting comparisons between the Democrats and Labour and the Republicans and the Conservatives. Those parties are both going through very similar strategic challenges and they are producing, in some cases, similar answers, but in others very, very different ones. Those elections are going to give us some very interesting answers to these questions.
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