The Best Books About U.S. Politics That I Read in 2017
Dec. 22, 2017
The best politics/American history books that I read in 2017, and the ones I recommend to you.Political Science books
I read a lot of books in 2017. All told, I read nearly 8,000 pages for school, work, and pleasure (sadly, I fell short of my 10k goal). Some of these books were good, some were bad. And some — more than you might think — were fantastic reads. Here is a list of my favorite reads from this year, broken down into two categories: politics/political science, and U.S. history. I’m including direct links for each book to the cheapest offers on Amazon.com. If you just got a load of gift cards for Christmas, this list is for you!
1. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government
This book by political scientists Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels is by far the most insightful text I read this year. It's a story of the failure of the "folk theory"" of U.S. democracy: a system in which citizens make rational choices based off their preferred government policies; one that assumes more democratization is better for governance; where Americans --- and the book is exclusively Americanist --- hold politicians accountable for not representing their interests. A review of the book at the London School of Economics's Blog sums up the arguments, their merits, and their shortcomings quite well. Democracy for Realists is critical to understanding the rise of Donald Trump, the policy outputs we're seeing under Republican governance, and the attitudes of Americans in our current political climate.
Though for all that is different in 2017 since 2016 happened, our politics is not all that different from 2015, 2014, or 2013. Rather, as Achen and Bartels argue, the voters acted very similar to what we'd expect given the recent history of U.S. politics: Republicans voted for Republicans, Democrats voted for Democrats, demographic and geographic voting patterns shifted little (and where they shifted, they did so how we'd expect), etc. Bartels expands on this in a conversation with Vox's Ezra Klein here.
If you're looking for a book that will help you understand both U.S. voters and their representatives, Democracy for Realists is for you. The authors do so by masterfully incorporating their life's work from two of the most prominent political scientists in the United States. You won't regret the read (and the paperback has quite a low price tag for, what I think many people can agree on, is the best book of the year).
2. Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats
The main selling point of this book, like the one above, is that it provides extraordinary insights into our crazy political times. As I often quip on Twitter, "partisanship is a hell of a drug." This book provides some context about what partisanship, and what membership in political parties means to Americans. The authors, political scientists Matt Grossman and David A. Hopkins, go through the history of the two major political parties and investigate what makes Democratic voters and coalitions different from those across the aisle. In their view, the Democratic Party is oriented towards providing policy-based, concrete benefits for Americans, while the Republican Party is consumed by its conservative ideology.
Though the book was published before Trump was elected, it provides the added advantage of explaining how the Republican Party ended up with him at its helm. The authors argue that the process of ideological purification --- by which the GOP has demanded almost zero-tolerance adherence to core conservative values --- helps explain the rise of Donald Trump (at least in part). Asymmetric Politics is another read that rewarded me with a deeper understanding of day-to-day political events.
3. Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public
With this book, political scientists Donald R. Kinder and Nathan P. Kalmoe have created an instant classic. They review an old and oft-debated view of the American public that paints them as mostly "innocent of ideology." The American people don't have cohesive, congruent, or "constrained" preferences for political parties, the authors argue. The book (which is short-to-medium length, unlike the two above --- hooray!) draws on a rich history of academic research into the topic and extends the findings to the present-day. Ideological skirmishes show up frequently among elites, Kinder and Kalmoe write, but not nearly as frequently among the public.
But if the people don't get their policy views from core beliefs and preferences, where do they get them? Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public presents a compelling answer via the influence of social and political groups. But if you want more context, I encourage you to pick up a copy and give it a read. And at roughly 150 pages, you can probably finish the whole thing in an afternoon or two of winter vacation.
4. Political Polarization in American Politics
Political polarization is a tricky topic, but every day it seems to get more and more pertinent. I was particularly fond of this accessible, medium-length volume that examines the causes, effects, and consequences of polarization in American politics. John Sides and Daniel A. Hopkins compile 25 excellent essays and articles that provide compelling answers to important questions, all in one convenient text. What explains the rise of gridlock in the United States Congress? Polarization, at least partly.
Sides and Hopkins say that "impeded negotiation, compromise, and good governance" (11) are consequences of a polarized America. And, if you want to know how to move past the polarized arena we live in now, they might have some ideas for you too.
5. Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate
If you aren't acquainted with the exceptional writings of Julia Azari by now, you're missing out on some fantastic applications of political science research to American politics and current events. Her book, which explores the conditions under which presidents engage in rhetoric about having a "mandate" to accomplish their goals, is no departure from this. Azari's book embarks on a 200-page investigation of what makes both Republican and Democratic presidents similar --- and different --- when playing up demands the public has made of them.
While Delivering the People's Message was more relevant in the earlier months of 2017 --- when President Trump was harping on about the great results the American people had elected him to deliver --- it still provides a very fine-grained investigation about how the chief executive uses the power of mandate rhetoric to overcome resistance from the opposition party and his own. Students of political history and fans of presidents past will particularly enjoy this addition to their collections.
6. Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World
The books above tells us a massive amount about the average American. They're conflicted about political parties. They don't have consistent policy preferences. They get most of their opinions from group leaders and elite influencers. Anxious Politics, by political scientists Bethany Albertson and Shana Gadarian, moves our attention away from the rational, reasonable behavior (or lack thereof) of the public and directs it towards their emotions. Anxious Politics uses research into a variety of policy domains to uncover our political anxieties. Those anxieties --- whether induced by politicians, advertising, or other sources --- impact which leaders we trust, how we consume the news, and which policies we support and oppose, among other things. Ultimately, anxious politics is, as you would guess, anxious politics.
Albertson and Gadarian's text contributed to my reading load a unique and much-needed focus on emotions in American politics. We're not just a bag of rational thoughts and preferences for policies, they might say. We're also emotional --- and often anxious! --- citizens. Amazon link: here.
7. The Gingrich Senators: The Roots of Partisan Warfare in Congress
In Sides' and Hopkins Political Polarization in American Politics, they site an earlier version of this insightful book by political scientist Sean Theriault. In it, Theriault argues that "partisan warfare," may be the root cause of present-day political dysfunction. What is partisan warfare? Theriault explains: it "taps into the strategies that go beyond defeating your opponents to humiliating them, go beyond questioning your opponents’ judgment to questioning their motives, and go beyond fighting the good legislative fight to destroying the institution and the legislative process. Partisan warfare serves electoral goals, not legislative goals." His book goes beyond defining what partisan warfare is to explain where it came from. His answer? Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House and the catalyst to partisan (or political) warfare, and his followers.
In our current political clime, politics and partisanship have become weaponized, no doubt. The Gingrich Senators helped me understand why.
8. Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America
Where do American political ideologies come from? How are they married to different political parties, and how did they come to be that way? This book by political scientist Hans Noel tells this story and more. Sticking with our apparent theme of polarization: Noel explains that the current environment of extreme political differences in America has been born out of the adoption of ideology by political parties. As the two dominant political parties have become married to the two dominant political ideologies, the area in between has disappeared, and compromise between parties has decreased as their interests and party goals diverge.
Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America is also a review of those parties and ideologies that we talk about constantly. While it taught me a lot about the interplay between the two subjects, it also provides a lot of context about what it means to be a "liberal" or "conservative" that is necessary to understand other specific and complex inquiries.
9. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker
The last book about politics on my list is a pertinent one. As research has shown, "racial resentment" was one of the most significant factors in last year's election that ended in a President Donald Trump. This book, by political scientist Katherine Cramer, looks at white voters' feelings towards nonwhites (and, importantly, urban dwellers) in a different arena: Wisconsin state politics. The different venue is not a means to different conclusions, however. Cramer's book comes to many parallel conclusions as the studies into 2016. The book tells the story of rural Wisconsinites who feel like they've been forgotten by the state government, breeding resentment among a population that desperately needs its help.
Not only did The Politics of Resentmnet help me better understand rural attitudes towards government and urban Americans, it used a fascinating (though, controversial) methodology. When you boil it down, Cramer's technique was to drop in on local coffee shops, town halls, meeting rooms, etc. and canvas what rural voters were saying Wisconsin politics. She spends a while justifying the approach --- and in the end, I came away with an admiration for the method that has to lead to some of the most insightful research of the year.
10. Washington: A Life
If you're into history, you just can't beat this biography of George Washington. His life, of course, is looked back upon with the same romanticism that makes the American Revolution appeal to many Americans, and for good reason: It was a victory for enlightened self-government, a time when "the people" rose up against their oppressor and seized their destiny for themselves. The American Revolution and War for Independence make us feel warm inside, perhaps less depressed about our current state of affairs. When you read about 1776 you get the feeling that we are all part of a bigger manifestation of free will and democratic progress. This book made me feel the same way, but with a focus on the most famous man in America. George Washington, of course, might not have agreed with this interpretation of his life (or the American Revolution). Though, to be sure, he did often speak about how events would shape his legacy in the annals of history.
Instead, this book by famous historian Ron Chernow (you know him for writing Hamilton, the book that inspired the hit musical) paints Washington's life as a tumultuous one, with turmoil at parts and miraculous success at others. You'll come away with lots of interesting. Did you know, for instance, that Washington was one of the first Americans to experiment with wheat? Or that he yearned to be in the British army, breeding his later resentment of it? He also had a nearly superhuman strength and ability to dodge bullets. More importantly, you'll also end this massive volume with a deeper appreciation for the currents of the American Revolution, War for Independence, and early days of the Republic. Chernow's account of America's most beloved president has a charm to it that I just couldn't get away from.
11. A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution
This book, by historian Jonathan Dull, is certainly one for the nerds. It tells the story behind the claim you've heard often: that the Americans would not have ever been successful in overthrowing the British Government had the French monarchy not offered their support. Dull recounts events of the Revolution that, when combined, point to this almost certainly being true, though notably, we can never know for sure. The text takes us abroad to France, Spain, Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and even Russia. In doing so, it places the revolution within the context of a series of conflicts between the "great powers" in Europe. Perhaps, Dull might say, Americans did not triumph because they were destined to explore the promises of self-government. Rather, it's possible that the French simply hated England so much that they were willing to take advantage of this moment of weakness.
Dull's book is an interesting account that brings international context to a story that is often told within the bounds of Boston, Massachusettes and Savannah, Georgia. It is one of my favorite texts of 2018, and I suspect scholars of international relations will get quite a bit out of it (if they haven't read it already).
12. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence
The last book on my list, while certainly not the least of them all, is Pauline Maier's American Scripture. Maier traces the Declaration back to its roots in Thomas Jefferson's study in the summer if 1776. She goes even further back, too, to recount just how difficult --- and unpopular --- it was for the nation of rebels, merchants and yeoman farmers to decide to break all ties with the most powerful nation in the world. The run-up to the declaration was bumpy at best, with a non-linear path to the ultimate issuance of a notice of Independence. And Maier tells the story beautifully.
The Declaration was a group effort, too, Maier records. Not only was the eventual document reviewed, edited, and reviewed again by multiple eyes, but it also drew on the often-forgot local documents considered by town and state governments that inspired many of its key provisions. In the end, Maier traces how the Declaration has evolved over time to be a document akin to scripture, deserving of worship from every American. This may not be a good thing, Maier says.