The best books on democracy today from a scholar of democracy

Why am I passionate about this?

I became deeply interested in democracy and authoritarianism at an early age because of my experiences living under military dictatorships in Argentina in 1971-72 and in Brazil from 1980- 82, and also my experience as an undergraduate living in a democracy that failed in profound ways (Argentina, 1975). I saw first-hand that authoritarianism can affect daily life in hugely negative ways but also that democracy can fail in dismal ways. Reading and producing scholarship about democracy and authoritarianism, and teaching these subjects, became central to my immensely satisfying life’s work.


I wrote...

Democracy in Hard Places

By Scott Mainwaring, Tarek Masoud,

Book cover of Democracy in Hard Places

What is my book about?

How does democracy persist for long periods of time in countries that are poor, ethnically heterogenous, wracked by economic crisis, and plagued by state weakness? In this volume, leading scholars of democracy answer this question by examining cases of unlikely democratic survival in “hard places”: countries that lack the structural factors and exist outside of the contexts that scholars have long associated with democracy’s endurance. Democracies in hard places overcome underdevelopment, ethnolinguistic diversity, state weakness, and patriarchal cultural norms. The book presents nine case studies—written by leading experts—of episodes in which democracy emerged and survived against long odds. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of How Democracies Die

Scott Mainwaring Why did I love this book?

How Democracies Die is an important best-selling book on perils facing US democracy. The authors, both political scientists at Harvard, are leading experts in democracy in Latin America and Europe. They argue that polarization and a shattering of long-standing democratic norms have created serious threats to US democracy. Their work increased public awareness that US democracy could be at risk. The book is a fairly quick read, and my students love reading and debating it.  

By Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked How Democracies Die as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The most important book of the Trump era' The Economist

How does a democracy die?
What can we do to save our own?
What lessons does history teach us?

In the 21st century democracy is threatened like never before.

Drawing insightful lessons from across history - from Pinochet's murderous Chilean regime to Erdogan's quiet dismantling in Turkey - Levitsky and Ziblatt explain why democracies fail, how leaders like Trump subvert them today and what each of us can do to protect our democratic rights.

'This book looks to history to provide a guide for defending democratic norms when they are…


Book cover of Autocracy and Redistribution: The Politics of Land Reform

Scott Mainwaring Why did I love this book?

What I most admire about Autocracy and Redistribution is that it brings the best of contemporary political science to bear on questions of deep scholarly and real-world importance: what explains redistributive land reform? Albertus argues that redistributive land reform is much more likely when 1) top-level state leaders and large landowners have diverging interests and 2) institutional barriers to achieving large-scale reform are lower. Albertus shows that redistributive land reform is more likely under dictatorship than democracy. 

By Michael Albertus,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Autocracy and Redistribution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When and why do countries redistribute land to the landless? What political purposes does land reform serve, and what place does it have in today's world? A long-standing literature dating back to Aristotle and echoed in important recent works holds that redistribution should be both higher and more targeted at the poor under democracy. Yet comprehensive historical data to test this claim has been lacking. This book shows that land redistribution - the most consequential form of redistribution in the developing world - occurs more often under dictatorship than democracy. It offers a novel theory of land reform and develops…


Book cover of Violent Victors: Why Bloodstained Parties Win Postwar Elections

Scott Mainwaring Why did I love this book?

Violent Victors: Why Bloodstained Parties Win Postwar Elections addresses a fascinating, counterintuitive puzzle: how do politicians who committed mass atrocities in a civil war and their post-war parties win free and fair democratic elections? Zukerman Daly’s core argument is that these blood-stained parties and leaders sell themselves as the most credible providers of post-war peace. They get credit for ending the violence, which is a paramount concern for voters who lived through the conflict. Zukerman Daly’s brilliant book enabled me to grasp a new understanding of this surprisingly common phenomenon.

By Sarah Zukerman Daly,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Violent Victors as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why populations brutalized in war elect their tormentors

One of the great puzzles of electoral politics is how parties that commit mass atrocities in war often win the support of victimized populations to establish the postwar political order. Violent Victors traces how parties derived from violent, wartime belligerents successfully campaign as the best providers of future societal peace, attracting votes not just from their core supporters but oftentimes also from the very people they targeted in war.

Drawing on more than two years of groundbreaking fieldwork, Sarah Daly combines case studies of victim voters in Latin America with experimental survey…


Book cover of Votes, Drugs, and Violence: The Political Logic of Criminal Wars in Mexico

Scott Mainwaring Why did I love this book?

Trejo and Ley’s Votes, Drugs, and Violence highlights the devastating impact of Mexico’s drug wars has had on democracy and society. The death toll from Mexico’s drug wars far exceeds the one from the dirty wars waged by South American dictators from the 1960s through the 1980s and the death toll from El Salvador’s and Peru’s civil wars of the 1980s. Paradoxically, subnational alternations in power that removed the long-standing ruling authoritarian party of 1929-2000 from power helped to fuel the drug wars, which in turn have undermined democracy and unleashed horrific human rights abuses. Votes, Drugs, and Violence gave me new insights into the origins of the dramatic escalation of criminal wars in Mexico, and it also powerfully illuminates how profoundly drug wars have undermined democracy.

By Guillermo Trejo, Sandra Ley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Votes, Drugs, and Violence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the most surprising developments in Mexico's transition to democracy is the outbreak of criminal wars and large-scale criminal violence. Why did Mexican drug cartels go to war as the country transitioned away from one-party rule? And why have criminal wars proliferated as democracy has consolidated and elections have become more competitive subnationally? In Votes, Drugs, and Violence, Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley develop a political theory of criminal violence in weak democracies that elucidates how democratic politics and the fragmentation of power fundamentally shape cartels' incentives for war and peace. Drawing on in-depth case studies and statistical analysis…


Book cover of The House of the Spirits

Scott Mainwaring Why did I love this book?

This great novel by the Chilean author, Isabel Allende, was published in Spanish forty years ago, in 1982, and in English it was first published in 1985. I have used the book for teaching Latin American politics ever since. It is a great way for undergraduates to understand some key aspects of Chilean politics from early in the 20th century to around 1974, shortly after the military dictatorship seized power in the September 1973 coup. It is also a great way for them to see how profoundly dictatorships affect everyday life. 

By Isabel Allende,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked The House of the Spirits as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Spectacular...An absorbing and distinguished work...The House of the Spirits with its all-informing, generous, and humane sensibility, is a unique achievement, both personal witness and possible allegory of the past, present, and future of Latin America.” —The New York Times Book Review

Our Shared Shelf, Emma Watson Goodreads Book Club Pick November/December 2020!

The House of the Spirits, the unforgettable first novel that established Isabel Allende as one of the world’s most gifted storytellers, brings to life the triumphs and tragedies of three generations of the Trueba family. The patriarch Esteban is a volatile, proud man whose voracious pursuit of political…


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We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

Book cover of We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

Amy T. Waldman

New book alert!

What is my book about?

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus atUW-Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

Jest established lasting friendships with John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and others, but ultimately, this book tells a universal story of love and hope – about figuring out where you belong, finding your way there, and living a life that matters.

We Had Fun and Nobody Died: Adventures of a Milwaukee Music Promoter

By Amy T. Waldman, Peter Jest,

What is this book about?

The entertaining and inspiring story of a stubbornly independent promoter and club owner 

This irreverent biography provides a rare window into the music industry from a promoter’s perspective. From a young age, Peter Jest was determined to make a career in live music, and despite naysayers and obstacles, he did just that, bringing national acts to his college campus at UW–Milwaukee, booking thousands of concerts across Wisconsin and the Midwest, and opening Shank Hall, the beloved Milwaukee venue named after a club in the cult film This Is Spinal Tap.

This funny, nostalgia-inducing book details the lasting friendships Jest established…


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