The best books for understanding and defusing political polarization in America

Who am I?

I’ve been doing research on polarization for most of my career as an economist and have focused on affective polarization in US politics since 2015. As a behavioral economist, I’m interested in how false and biased beliefs contribute to affective polarization. As a microeconomist I’m also generally interested in economy—not “the economy,” but the efficient use of resources—and affective polarization leads to a lot of wasted time and resources. This happens in politics at all levels, and in relationships of all types—neighbors, colleagues, spouses, siblings—as we all know from experience. So, I’m hoping to try to understand this bias better and cut down on it where we can.

I wrote...

Book cover of Undue Hate: A Behavioral Economic Analysis of Hostile Polarization in US Politics and Beyond

What is my book about?

Why are disagreements usually disagreeable? Most of us know from experience, and especially from our experiences observing others, that emotional polarization, a.k.a. “affective polarization”—people growing to dislike one another due to disagreements of various types—is often foolish and misguided. But it’s hard to put our finger on what exactly our mistakes are and what causes them.

Undue Hate offers a behavioral economist’s take on these questions. I first propose a formal definition of “foolish” affective polarization, which I propose calling affective polarization bias. I then discuss evidence of this bias afflicting both Democrats and Republicans in America today. After that I talk through the surprisingly wide variety of reasons for this mistake in American politics and disagreements of all types, and ways to reduce the bias.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Why did I love this book?

This is the OG of books on polarization in modern US politics.

It’s a seminal take on partisan misunderstanding, arguing that Democrats and Republicans have different “moral foundations” or values, and that it’s often the case that neither side’s values are fundamentally better or worse, they’re just different.

Haidt compellingly describes himself as a formerly polarized liberal who grew more tolerant and even appreciative of conservatives when he came to understand them better due to his research.

Moral foundations theory is somewhat controversial now but there’s a lot of good evolutionary psychology in the book that clearly holds up well, like Haidt’s discussion of the “groupishness” of human nature and how “moral reasons are the tail wagged by the intuitive dog.”

By Jonathan Haidt,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked The Righteous Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A landmark contribution to humanity's understanding of itself' The New York Times

Why can it sometimes feel as though half the population is living in a different moral universe? Why do ideas such as 'fairness' and 'freedom' mean such different things to different people? Why is it so hard to see things from another viewpoint? Why do we come to blows over politics and religion?

Jonathan Haidt reveals that we often find it hard to get along because our minds are hardwired to be moralistic, judgemental and self-righteous. He explores how morality evolved to enable us to form communities, and…

Why We're Polarized

By Ezra Klein,

Book cover of Why We're Polarized

Why did I love this book?

Ezra Klein’s a journalist not an academic, but he does an excellent job of incorporating important academic research on polarization (in particular, work by political scientists Lilliana Mason and Lee Drutman) with a DC insider’s knowledge of how politics really works.

Klein offers a very different take on polarization from Haidt’s, focusing on history, racial politics, “partisan sorting,” and institutional incentives as the cause of polarizing behavior by politicians today. He also provides a nice discussion of practical policy options for reducing polarization like multi-member Congressional districts with proportional representation and Supreme Court term limits.

Klein admittedly leans left and while striving for neutrality does place more blame on the Republican party for polarization so I recommend also reading critiques of Klein’s book from those not in his camp to see their reactions.

By Ezra Klein,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Why We're Polarized as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'This book helped me understand modern politics better' - Bill Gates, Summer Reading Pick 2022

'Superbly researched and written' - Francis Fukuyama, The Washington Post

'It's been a long time since I learned so much from one book.' - Rutger Bregman author of Utopia for Realists

'Powerful [and] intelligent.' - Fareed Zakaria, CNN

America's political system isn't broken. The truth is scarier: it's working exactly as designed.

In Why We're Polarized, Ezra Klein reveals the structural and psychological forces behind…

Book cover of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation

Why did I love this book?

To balance out my list is Divided We Fall by David French, who recently became The New York Times’s newest conservative columnist.

So, yes, he’s a moderate conservative—and his book actually stands out to me among polarization books because it does a particularly good job of articulating both conservative and liberal perspectives on various issues, and both sides’ reasons for frustration and anger.

I also especially appreciate French’s discussion of the “law of group polarization”—the tendency for people’s opinions to become more extreme when we confer with like-minded groups—French and I agree this is a key cause of US polarization. And true to the title, the book includes descriptions of potential secession scenarios—not pleasant to read but perhaps a wake-up call for some readers.

By David French,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Divided We Fall as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two decades into the 21st Century, the U.S. is less united than at any time in our history since the Civil War. We are more diverse in our beliefs and culture than ever before. But red and blue states, secular and religious groups, liberal and conservative idealists, and Republican and Democratic representatives all have one thing in common: each believes their distinct cultures and liberties are being threatened by an escalating violent opposition. This polarized tribalism, espoused by the loudest, angriest fringe extremists on both the left and the right, dismisses dialogue as appeasement; if left unchecked, it could very…

Book cover of Defusing American Anger: A Guide to Understanding Our Fellow Citizens and Reducing Us-vs-Them Polarization

Why did I love this book?

This book is quite different from the others on my list in that the author is a total outsider to politics: Elwood is a former professional poker player.

But it’s the book that resonates with me the most as it directly makes the case that affective polarization is bad for the country and is to a large extent misguided—and citizens across the spectrum should actively try to overcome and fight it. Elwood writes informally and engagingly while still referring to tons of academic research and tackling many thorny recent issues in detail.

If there was one book that I would ask my most polarized fellow Americans to read carefully this would probably be it. Poker champs tend to be astute observers of human psychology—think Annie Duke and Maria Konnikova—and Elwood maintains this tradition. 

By Zachary Elwood,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Defusing American Anger as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is a book about our American divides by Zachary Elwood, host of the psychology podcast People Who Read People. Learn more about this book and its author at

"I can’t think of anyone I’ve seen who better practices what they preach, who better lives their ideals about depolarization. His book has an earnest, vulnerable, plainspoken style which parallels his speaking style in his podcast. He seems throughout to anticipate negative reactions from readers on both the left and the right..." - from a review by David Foster at

America is deeply divided. We don't just disagree on…

Book cover of Preventing Polarization: 50 Strategies for Teaching Kids About Empathy, Politics, and Civic Responsibility

Why did I love this book?

Preventing Polarization is, as the title implies, a guide for educators on how to reduce polarization in the next generation. So, it’s unlikely to lead to immediate progress with polarization—but who knows, maybe some adults in positions of power might take some lessons from it as well.

Anyway, I love the premise here as I do think that education is probably crucial for long-term progress with this difficult part of human nature. Just as we must teach our kids to be tolerant and kind toward those from different racial and religious backgrounds or are different from ourselves in any number of ways—we must teach our kids to not be excessively effective polarized!

By Michelle Blanchet, Brian Deters,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Are you ready to break down conflict and build consensus on polarizing topics?

Ideally, education equips students to care about the world and helps them shape their futures. In an era that has become incredibly polarized, we can help our students learn how to come together despite differences.

Michelle Blanchet and Brian Deters show how all educators can equip our youth with skills to become active and engaged citizens. A one-off course on civics is not enough.

Preventing Polarization offers basic strategies that every teacher can use. You will create experiences to help students break down barriers through activities and…

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