The best books on saving democracy from populism

Who am I?

I started worrying about populism in 2008, when vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin chastised the elitists, whom she defined as “people who think they’re better than anyone else.” Meanwhile, she thought she was so much better than anyone else that she could serve as backup leader of the world despite the fact that she believed that the political leader of the United Kingdom is the queen. After she lost she vowed, “I’m never going to pretend like I know more than the next person. I’m not going to pretend to be an elitist. In fact, I’m going to fight the elitist.” She was unaware that there is a third option: to study so that you know more than the next person. 

I wrote...

In Defense of Elitism: Why I'm Better Than You and You Are Better Than Someone Who Didn't Buy This Book

By Joel Stein,

Book cover of In Defense of Elitism: Why I'm Better Than You and You Are Better Than Someone Who Didn't Buy This Book

What is my book about?

To find out how The New Dark Ages started and usher in the Intellectual Restoration, I spent a week in the county with the highest percentage of Trump voters. I went to the home of Trump-loving Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams; talked to Tucker Carlson; got lessons in obfuscation from a fake news kingpin; reproduced the experience of being an inexperienced government official by acting as mayor of L.A. for a day and interviewed members of secret organizations trying to create a new political party. All while wearing a cravat. 

The books I picked & why

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The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography

By Henry Adams,

Book cover of The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography

Why this book?

I didn’t want to read a 1907 autobiography about someone I’d never heard of who uses a humblebrag title to tell me about his life as a genius. But it won the Pulitzer and made Modern Library’s list of top 100 nonfiction books of the 20th century – the hardest century to make the list in – for a reason. To my great shock it’s a fun, well-written page-turner. The son of the last of the dignified founding father presidents, John Quincy Adams (and grandson of John Adams) rails against Jacksonian populism in the time of Grant. You can skip the last section on his excitement about dynamo steam engines. 

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History

By Kurt Andersen,

Book cover of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History

Why this book?

The co-creator of SPY magazine, Kurt Andersen was my hero in high school. He’s been an NPR radio host, a novelist, a magazine editor, and a co-author with Alec Baldwin on their Trump book. But this book feels like all the thinking he’s done in those places put in one place. It’s a textbook of American history from the Puritans until today, through the lens of our special predilection for conspiracy, con artists, and fabulists, both on the left and the right, and how it all culminates in the 1960s. So smart, so funny, so jealous.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

By Richard Hofstadter,

Book cover of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Why this book?

I am not going to lie: This book is boring. One of those books where you think: This brilliant person has some amazing ideas but they either can’t write or they’re insanely boring in person. It’s a college lecture come to life. It won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize and I think anyone who finishes it should also get a Pulitzer Prize. But I’m glad I did. Because I understand populism so much better now.

The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters

By Tom Nichols,

Book cover of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters

Why this book?

I liked this book so much that I’ve become friends with Tom Nichols. I interviewed him for my book, for the extra chapters my publisher made me write for the paperback edition, and once, I believe, just because I wanted to talk to him. This former Naval War College professor and Jeopardy! champion cares so much about democracy that he left the Republican party after Donald Trump was elected president. 

The Age of American Unreason

By Susan Jacoby,

Book cover of The Age of American Unreason

Why this book?

If you’ve ever wondered if people today are dumber than people in the past, you should watch Idiocracy. And then read this book. It shows how we’ve devolved into people who look at lists of the best five books and never actually read those books. In 2008, for a column for the L.A. Times, I had her take a quiz from the author of the book How Dumb Are You?: The Great American Stupidity Quiz and she got two wrong. I got 11 wrong. The point is: Read her book instead of mine.

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