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. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography

Joel Stein Why did I love 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. 

By Henry Adams,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Education of Henry Adams as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This classic autobiography includes accounts of Adams's residence in England and of his "diplomatic education" in the circle of Palmerston, Russell and Gladstone.


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

Joel Stein Why did I love 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.

By Kurt Andersen,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?


You're entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts

Fantasy is the USA's primary product. From the Pilgrim Fathers onward America has been a place where renegades and freaks came in search of freedom to create their own realities with little objectively regulated truth standing in their way. The freedom to invent and believe whatever the hell you like is, in some ways, an unwritten constitutional right. But, this do-your-own-thing freedom also is the driving credo of America's current transformation where the difference between opinion and fact is rapidly crumbling.

So how did we get to this weird…


Book cover of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Joel Stein Why did I love 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.

By Richard Hofstadter,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Anti-Intellectualism in American Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 1964 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is a book which throws light on many features of the American character. Its concern is not merely to portray the scorners of intellect in American life, but to say something about what the intellectual is, and can be, as a force in a democratic society.

"As Mr. Hofstadter unfolds the fascinating story, it is no crude battle of eggheads and fatheads. It is a rich, complex, shifting picture of the life of the mind in a society dominated by the ideal of practical success." —Robert Peel in…


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

Joel Stein Why did I love 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. 

By Tom Nichols,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Death of Expertise as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything; with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual
footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.…


Book cover of The Age of American Unreason

Joel Stein Why did I love 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.

By Susan Jacoby,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Age of American Unreason as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A cultural history of the last forty years, The Age of American Unreasonfocuses on the convergence of social forces—usually treated as separate entities—that has created a perfect storm of anti-rationalism. These include the upsurge of religious fundamentalism, with more political power today than ever before; the failure of public education to create an informed citizenry; and the triumph of video over print culture. Sparing neither the right nor the left, Jacoby asserts that Americans today have embraced a universe of “junk thought” that makes almost no effort to separate fact from opinion.


You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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