The best books on the perils facing democracy

Stephan Lewandowsky Author Of The Debunking Handbook 2020
By Stephan Lewandowsky

The Books I Picked & Why

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia

By Peter Pomerantsev

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia

Why this book?

This is a page-turner that I read in one go from front to finish. It reads like a thriller and keeps you hooked, although it is also a very serious analysis of contemporary Russia by one of the UK’s most skilled journalists and authors. It is as thrilling as it is frightening because there are so many signs that western countries are heading in a similar direction—a country that “is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away”, as Peter put it in one of his memorable phrases.


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Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends

By Anne Applebaum

Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends

Why this book?

An intimate and heartfelt portrayal of how Poland turned away from democratic values after a few brief decades of hope and tolerance following the collapse of Communism. Applebaum was herself caught up in these events, which cut right through families and friendships, and which have led to a situation in which fealty to bizarre conspiracy theories is a prerequisite for political advancement in a declining democracy. 


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The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

By Tim Wu

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

Why this book?

If you use something on the internet for free, then you are the product. Your attention and your personal data are being sold to advertisers, either directly or through the social media platforms that have disrupted long-standing business models of media and advertising. Wu sketches the history of the commodification of human attention, and what the consequences are. As a cognitive scientist, I know that people’s attention is attracted by things that attract outrage and anger—whether we like it or not, we are attracted to negative emotive material. Put that aspect of human attention together with today’s social media algorithms and the platforms’ business model, and you have a recipe for disaster because fake news and polarizing information, including hate speech, will rise to the top of your newsfeed.


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Dark Money

By Jane Mayer

Dark Money

Why this book?

Real conspiracies do exist. Sometimes. And sometimes they play out in broad daylight or just below the surface. Mayer scratches that surface and reveals the incredible influence that is wielded by just a handful of American oligarchs, who use their wealth to determine the direction of America. This is a page-turner on the one hand, but on the other, it is also a serious scholarly effort that amply documents how money drives politics in the U.S. 


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Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

By Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

Why this book?

The tobacco industry knew that its products were killing people long before the risks from smoking were understood by the public, and decades before politicians acted on this public health risk #1. Oreskes and Conway analyze how the tobacco industry was able to forestall policy action for so long. They show how the same playbook is now playing out with climate change, and how the fossil fuel industry is using some of the same actors that worked for Big Tobacco to delay action on climate change.


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