The best books to heal America’s dying democracy

Who am I?

Conflict and disagreement have always interested me. I was a middle child, so I naturally fell into the role of peacemaker. But I also had strong opinions, and I always thought I knew the right answer. The pursuit of education, love, and a career brought me to rural Montana, an Asian metropolis, and everywhere in between. These experiences deepened my fascination regarding how people could have such different beliefs, and how we are to live together despite those differences. A PhD in Science and Technology Studies, supervised by a political scientist, sent me on the path to diagnosing what ails American democracy, and what the cure might be.

I wrote...

The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy

By Taylor Dotson,

Book cover of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy

What is my book about?

It has become cliché to lament that Americans are living in “two different realities,” and to pine for a past when everybody accepted the same facts. If only such a time had actually existed. In The Divide, I dispense with that historical myth and zero in on what really powers political divisiveness in the United States and elsewhere in the world.

The Divide shows that it is overemphasizing the importance of truth, not denigrating it, that drives political polarization and gridlock. It is mistrust, not misinformation, that lies beneath skepticism about vaccines and climate change. Only by focusing on uncertainty, working to genuinely understand opponents, and building political systems that prioritize the skills of honest negotiation and coalition building can we hope to reverse our country’s democratic decline.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker

Why did I love this book?

Before Trump, there was Scott Walker. The controversial former governor of Wisconsin, Walker waged war against the state’s unionized public employees and universities.

I tell everyone I know to read this book, because it is an honest and incisive portrayal of why rural people vote for politicians like Walker and Trump. Too often leftists seem to want to unfairly dismiss all rural conservatives as hopelessly ignorant, racist, or even worse. The Politics of Rural Resentment’s humanizing portrayal helped me to better understand the motivations of people who don’t live in urban centers.

If we are to bridge the divides in this country, it will be only by following Cramer’s lead.

By Katherine Cramer,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Since the election of Scott Walker, Wisconsin has been seen as ground zero for debates about the appropriate role of government in the wake of the Great Recession. In a time of rising inequality, Walker not only survived a bitterly contested recall that brought thousands of protesters to Capitol Square, he was subsequently reelected. How could this happen? How is it that the very people who stand to benefit from strong government services not only vote against the candidates who support those services but are vehemently against the very idea of big government?

With The Politics of Resentment, Katherine J.…

Book cover of Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side

Why did I love this book?

I just love how Sustaining Democracy breaks down the problem of polarization in a jargon-free way.

Robert Talisse brings the reader on a mind-expanding philosophical journey, showing why it undermines democracy when we see political opponents as not just misled but as "bad people." At the same time, he isn't so naive to believe that we can drop our disputes and sing kumbaya. 

I appreciate that Talisse recognizes that our disagreements are here to stay. But, if we try to treat each other as political equals, we can not only reduce the pathologies of polarization but also make it easier to work towards a just society.

By Robert B. Talisse,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Democracy is not easy. Citizens who disagree sharply about politics must nonetheless work together as equal partners in the enterprise of collective self-government. Ideally, this work would be conducted under conditions of mutual civility, with opposed citizens nonetheless recognizing one another's standing as political equals. But when the political stakes are high, and the opposition seems to us severely mistaken, why not drop the democratic pretences of civil
partnership, and simply play to win? Why seek to uphold properly democratic relations with those who embrace political ideas that are flawed, irresponsible, and out of step with justice? Why sustain democracy…

Book cover of Dealing with an Angry Public: The Mutual Gains Approach to Resolving Disputes

Why did I love this book?

This book is a classic. I recommend it to all my students. While the events discussed are dated: Three Mile Island, silicone breast implants, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I found the lessons to be perennial.

Lawrence Susskind and Patrick Field show that when companies or government agencies focus on defending themselves during a crisis and fail to take responsibility, public confidence is only further eroded. I really enjoyed that, in the end, Dealing with an Angry Public is a practical guide to restoring and keeping trust, one that professionals in nuclear energy, public health, and other controversial fields would do well to read and understand. 

By Lawrence Susskind, Patrick Field,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dealing with an Angry Public as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Some portion of the American public will react negatively to almost any new corporate initiative, as Disney discovered when it announced its plans to build an historical theme park in Virginia. Similarly, government efforts to change policy or shift budget priorities are invariably met with stiff resistance. In this enormously practical book, Lawrence Susskind and Patrick Field analyze scores of both private and public-sector cases, as well as crisis scenarios such as the Alaskan oil spill, the silicone breast implant controversy, and nuclear plant malfunction at Three Mile Island. They show how resistance to both public and private initiatives can…

Book cover of Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Trust, Expertise, and the War on Science

Why did I love this book?

Despite ever louder calls to “follow the science,” vaccine skepticism only seems to be rising.

Maya Goldenberg’s arguments helped me see why handwringing over the “war on expertise” fails and how we could do better. She shows that the crisis is rooted in declining public trust of medical institutions. Vaccine Hesitancy helped open my eyes to a critical fact: Medical skepticism is a rational response to a history of research scandals, corporate misconduct, and discrimination.

I honestly believe that had public officials paid attention to books like Vaccine Hesitancy, the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic would not have torn Americans apart. 

By Maya J. Goldenberg,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The public has voiced concern over the adverse effects of vaccines from the moment Dr. Edward Jenner introduced the first smallpox vaccine in 1796. The controversy over childhood immunization intensified in 1998, when Dr. Andrew Wakefield linked the MMR vaccine to autism. Although Wakefield's findings were later discredited and retracted, and medical and scientific evidence suggests routine immunizations have significantly reduced life-threatening conditions like measles, whooping cough, and polio, vaccine refusal and vaccine-preventable outbreaks are on the rise.

This book explores vaccine hesitancy and refusal among parents in the industrialized North. Although biomedical, public health, and popular science literature has…

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?

What I like about Defusing Anger is that it is more than just an accessibly written primer on political polarization.

Zachary Elwood takes the time to break down contentious political issues like immigration, showing why people can reasonably come to different conclusions. I recommend this book to friends and family because it tries so hard to understand the perspectives of both liberals and conservatives. If we are to bridge America’s divides, it will be by more often practicing the “perspective taking” showcased in Defusing American Anger.

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…

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