The best books to understand why American democracy is struggling

Who am I?

I am an economist by training, who has researched and taught classes related to business, governance, and democracy for more than 30 years at the University of Southern California. My work is multidisciplinary, spanning economics, finance, law, and political science, with a grounding in empirical analysis. In addition to two books and numerous scholarly articles, I am a frequent op-ed contributor and media commentator on topics related to democracy. I also direct the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a nonpartisan education organization focused on direct democracy.


I wrote...

Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge

By John G. Matsusaka,

Book cover of Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge

What is my book about?

Many Americans of both parties feel that democracy is adrift, that government has become unresponsive to the concerns of ordinary people, and that “elites” have too much influence. My book, using an array of historical and empirical evidence, shows that this concern is not imaginary—popular control over government in fact has been declining over time. The book explains how this situation gradually came about over the last century, largely as an unanticipated byproduct of rational efforts to modernize government. There is no simple way to restore popular confidence in government, but the book shows how some pressure can be alleviated by using referendums to decide important policy issues such as abortion, immigration, and schooling.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Disconnect

John G. Matsusaka Why did I love this book?

Based on a series of public lectures by a notable political scientist, this book documents the fact that the “political class” has grown increasingly disconnected from ordinary Americans. Written in an accessible way, it is full of simple tables and charts that build the case. In our hyper-partisan world, it offers an important antidote to the common belief that the problems with democracy can be solved simply by defeating the other party at the polls—the challenges are much deeper than that.

By Morris P. Fiorina,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Red states, blue states . . . are we no longer the United States? Morris P. Fiorina here examines today's party system to reassess arguments about party polarization while offering a cogent overview of the American electorate.

Building on the arguments of Fiorina's acclaimed Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, this book explains how contemporary politics differs from that of previous eras and considers what might be done to overcome the unproductive politics of recent decades. Drawing on polling results and other data, Fiorina examines the disconnect between an unrepresentative ""political class"" and the citizenry it purports to…


Book cover of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States

John G. Matsusaka Why did I love this book?

At the most basic level, this is a history book that describes the evolution of voting rights in the United States. But it also yields a deeper lesson—that democracy is not a static thing; it is a continually evolving set of practices that each generation of Americans has updated. The book is ultimately encouraging about the potential of American democracy to renew itself and reminds us that democracy is something we choose, not something we are given. This is not a page-turner but for those who think that the struggle over voting rights is a modern development, the layers of detail will help form a more nuanced and richer picture.

By Alexander Keyssar,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Originally published in 2000, The Right to Vote was widely hailed as a magisterial account of the evolution of suffrage from the American Revolution to the end of the twentieth century. In this revised and updated edition, Keyssar carries the story forward, from the disputed presidential contest of 2000 through the 2008 campaign and the election of Barack Obama. The Right to Vote is a sweeping reinterpretation of American political history as well as a meditation on the meaning of democracy in contemporary American life.


Book cover of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln

John G. Matsusaka Why did I love this book?

Although established in the late 1700s, the United States didn’t really become a recognizably modern democracy until the middle of the 1800s. This classic history book describes in detail how this happened in response to public pressures that were populist in nature. The story of this transformation over the 19th century reveals that populism is a recurring feature of American politics, and it has often led the country to improve its democratic practices. This is not an easy read, but offers significant rewards to the persistent reader.

By Sean Wilentz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Acclaimed as the definitive study of the period by one of the greatest American historians, The Rise of American Democracy traces a historical arc from the earliest days of the republic to the opening shots of the Civil War. Ferocious clashes among the Founders over the role of ordinary citizens in a government of "we, the people" were eventually resolved in the triumph of Andrew Jackson. Thereafter, Sean Wilentz shows, a fateful division arose between two starkly opposed democracies-a division contained until the election of Abraham Lincoln sparked its bloody resolution. Winner of the Bancroft Award, shortlisted for the Pulitzer…


Book cover of Democracy: A Case Study

John G. Matsusaka Why did I love this book?

This unconventional book contains a series of business-school-style case studies about critical episodes in American democracy that forms the basis for a class taught by the author at Harvard Business School. The cases are interesting and an enjoyable way to learn history—but more than that, by putting the reader in the shoes of key decision-makers in each episode, they build an appreciation for the complexity of real political decisions, in contrast to public discourse these days which too often treats our policy challenges as black and white issues.

By David A. Moss,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A Foreign Affairs Best Book of the Year

"This absolutely splendid book is a triumph on every level. A first-rate history of the United States, it is beautifully written, deeply researched, and filled with entertaining stories. For anyone who wants to see our democracy flourish, this is the book to read."
-Doris Kearns Goodwin

To all who say our democracy is broken-riven by partisanship, undermined by extremism, corrupted by wealth-history offers hope. Democracy's nineteen cases, honed in David Moss's popular course at Harvard and taught at the Library of Congress, in state capitols, and at hundreds of high schools across…


Book cover of Liberalism Against Populism: A Confrontation Between the Theory of Democracy and the Theory of Social Choice

John G. Matsusaka Why did I love this book?

This political science classic explains why it is impossible to create a voting system that reliably reveals citizen preferences; all systems can be manipulated by those who frame the questions and timing of elections. What this implies, Riker argues, is that democracy’s strength is not allowing citizens to micromanage policy; its strength is allowing the people to remove elected officials that don’t serve their interests. This is a scholarly work—not for the casual reader—it offers illuminating examples contains illuminating examples that illustrate key principles, and is accessible to an educated reader with some effort.

By William H. Riker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Liberalism Against Populism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The discoveries of social choice theory have undermined the simple and unrealistic nineteenth-century notions of democracy, especially the expectation that electoral institutions smoothly translate popular will directly into public policy. One response to these discoveries is to reject democracy out of hand. Another, which is the program of this book, is to save democracy by formulating more realistic expectations. Hence, this book first summarizes social choice theory in order to explain the full force of its critique. Then it explains, in terms of social choice theory, how politics and public issues change and develop. Finally, it reconciles democratic ideals with…


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The Fornax Assassin

By J.C. Gemmell,

Book cover of The Fornax Assassin

J.C. Gemmell Author Of The Fornax Assassin

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Inclusive What-if worrier Eco-warrior Mountain trekker Ten-mile runner

J.C.'s 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

In 2038 a devastating pandemic sweeps across the world. Two decades later, Britain remains the epicenter for the Fornax variant, annexed by a terrified global community.

David Malik is as careful as any man to avoid contact with the virus. But when his sister tests positive as an asymptomatic carrier, she must relocate to Fornax Island to join the isolated population of contagious untreatables. Fortunately, the British prime minister’s latest manifesto includes reintegrating the islanders with the nation. Yet, he does not survive a visit to Fornax Island to unveil his new policies.

The military suspects one of its junior officers is responsible for his death. Malik seizes his chance to represent the possible assassin, allowing him to protect his sister. Yet within days of taking on the case, he finds himself accused of masterminding the assassination. 

The Fornax Assassin

By J.C. Gemmell,

What is this book about?

2038: a devastating pandemic sweeps across the world. Two decades later, Britain remains the epicentre for the fornax variant, annexed by a terrified global community.

David Malik is as careful as any man to avoid contact with the virus. But when his sister tests positive as an asymptomatic carrier, she must relocate to Fornax Island to join the isolated population of contagious-untreatables.

Fortunately, the British prime minister’s latest manifesto includes reintegrating the islanders with the nation. Yet, he does not survive a visit to Fornax Island to unveil his new policies.

The military suspects one of its junior officers is…


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