The best books to understand why American democracy is struggling

John G. Matsusaka Author Of Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge
By John G. Matsusaka

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.

The books I picked & why

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Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics

By Morris P. Fiorina,

Book cover of Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics

Why 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.


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

By Alexander Keyssar,

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

Why 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.


The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln

By Sean Wilentz,

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

Why 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.


Democracy: A Case Study

By David A. Moss,

Book cover of Democracy: A Case Study

Why 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.


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

By William H. Riker,

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

Why 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.


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