The best books on why American politics are terrible and what to do about it

Mary E. Stuckey Author Of Deplorable: The Worst Presidential Campaigns from Jefferson to Trump
By Mary E. Stuckey

The Books I Picked & Why

Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics

By Avidit Acharyo, Matthew Blackwell, Maya Sen

Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics

Why this book?

I love this book because it’s political science at its best; it uses a lot of great data to study how history affects us in the present; it shows us how hard change is and also what makes it possible. It’s depressing and hopeful and super smart. It’s social science but it’s also very readable.


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How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America

By Heather Cox Richardson

How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America

Why this book?

She’s a super-smart Civil War historian, and this book does something I haven’t seen in a lot of Civil War books—it shows how important the West was to the way the US developed after the Civil War—it wasn’t just that the nation expanded, but she writes about how both the North and South relied on racial hierarchies, and she centers Native Americans, which I think is a really important part of that story.


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Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump's War on the World's Most Powerful Office

By Susan Hennessey, Benjamin Wittes

Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump's War on the World's Most Powerful Office

Why this book?

This is another readable book—and it’s really important because these authors don’t just focus on the norms that Trump violated and that get so much attention, but actually offer an interesting analysis of the things he did administratively that weakened the office of the presidency and the national government. People tend to think Trump was a poor administrator, and in many ways, of course, he was, but his actions have consequences that we don’t always see and this book tells us about them.


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Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

By Ibram X. Kendi

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Why this book?

Everyone ought to read this book. It’s beautifully written and it’s a detailed history of the US and its relationship to racism. Kendi makes a convincing case that racism is about policy—what we do—more than it is about attitudes—what we feel and think. In focusing on the institutional and historical aspects of racism, he both offers a necessary corrective to many histories of the US, but also does so in a way that shows how the national history is deeply influenced by its political economy. 


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How Democracies Die

By Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt

How Democracies Die

Why this book?

These two authors are experts in comparative politics, and this book turns that lens on the US. I think this is important because it takes us out of the “US is different” mindset and because it is clear that threats to democracy are a global phenomenon. This book puts the US case in that context and shows us just how shaky our democracy currently is and why. 


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