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

Who am I?

I believe in democracy. I think the US has the opportunity to be the world’s first multicultural and inclusive democracy. And I think that’s a very, very hard thing to do. I’ve been writing about democracy through the lens of presidential history my whole career, and I think the US has done some things so impressively well while at the same time it frustratingly keeps failing to live up to its own ideals. The tensions and contradictions in our history as we try to expand and enact those ideas are endlessly fascinating. And I’m nervous that we may be seeing the end of a national commitment to democracy. 


I wrote...

Deplorable: The Worst Presidential Campaigns from Jefferson to Trump

By Mary E. Stuckey,

Book cover of Deplorable: The Worst Presidential Campaigns from Jefferson to Trump

What is my book about?

From the contest that pitted Thomas Jefferson against John Adams in 1800 through 2020’s vicious, chaotic matchup between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, Stuckey documents the cycle of despicable discourse in presidential campaigns. Looking beyond the character and the ideology of the candidates, Stuckey explores the broader political, economic, and cultural milieus in which each took place. In doing so, she reveals the conditions that exacerbate and enable our worst political instincts, producing discourses that incite factions, target members of the polity, encourage undemocratic policy, and actively work against the national democratic project.

Keenly analytical and compulsively readable, Deplorable provides context for the 2016 and 2020 elections, revealing them as part of a cyclical―and perhaps downward-spiraling―pattern in American politics. Deplorable offers more than a comparison of the worst of our elections. It helps us understand these shameful and disappointing moments in our political history, leaving one important question: Can we avoid them in the future?

The books I picked & why

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Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics

By Avidit Acharyo, Matthew Blackwell, Maya Sen

Book cover of 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.

Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics

By Avidit Acharyo, Matthew Blackwell, Maya Sen

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The lasting effects of slavery on contemporary political attitudes in the American South

Despite dramatic social transformations in the United States during the last 150 years, the South has remained staunchly conservative. Southerners are more likely to support Republican candidates, gun rights, and the death penalty, and southern whites harbor higher levels of racial resentment than whites in other parts of the country. Why haven't these sentiments evolved? Deep Roots shows that the entrenched views of white southerners are a direct consequence of the region's slaveholding history. Today, southern whites who live in areas once reliant on slavery-compared to areas…


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

By Heather Cox Richardson,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Heather Cox Richardson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How the South Won the Civil War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this provocative new work, Heather Cox Richardson argues that while the North won the Civil War, ending slavery, oligarchy, and giving the country a "new birth of freedom," the victory was short-lived. Settlers from the East pushed into the West, where the seizure of Mexican lands at the end of the Mexican-American War and treatment of Native Americans cemented racial hierarchies. The Old South found a new home in the West. Both depended on extractive
industries-cotton in the former and mining, cattle, and oil in the latter-giving rise to a white ruling elite, one that thrived despite the abolition…


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

By Susan Hennessey, Benjamin Wittes,

Book cover of 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.

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

By Susan Hennessey, Benjamin Wittes,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"This is a book for everyone who has developed an unexpected nostalgia for political 'norms' during the Trump years . . . Other books on the Trump White House expertly detail the mayhem inside; this book builds on those works to detail its consequences." ―Carlos Lozada (one of twelve books to read "to understand what's going on")

"Perhaps the most penetrating book to have been written about Trump in office." ―Lawrence Douglas, The Times Literary Supplement

The definitive account of how Donald Trump has wielded the powers of the American presidency

The extraordinary authority of the U.S. presidency has no…


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

By Ibram X. Kendi,

Book cover of 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. 

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

By Ibram X. Kendi,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Stamped from the Beginning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Stamped from the Beginning is a redefining history of anti-Black racist ideas that dramatically changes our understanding of the causes and extent of racist thinking itself.

** Winner of the US National Book Award**

Its deeply researched and fast-moving narrative chronicles the journey of racist ideas from fifteenth-century Europe to present-day America through the lives of five major intellectuals - Puritan minister Cotton Mather, President Thomas Jefferson, fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, brilliant scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, and legendary anti-prison activist Angela Davis - showing how these ideas were developed, disseminated and eventually enshrined in American society.

Contrary to popular…


How Democracies Die

By Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt,

Book cover of 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. 

How Democracies Die

By Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked How Democracies Die as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The most important book of the Trump era' The Economist

How does a democracy die?
What can we do to save our own?
What lessons does history teach us?

In the 21st century democracy is threatened like never before.

Drawing insightful lessons from across history - from Pinochet's murderous Chilean regime to Erdogan's quiet dismantling in Turkey - Levitsky and Ziblatt explain why democracies fail, how leaders like Trump subvert them today and what each of us can do to protect our democratic rights.

'This book looks to history to provide a guide for defending democratic norms when they are…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in political culture, the South, and the American West?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about political culture, the South, and the American West.

Political Culture Explore 31 books about political culture
The South Explore 126 books about the South
The American West Explore 103 books about the American West

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The New Jim Crow, The Second Founding, and Slavery by Another Name if you like this list.