The best books on why ordinary citizen voices matter to a democracy

Gerard A. Hauser Author Of Vernacular Voices: The Rhetoric of Publics and Public Spheres
By Gerard A. Hauser

Who am I?

I am the grandson of a political refugee. My grandfather was a gunrunner in the Greek resistance to Turkish occupation of Chios prior to the 1st Balkan War. His guerilla activity placed his life in danger. He fled pursuit by the Turks, which led to his eventual emigration to the United States. From childhood my family experience was of lively discussions that were inflected by my grandfather’s experience of resistance and US citizenship. They sparked my fascination with the role of citizen voices in a democracy. That was a main focus of my academic career, teaching rhetoric for more than 40 years at Penn State University and the University of Colorado Boulder.

I wrote...

Vernacular Voices: The Rhetoric of Publics and Public Spheres

By Gerard A. Hauser,

Book cover of Vernacular Voices: The Rhetoric of Publics and Public Spheres

What is my book about?

Contemporary pundits and news media give greater publicity to views expressed in official forums than in lay arenas, equate public opinion with what opinion polls measure, and critique the discourse of citizen voices in political public spheres on a narrow view of rationality. I wrote Vernacular Voices as a challenge to this nearly exclusive focus on institutional forums and the voices of those with power when describing the politics of a liberal democracy. Ordinary citizens may not have access to official forums, but they have means beyond opinion polls to express their views and contest those of others.

By moving back and forth between theoretical issues and case studies, Vernacular Voices seeks insight into the form and function of publics, public spheres, and public opinion.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life

Why did I love this book?

The idea of citizenship is vague and can be complicated. Sometimes it refers to a person recognized as a natural-born or naturalized denizen of a nation, sometimes the right to cast a ballot, sometimes law-abiding behavior, sometimes civic engagement, and, too seldom, engaging in public work. Bellah and his associates conducted a series of interviews with ordinary citizens across the US to ascertain their understanding and values with respect to private and public (citizenly) life.

Overwhelmingly, those interviewed (mostly white, middle-class Americans) attached great value to their private lives, while acknowledging the importance of civic participation. They commonly expressed a belief that they should be publicly involved. However, when they discussed public life, they had a limited range of ideas about what that participation might look like, especially compared to the rich descriptions they offered for private life and why they valued it so. 

Among others, Habits raises the question of how well citizens understand citizenship as a public act when they lack a rich vocabulary for civic engagement. The explosion of social media and the deepening divisions within US political life since this seminal study was published mark Habits of the Heart as a harbinger of problems lurking at the edges when public engagements lack a robust language to accommodate complexity and difference. 

By Robert N. Bellah,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

First published in 1985, "Habits of the Heart" continues to be one of the most discussed interpretations of modern American society, a quest for a democratic community that draws on our diverse civic and religious traditions. In a new preface the authors relate the arguments of the book both to the current realities of American society and to the growing debate about the country's future. With this new edition one of the most influential books of recent times takes on a new immediacy.

Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy

By Robert D. Putnam, Robert Leonardi, Raffaella Y. Nanetti

Book cover of Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy

Why did I love this book?

Putnam and his Italian colleagues studied the performance of Italy’s regional governments over a 20-year period. They asked why some democratic governments succeeded while others failed. They thought differences in success would correlate with a region’s economic vitality. Instead, they found that a strong civic community was a better indicator of success. When citizens sought information from reliable news sources, they tended to interact with one another on political matters.  Informed interaction encouraged trust in political dialogue and encouraged engagement in public affairs. 

Equally, when citizens had access to networks of secondary associations, where they interacted with strangers, they were more likely to have a greater sense of solidarity with, and trust and tolerance for their fellow citizens. When these conditions were absent and social relations were more vertical (relying on a leader) than horizontal (relying on community members), democracy didn’t work. Making Democracy Work shows how vernacular rhetoric that brings citizens into the conversation and encourages treating others with trust as political equals strengthens civic community, while reliance on authority figures (or speaking only to the like-minded) defeats it.

By Robert D. Putnam, Robert Leonardi, Raffaella Y. Nanetti

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Why do some democratic governments succeed and others fail? In a book that has received attention from policymakers and civic activists in America and around the world, Robert Putnam and his collaborators offer empirical evidence for the importance of "civic community" in developing successful institutions. Their focus is on a unique experiment begun in 1970 when Italy created new governments for each of its regions. After spending two decades analyzing the efficacy of these governments in such fields as agriculture, housing, and health services, they reveal patterns of associationism, trust, and cooperation that facilitate good governance and economic prosperity.

Book cover of Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts

Why did I love this book?

You can count on citizens who are out of power to struggle to regain it. The more those on top use their position to keep those on the bottom under their thumb, their domination will inspire inventive ways to resist. Scott’s study of the ways the powerless confront the powerful is a mind-opening exploration of the richness and strength of vernacular rhetoric.  From everyday actions that are overtly compliant while simultaneously subterranean expressions of resistance to hush harbors where a vernacular of identity and solidarity is openly shared, the powerless craft the rich rhetoric of opposition. Their arts of resistance fuse vernacular discourse and politics through displays of defiance. By extension, Domination and the Arts of Resistance offers a primer for reading how ordinary citizens communicate shared sentiments often missed by leaders and pollsters. 

By James C. Scott, James C. Scott,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Domination and the Arts of Resistance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A splendid study, surely one of the most important that has appeared on the whole matter of power and resistance."-Natalie Zemon Davis

Confrontations between the powerless and powerful are laden with deception-the powerless feign deference and the powerful subtly assert their mastery. Peasants, serfs, untouchables, slaves, laborers, and prisoners are not free to speak their minds in the presence of power. These subordinate groups instead create a secret discourse that represents a critique of power spoken behind the backs of the dominant. At the same time, the powerful also develop a private dialogue about practices and goals of their rule…

Book cover of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America

Why did I love this book?

The push outward to new frontiers is ingrained in America’s identity. What happens when there is no longer an outer frontier beyond the US borders to conquer? Gandlin’s book, which explores the meaning of the US frontier from the Revolutionary War to Trump’s Border Wall, leads to an unexpected and deeply disturbing answer. America’s expanding frontier has always been the site of genocidal savagery.  But the savagery was directed outward, providing a “gate of escape” from facing unresolved internal conflicts.

The twin catastrophes of unwinnable wars in the Middle East and the 2008 financial meltdown, Gandlin argues, ended the frontier’s myth of endless promise and brought long-suppressed fears and prejudices to the surface. The animating power of Trump’s promise to build a border wall, the negative caricaturing of calls for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the widespread belief among Trump’s base that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and the accompanying January 6 insurrectionist attack on the US Capitol, are of a piece. 

They point to the migration of the US frontier to an internal space, where a savage battle is being waged to assert a national identity as founded on “white rights” but threatened by difference, race, and property rights (including the right to life). The End of the Myth reveals a vernacular among ordinary citizens on the extreme right who have larger numbers than previously thought and pose a serious danger to the republic when differences that have been there all along can no longer be kicked to the curb.  

By Greg Grandin,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The End of the Myth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


A new and eye-opening interpretation of the meaning of the frontier, from early westward expansion to Trump’s border wall.

Ever since this nation’s inception, the idea of an open and ever-expanding frontier has been central to American identity. Symbolizing a future of endless promise, it was the foundation of the United States’ belief in itself as an exceptional nation – democratic, individualistic, forward-looking. Today, though, America hasa new symbol: the border wall.

In The End of the Myth, acclaimed historian Greg Grandin explores the meaning of the frontier throughout the full sweep of U.S. history…

Book cover of Challenges of Ordinary Democracy: A Case Study in Deliberation and Dissent

Why did I love this book?

Perhaps the most widespread engagement by ordinary citizens in political relations is with the education of their children. School boards are increasingly regarded as a site of passionate political contest over what our children will learn, especially when it comes to learning history and its consequences for their understanding of their community and nation. Challenges of Ordinary Democracy reports on three years in the life of a local school board. The voices of administrators, teachers, parents, and the press are examined when dissent takes center stage in the school board’s deliberations. Given that ordinary citizens will disagree, often vehemently, Tracy asks us to consider the parameters of reasonable hostility and why reasonable hostility is important for the voices of ordinary citizens to matter in deciding issues that affect their lives.  

By Karen Tracy,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Is there any place in America where passionate debate plays a more vital role in democratic discourse than local school board meetings? Karen Tracy conducted a thirty-five-month study of the board meetings of the Boulder Valley School District between 1996 and 1999 to analyze just how democracy operates in practice. In Challenges of Ordinary Democracy, she reveals the major role that emotion plays in real-life debate and discerns value in what might easily be seen as negative forms of discourse-voicing platitudes, making contradictory assertions, arguing over a document's wording, speaking angrily, attacking a person's character. By illuminating this one arena…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in democracy, Colorado, and individualism?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about democracy, Colorado, and individualism.

Democracy Explore 100 books about democracy
Colorado Explore 75 books about Colorado
Individualism Explore 26 books about individualism