The best books that explain why the world is becoming more authoritarian

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a political science professor who has always been interested in authoritarian regimes, how they function, and how they control their citizens. In particular, I find it fascinating why citizens may genuinely adore and respect the (sometimes outrageous) autocrats that lead them, even though they rule with an iron fist. Additionally, the rise of authoritarianism in democracies also caught my attention. Terms like “slow-moving coups” and “insurrections” are being used when referring to democracies now. In some ways, this is shocking to me—but it’s motivated me to better understand how this happenedand the ways in which autocracies and democracies seem to be mimicking each other.


I wrote...

Democratic Decay and Authoritarian Resurgence

By Natasha Lindstaedt,

Book cover of Democratic Decay and Authoritarian Resurgence

What is my book about?

My book explains how the early seeds of democratic decay may take place many years before we are even aware of it. Countries that suffer from a weak rule of law, poorly institutionalized parties that fail to represent, and a media that polarizes more than informs have already started to backslide. When this is accompanied by growing inequalities, demographic shifts, and corruption, the propensity for autocratization rises. As my book argues, all of these factors are important because they shape citizens’ commitment to democracy, and to the belief that democratic processes are best suited to resolving disputes. This book highlights how political entrepreneurs seize upon these conditions to engage in detrimental power grabs not just in hybrid regimes but in democracies as well.  

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

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy

Natasha Lindstaedt Why did I love this book?

Authoritarian Goes Global is an edited volume by Larry Diamond, Marc Plattner, and Christopher Walker—all distinguished experts in the study of democracy—which explains why authoritarian regimes have been so resilient. More specifically, the book offers evidence of how authoritarian regimes have been able to defend against democracy promotion, and in some cases, spread authoritarian norms and tactics. To help understand this better, the book provides interesting case studies on some of the most notable autocracies such as China, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela—and also gives insights into how authoritarian regimes use new (and old) tools of propaganda and surveillance to control their citizens. For example, if you want to understand why Russia has shifted to a war footing, this book explains why this happened.

By Larry Diamond (editor), Marc F. Plattner (editor), Christopher Walker (editor)

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Over the past decade, illiberal powers have become emboldened and gained influence within the global arena. Leading authoritarian countries-including China, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela-have developed new tools and strategies to contain the spread of democracy and challenge the liberal international political order. Meanwhile, the advanced democracies have retreated, failing to respond to the threat posed by the authoritarians. As undemocratic regimes become more assertive, they are working together to repress civil society while tightening their grip on cyberspace and expanding their reach in international media. These political changes have fostered the emergence of new counternorms-such as the authoritarian…


Book cover of How to Save a Constitutional Democracy

Natasha Lindstaedt Why did I love this book?

Legal scholars have offered a lot of insights into how democracies fall apart, but one of the more interesting books from constitutional scholars is How to Save a Constitutional Democracy. Using a case study of the US to illustrate, this book demonstrates how important constitutional design is in preventing democratic backsliding, as the book explains how would-be autocrats can take advantage of constitutions to flex their own power. And though the US constitution has often been heralded as a model document for new democracies to follow, somewhat surprisingly, it’s not ideal for maintaining a democracy; it actually suffers from two sins of being overly rigid on the one hand, and too vague in shaping the parameters of executive power on the other. This book is both a guide and a cautionary tale.

By Tom Ginsburg, Aziz Z Huq,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Democracies are in danger. Around the world, a rising wave of populist leaders threatens to erode the core structures of democratic self-rule. In the United States, the tenure of Donald Trump has seemed decisive turning point for many. What kind of president intimidates jurors, calls the news media the "enemy of the American people," and seeks foreign assistance investigating domestic political rivals? Whatever one thinks of President Trump, many think the Constitution will safeguard us from lasting damage. But is that assumption justified? How to Save a Constitutional Democracy mounts an urgent argument that we can no longer afford to…


Book cover of How Democracies Die

Natasha Lindstaedt Why did I love this book?

If you are still wondering how democracies fall apart, How Democracies Die, is one of the more accessibly written accounts of how, where, and why democracy is in danger. The book explains why democracies are no longer ending with a coup, but rather with a steady and slow erosion of democratic institutions. Chock-full of examples, this book highlights what the institutional guardrails are in a democracy and how these safeguards are weakened by leaders and other elected representatives (like Donald Trump, Recip Erdoğan, and Viktor Orbán, etc.), who hold little regard for democratic norms and are willing to engage in a scorched earth style of politics just to maintain power. I like that this was written for a wide audience.

By Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt,

Why should I read it?

5 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…


Book cover of The Authoritarians

Natasha Lindstaedt Why did I love this book?

For anyone interested in political psychology, this book explores the leader-follower relationship and more specifically, helps you understand why citizens might support autocrats and autocratic regimes. As many may find Karen Stenner’s book, The Authoritarian Dynamic, too academic, Robert Altemeyer’s book, The Authoritarians explains in clear and plain language (and written in the first person) what drives right-wing (and to a lesser extent left-wing) authoritarian aggression. This book explores all the details of how authoritarians think—the unquestioning loyalty to authority, the proclivity towards fundamentalism, and the suspicion of outsiders and change, particularly societal change. Altemeyer, who is known for improving upon Theodor Adorno’s F-scale of authoritarianism, also highlights the difficulty that authoritarians have in thinking critically and living with nuance and complexity. This book explains why family reunions might be so difficult.  

By Bob Altemeyer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Authoritarians as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 13, 14, 15, and 16.

What is this book about?

The Authoritarians summarizes the research of Dr. Robert Altemeyer, whose professional career has focused on the study of the Authoritarian Personality, and development of the Right-Wing Authoritarian (RWA) personality and ideological variable widely studied in political, social, and personality psychology.

The foreword is provided by John W. Dean, former Nixon White House counsel and New York Times best-selling author.


Book cover of Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism

Natasha Lindstaedt Why did I love this book?

Since the rise of the likes of Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Narendra Modi, and Jair Bolsonaro, there has been no shortage of research that has studied authoritarian populism. After Brexit, many studies argued that globalization-induced economic dislocations were leading to grievances, which political entrepreneurs tapped into. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart make the argument in their book, Cultural Backlash, that these grievances are driven by a cultural backlash to post-materialist values of liberalism, pluralism, and tolerance. This book does a great job explaining how authoritarian populist voters want to feel part of a tribe that shares their identity and attitudes, and how they are willing to support autocrats that will do what it takes to protect the tribe. This book is really helpful in understanding how we got here. 

By Pippa Norris, Ronald Inglehart,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Authoritarian populist parties have advanced in many countries, and entered government in states as diverse as Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Switzerland. Even small parties can still shift the policy agenda, as demonstrated by UKIP's role in catalyzing Brexit. Drawing on new evidence, this book advances a general theory why the silent revolution in values triggered a backlash fuelling support for authoritarian-populist parties and leaders in the US and Europe. The conclusion highlights the dangers of this development and what could be done to mitigate the risks to liberal democracy.


You might also like...

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

Book cover of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

John Kenneth White Author Of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Reading was a childhood passion of mine. My mother was a librarian and got me interested in reading early in life. When John F. Kennedy was running for president and after his assassination, I became intensely interested in politics. In addition to reading history and political biographies, I consumed newspapers and television news. It is this background that I have drawn upon over the decades that has added value to my research.

John's book list on who we are, how we’ve changed, and what gives us hope

What is my book about?

It didn’t begin with Donald Trump. When the Republican Party lost five straight presidential elections during the 1930s and 1940s, three things happened: (1) Republicans came to believe that presidential elections are rigged; (2) Conspiracy theories arose and were believed; and (3) The presidency was elevated to cult-like status.

Long before Trump, each of these phenomena grew in importance. The John Birch Society and McCarthyism became powerful forces; Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first “personal president” to rise above the party; and the development of what Harry Truman called “the big lie,” where outrageous falsehoods came to be believed. Trump…

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

What is this book about?

It didn't begin with Donald Trump. The unraveling of the Grand Old Party has been decades in the making. Since the time of FDR, the Republican Party has been home to conspiracy thinking, including a belief that lost elections were rigged. And when Republicans later won the White House, the party elevated their presidents to heroic status-a predisposition that eventually posed a threat to democracy. Building on his esteemed 2016 book, What Happened to the Republican Party?, John Kenneth White proposes to explain why this happened-not just the election of Trump but the authoritarian shift in the party as a…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in authoritarianism, democracy, and populism?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about authoritarianism, democracy, and populism.

Authoritarianism Explore 46 books about authoritarianism
Democracy Explore 114 books about democracy
Populism Explore 25 books about populism