The best political culture books

3 authors have picked their favorite books about political culture and why they recommend each book.

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How Democracies Die

By Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt,

Book cover of How Democracies Die

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. 


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?

Democracy and Truth

By Sophia Rosenfeld,

Book cover of Democracy and Truth: A Short History

Why do democracies seem particularly vulnerable to populist movements that promote conspiracies and science denial?  It’s as old as democracy itself, argues Sophia Rosenfeld, who points to seeds of our current predicament planted at the birth of our republic. Social and technological stratification encourages groups, in the name of “the people” to reject advice and decrees of leaders, and seek political action based on their gut feelings.  


Who am I?

In the summer of 2017 I went to see the Mer de Glace, the longest glacier in France and a tourist spot for over 200 years. But this dramatic and overwhelming glacier had all but melted away and I found myself in a dry valley a mile across and half a mile deep – concrete evidence of global warming. It was one of the most disturbing experiences I have ever had. As a philosopher and historian of science, I dedicated myself to discovering how and why people were accusing reputable scientists of dishonesty, incompetence, and aloofness while staring at the evidence. The answer is not simple, and requires a lot of telling and hearing stories.


I wrote...

The Workshop and the World: What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us About Science and Authority

By Robert P. Crease,

Book cover of The Workshop and the World: What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us About Science and Authority

What is my book about?

Rejecting scientific authority is an established feature of US life. Politicians and ordinary citizens find that conclusions of the scientific “workshop” collide with their agendas, and treat science as their political opponent. Astonishingly, science denial is difficult to deter because its practitioners exploit well-known vulnerabilities in science itself.

This book uses the stories of ten remarkable individuals – a surprisingly diverse group who include Mary Shelley, Kemal Atatürk, and Hannah Arendt – to explain how this came about, and what will be necessary to change it. These ten individuals confronted severe problems with scientific authority and took action. Some risked their lives. Taken together, their stories show why the dwindling authority of science is as threatening to human life, and what can be done to keep our world from falling apart. 

The Last Liberal Republican

By John Roy Price,

Book cover of The Last Liberal Republican: An Insider's Perspective on Nixon's Surprising Social Policy

John Price is a liberal Republican, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, but choosing to self-identify today as a moderate. This book details his political coming to age, including being co-founder of the Ripon Society. Following Nixon’s 1968 election, Price joined his White House staff as one of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s deputies, serving as director of the Urban Affairs Council. Nixon attended twenty-one of its twenty-three Cabinet Room meetings. Nixon was adamantly anti-Communist, but what John shows is that, far from being a die-hard conservative, his approach to governing was that of a pragmatist, asking how best can the government help to address this issue? John and I served on the same Domestic Council but were assigned different public policy responsibilities. I’m impressed by his personal story – and by his political insights.


Who am I?

I joined the Nixon administration as a White House Fellow upon Harvard Law School graduation in 1969, so I wasn’t part of Nixon’s 1968 campaign. I served for five years, rising to associate director of the Domestic Council and ending as deputy counsel on Nixon’s Watergate defense team. Given my personal involvement at the time, coupled with extensive research over the past fifteen years, I’m among the foremost authorities on the Watergate scandal, but essentially unknowledgeable about people and events preceding the Nixon presidency. My five recommended books have nicely fill that gap – principally by friends and former colleagues who were actually “in the arena” during those heady times. 


I wrote...

The Nixon Conspiracy: Watergate and the Plot to Remove the President

By Geoff Shepard,

Book cover of The Nixon Conspiracy: Watergate and the Plot to Remove the President

What is my book about?

The Nixon Conspiracy is a detailed and definitive account of the Watergate prosecutors’ internal documents uncovered after years of painstaking research in previously sealed archives. Shepard reveals the untold story of how a flawed but honorable president was needlessly brought down by a corrupt, deep state, big media alliance — a circumstance that looks all too familiar today. In this hard-hitting exposé, Shepard reveals the real smoking gun: the prosecutors’ secret, but erroneous, “Road Map” which caused grand jurors to name Nixon a co-conspirator in the Watergate cover-up and the House Judiciary Committee to adopt its primary Article of Impeachment.

Beyond the Founders

By Jeffrey L. Pasley (editor), Andrew W. Robertson (editor), David Waldstreicher (editor)

Book cover of Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic

This collection set me on the road of thinking about how politics consisted of more than just voting and holding office. Essays by Nancy Isenberg (on Aaron Burr and sexual politics), Jeff Pasley (on Thomas Jefferson and blocks of cheese), Andrew Robertson (on electioneering rituals), and Rosemarie Zagarri (on women and political parties) have been particularly influential in shaping my thinking about the interaction between traditional politics and cultural politics.


Who am I?

As a historian of the U.S. presidency, I have long been fascinated by the ways in which aspirants for the White House energize and harness popular support for their candidacy. Tracing the development of electioneering practices from the early 1800s to today has been fascinating. Is there a connection between the hickory sprigs worn by Andrew Jackson’s supporters and the MAGA hats worn by Donald Trump’s supporters? Between the political rallies of William Henry Harrison and those of every modern presidential candidate? Between the derision leveled at politically active women in the 1830s and that directed at Sarah Palin and Hilary Rodham Clinton in the twenty-first century? You betcha!


I wrote...

The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson

By Mark R. Cheathem,

Book cover of The Coming of Democracy: Presidential Campaigning in the Age of Jackson

What is my book about?

In The Coming of Democracy, Mark R. Cheathem examines the evolution of presidential campaigning from 1824 to 1840. Addressing the roots of early republic cultural politics―from campaign biographies to songs, political cartoons, and public correspondence between candidates and voters―Cheathem asks the reader to consider why such informal political expressions increased so dramatically during the Jacksonian period. What sounded and looked like mere entertainment, he argues, held important political meaning. The extraordinary voter participation rate―over 80 percent―in the 1840 presidential election indicated that both substantive issues and cultural politics drew Americans into the presidential selection process.

The Upswing

By Robert D. Putnam,

Book cover of The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It

Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett provide an analysis of the past 125 years of American history that makes a significant contribution to the growing movement to reform American Society. They carefully analyze trends in American life in a way that delineates the tangle of problems we are currently experiencing while at the same time offering hope that we can overcome them. The essence of their analysis is that across a wide variety of societal indicators, the past century and a quarter has involved an upswing in prosocial or communitarian norms and practices, beginning in the progressive era of the early twentieth century. That was followed by a reversal toward less communitarian and more individualistic and self-centered norms and practices.


Who am I?

I have spent my career studying how we can make our world more nurturing for every person. We can build a society that ensures that every child has the skills, interests, values, and health habits they need to lead a productive life in caring relationships with others. I created Values to Action to make this a reality in communities around the world. We have more than 200 members across the country who are working together to reform our society so that it has less poverty, economic inequality, discrimination, and many more happy and thriving families. 


I wrote...

Rebooting Capitalism: How We Can Forge a Society That Works for Everyone

By Anthony Biglan,

Book cover of Rebooting Capitalism: How We Can Forge a Society That Works for Everyone

What is my book about?

This book explains how and why the US became the country with the highest level of child poverty and inequality and what we can do about it. It offers a vision and a road map for how we can create a society in which every person is respected.

Written in Stone

By Sanford Levinson,

Book cover of Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies

Levinson’s book does not focus on traditional battle sites. Rather, it thoughtfully introduces readers to battles that take place over clashing expressions of public memory, particularly memorial controversies, including clashes over name changes and monument removal. I think readers will appreciate his thoughtful treatment of the vexing issues that have swirled around the appropriate location of Confederate memorials. Well before the recent push to remove such memorials from public space, Levinson offered readers various options for dealing with such volatile issues. His book is an insightful and timely guide into the battlefields of public memory.


Who am I?

I remember well my first visit to Gettysburg on a high school trip. I had trouble expressing what I felt until I read the words of a battlefield guide who said that he often sensed a “brooding omnipresence.” I have often felt such presences across the historic landscape in the U.S. and elsewhere. I am now Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University, and former editor of the Journal Of American History. I have also written Preserving Memory: The Struggle To Create America’s Holocaust Museum; The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City In American Memory, and co-edited American Sacred Space; History Wars: The Enola Gay And Other Battles For The American Past; and Landscapes Of 9/11: A Photographer’s Journey.


I wrote...

Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields

By Edward T. Linenthal,

Book cover of Sacred Ground: Americans and Their Battlefields

What is my book about?

This book is about processes of veneration, defilement, and redefinition at Lexington and Concord, the Alamo, Gettysburg, the Little Bighorn, and Pearl Harbor. These “biographies” help us appreciate these sites as both ceremonial centers and civil spaces where Americans of various ideological persuasions come to struggle over the nature of heroism, the meaning of war, the significance of martial sacrifice, and the importance of preserving and expanding the patriotic landscape.

This second edition contains a 30-page epilogue that offers updated material—as of 1993--on each site, perhaps most significantly a detailed account of the 50th anniversary ceremonies at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

The Georgetown Set

By Gregg Herken,

Book cover of The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington

Whistleblowers rely on the press to disseminate their disclosures. In matters of national security, however, the press has a long history of close personal and professional bonds with the government that has curbed revelations. The Georgetown Set offers a fascinating glimpse into the small circle of elite officials, journalists, publishers, and public intellectuals who gathered for cocktail and dinner parties in their high-end neighborhood of Washington, DC. In addition to giving a fly-on-the-wall sense of how Cold War policies and public opinion were made, Herken’s book illuminates the individual and cultural shifts that contributed to the rise of national security disclosures in the 1960s and 1970s. This history is essential for understanding how the evolving dynamics between elite politicians and the press continue to shape the culture of whistleblowing and accountability today.


Who are we?

We are historians of U.S. foreign relations who have written extensively on the Cold War and national security. Both of us were interested in whistleblowing yet knew relatively little about its history. Turns out, we were not alone. Despite lots of popular interest in the topic, we soon discovered that, beyond individual biographies, barely anything is known about the broader history of the phenomenon. With funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Council, we led a collaborative research project, which involved historians, literary scholars, and political theorists, as well as whistleblowers, journalists, and lawyers. One of the fruits of the project, Whistleblowing Nation, is the first comprehensive, interdisciplinary history of U.S. national security whistleblowing.



We wrote...

Whistleblowing Nation: The History of National Security Disclosures and the Cult of State Secrecy

By Hannah Gurman, Kaeten Mistry,

Book cover of Whistleblowing Nation: The History of National Security Disclosures and the Cult of State Secrecy

What is my book about?

The twenty-first century witnessed a new age of whistleblowing in the United States. Disclosures by Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and others have stoked heated public debates about the ethics of exposing institutional secrets, with roots in a longer history of state insiders revealing privileged information. Considering the political, legal, and cultural dimensions of the phenomenon, Whistleblowing Nation is a pathbreaking history of national security disclosures and state secrecy from World War I to the present. Featuring analyses from leading historians, literary scholars, legal experts, and political scientists, Whistleblowing Nation sheds new light on the tension of secrecy and transparency, security and civil liberties, and the politics of truth and falsehood.

How the South Won the Civil War

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

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.


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?

Predisposed

By John R. Hibbing, Kevin B. Smith, John R. Alford

Book cover of Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences

A well-researched and decidedly non-partisan book in analysis. Groucho Marx famously remarked that “all people are born alike—except Republicans and Democrats.” Differing personality traits, values, and emotional displays are all covered in this book. It even finds study results to suggest that political differences aren’t easily resolved in part because they go all the way down to our DNA!


Who am I?

My family moved to Italy when I was six, and I attended Italian first grade in a fishing village where I had to rely on reading body language as I didn’t grasp the language for a bit. Fortunately for me, Italians have lots of body language to read so I could navigate the inevitable cliques and power dynamics evident even at the elementary school level. From that experience to being taken to view the Dachau concentration camp a year later, I’ve always been sensitive to how “the other” gets treated—often unfairly—and the role leaders can play for good or evil.


I wrote...

Two Cheers for Democracy: How Emotions Drive Leadership Style

By Dan Hill,

Book cover of Two Cheers for Democracy: How Emotions Drive Leadership Style

What is my book about?

As George Orwell writes, “By the age of 50 a man has the face he deserves.” Two Cheers for Democracy uses facial coding to evaluate the emotional nature of every U.S. president ever as well as every U.S. presidential debate ever held; along with profiles of world leaders going back to Adolf Hitler. Correlations are drawn using the ranking of U.S. presidents’ efficacy in office as judged by presidential scholars, and by using Gallup Poll results following every debate to evaluate which emotional displays were most effective with voters. But the key section comes at the end, with world leaders’ emotive results correlated to Freedom House’s evaluation of whether those leaders tend to be democratic or autocratic in nature.

The Past as Future

By Jurgen Habermas, Max Pensky (translator),

Book cover of The Past as Future

In addition to being postwar Germany’s most important philosopher, Habermas is also its leading public intellectual. In this volume of his “short political writings” Habermas develops his ideas on a number of concrete issues in the memory politics of postwar Europe that emerged in the early 1990s – including conservative attempts to normalize the Holocaust, the effects of German unification, and the implications of the fall of communism for the EU – in an accessible manner through a series of interviews. This format also allows him to open up the question of the status of public intellectuals and their role in the democratic public sphere, which is the subject of my current book project on Habermas as a public intellectual.


Who am I?

I am an international political and critical theorist interested in the way that key events and experiences from the past continue to affect politics in the present. I was born in the US but moved back to Slovenia when I was in high school, before returning to the states to attend Dartmouth College as an undergraduate, and Yale University for my doctoral studies in political science. This international, bi-continental background – as well as my own family’s history of migration following World War II – has fueled my interest in twentieth-century European history, collective memory and European integration. 


I wrote...

Memory and the Future of Europe: Rupture and Integration in the Wake of Total War

By Peter J. Verovšek,

Book cover of Memory and the Future of Europe: Rupture and Integration in the Wake of Total War

What is my book about?

The European Union represents the most significant development in twentieth-century political organization. Building on the philosophy of the Frankfurt School and first-person accounts, I treat integration as a response to the rupture created by the age of total war. However, despite its many achievements, the European project is increasingly under threat. As the generations with personal memories of the two world wars have passed away, economic gain has increasingly become the EU’s sole raison d’être. In order to survive, I argue that the EU must develop a new historical imaginary that builds on the expanded horizons of the generations that have grown up in the EU as well as on its ability to protect its citizens from the forces of globalization. 

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