5 Books About Politics That Will Help You Understand Where Everything Went Wrong In The U.S.

Books About Politics

A former reality TV star is President of the United States. Even twenty-two months later, facts like this make U.S. politics seem incomprehensible, even absurd. Why is it like this?  How did it get this way?

Of course, the Trump era has been a boom time for political satire, including a by Alec Baldwin last year. But Baldwin’s own Trump-like behavior might make you want to put down the comedy and read some more serious books about politics. Here are five books that take a serious look at the roots of contemporary American political (dys)function.


1. American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael Cohen

Michael Cohen (not that one) is a Boston Globe columnist. He provides a journalistic history of the seething politics of 1968. The year was a firestorm, out of which all contemporary U.S. politics flows. The book will introduce you to then-Alabama Governor and staunch segregationist George Wallace, if you aren’t familiar with him. In this political book, Cohen also sets Pres. Richard Nixon in the context of the era’s upheaval. Implications for our own era are stark. Trump is a Nixonian figure. The book concludes by reflecting on the idea that “it has never stopped being 1968” in the U.S.


2. Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy by Chris Hayes

In this political book, the MSNBC host and former writer for The Nation covers meritocracy’s role in our current crisis. The system of promoting the talented into leadership was an essential part of the post-1968 US social contract. Hayes looks at how it was built, functioned, and has now come undone. He believes that the crises and collapse of what he calls “the fail decade” of the 2000s stoked a reckoning with meritocracy and he wonders what might take its place.


3. The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter

The noted political scientist wrote this political essay about the then-fringe conservative movement in the 1950s. The movement was young, not yet the political force we now all live with. The essay looks at the roots of the movement. Its features arose from the American political tradition.


4. The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop

Bishop looks at where we live, and how it affects the divide in American politics. Regions themselves used to have similar cultural and therefore political traits. An urban-rural divide came later. Now the division between regions lies on top of a city-country divide. Bishop suggests in his political book this is due to our choices about what kinds of cities and neighborhoods we want to live in.


5. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Hochschild is a UC Berkeley sociologist who set out to understand what motivated “Red America”.  So she went to live in southern Louisiana for a few years. The key insight: the white lower-middle-class in Red America considers non-whites, women, and other non-default Americans to be “line cutters”. They believe that those others stand in the way of their own pursuit of the American Dream.

These political books focus on longer-term trends. It is easy to flick from one day’s headlines to the next without seeing overall connections. These books provide a longer-term perspective. Maybe history doesn’t have an arc. But it can give us clues about how our politics produced a figure like Trump.

Let us know if you read any of these books about politics, and if there are some you’d recommend. Contact [email protected].