Five books that taught me a lot about politics—and people

Five is an arbitrary number, of course. I reserve the right to append this list later.

Happy Tuesday to you all from sunny western Nevada, where the air is crisp and beer is crisper. I am on vacation this week, hence the lack of an email last Sunday, but am sending a short dispatch between hikes in the desert hills and piny woods to fulfill my authorial duty to my readers and send along some thoughts on public opinion, democracy, and voter behavior.

[More below the fold.]

Last week, I taught a class on voter suppression to students at the University of Texas at Austin, my alma mater (hook em horns!), and two students asked if I had any books to recommend on politics, government, voter behavior, &c. And of course I do! Even better, I thought this would be relevant to many newsletter subscribers. So here’s a brief list of the books I think every political science student, political journalist, and avid news-reader should check out. They are accessible and generally well written, so anyone should be able to digest them.

In no particular order:

  1. Lilliana Mason’s Uncivil Agreement. Dollar for dollar I think Mason is the best researcher of social/political identities and their consequences of the past decade. (NB: YMMV, given that a decade is basically as long as I’ve been reading about politics.) Mason’s book purports to tell us “How Politics Became Our Identity” but really goes even further, telling us how a new identity politics shapes elections, democratic outcomes, and social interactions. A good book on its own, the implications are important for understanding the rise of the counter-majoritarian and electorally illiberal right over the past few years.

  2. Jonathan Rodden’s Why Cities Lose. Rodden’s book is a history of center- and far-left parties in America and other western democracies, showing how and why their voters have become increasingly concentrated in cities that are at once easy to gerrymander and hard to draw fair districts around. The confluence of two parallel streams in global democracies — rising geographic polarization and single-member, plurality-winner electoral districts — has made conservative parties systematically over-represented in many national and sub-national legislatures. That’s because liberal parties have become the parties of the city.

  3. Gabriel Lenz’s Follow the Leader?: How Voters Respond to Politicians Policies and Performance. I was particularly drawn to Lenz’s book after reading Mason’s, as it also addresses the finding that much of our belief system and behaviors are shaped by the people we associate with, rather than what would be “best” for us or what we rationally want. Lenz finds that the typical folklore of democracy, that people pick candidates who represent their views, is hardly a forgone conclusion for most voters. In fact, many of us do the opposite, picking candidates we like — often those who do represent our interests us well — and adopting their preferences as they become more salient.

  4. Speaking of democratic folklore, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’s 2016 book Democracy for Realists paints a rather imperiled portrait of traditional individualistic models of democracy — the old ideas that people vote for things that are in their interest and make rational decisions as a collective. According to Achen and Bartels, the task of governing is too hard for people to meaningfully engage in alone. So they form parties and other identity-based groups to help target their grievances and redirect anger towards mobilization and other types of engagement. A “group-based” theory of democracy emerges from their work, and their suggestions are thus to rethink how our electoral and legislative institutions, party nominating processes, and structures of power “should” work. Their answer is, broadly speaking, less direct democracy and more group democracy — though they leave the prescriptions rather too unspecified for my tastes.

    The book Responsible Parties by Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro also has a lot to say about the failings of traditional democratic theory, much in line with what Achen and Bartels talk about in their 2016 book.

  5. Lee Drutman’s Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America is a must-read book for those of you who see the two major parties as failing to meet your needs. The book goes through many of the problems introduced by the two-party system and reviews why multi-party democracy is a better fit for America. There are some good solutions in the book. Further reading can be done via A Different Democracy by Steven Taylor, Matthew Shugart, Arend Lijphart, and Bernard Grofman.

I hope this letter answers the questions from those of you who have asked about books. I learned a lot from these (as well as many others; their absence should not be taken as a slight to the authors, but a product of truncating this list from fifty to five!). If you do want to check them out, try your local library or an independent bookstore before going to Amazon. I got most of these books from looking through stores on