5 years ago

Top 10 nonfiction books about politics (plus dozens of runners-up)

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I was seven years old when I first became aware of politics. It was 1948, and the presidential race between Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey was underway. With all the wisdom of a seven-year-old, I picked the obvious winner, Dewey. We all know how that worked out.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t get actively involved in politics until I was in high school, when I actually did manage to pick a winner, John F. Kennedy. (I was the only member of my government class who did. It was a very Republican town.) I couldn’t vote for Kennedy, of course—the 18-year-old vote wasn’t permitted until 1971—but I got a taste for the process. And from the time at the University of Michigan when I served as president of the Young Democrats, I’ve been engaged to one degree or another ever since.

This post was updated on March 3, 2021.

Four score good nonfiction books about politics

All of which goes to explain why I seek out books about politics. Fiction, nonfiction—it doesn’t matter. If it’s credible and at least reasonably well written, I’m game. So, ever since I launched this blog ten years ago, I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of books about the topic. Here, I’m listing only the four score good nonfiction books about politics that have appeared in this space, beginning with my top 10. All these titles appear in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names within each of the several groups of books. The top 10 are listed first. Then, separated by category, all four score books are listed below.

Each title is linked to its review on this blog. I hope it’s obvious that this is not an attempt to provide a comprehensive reading list. I’ve only included recent books I’ve read from beginning to end and reviewed here.

If you read widely about current affairs, you’re likely to come across a number of titles that are familiar to you. Included are such familiar authors as Michelle Alexander, Robert Caro, Bob Woodward, Michael LewisNoam Chomsky, Adam Hochschild, Van Jones, and Robert B. Reich. But you’ll also encounter many works that never surfaced on bestseller lists or attracted the attention of mainstream reviewers. I hold the peculiar opinion that a book can hold important truths even if few people read it.

My top 10 nonfiction books about politics

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

In this extraordinary book, Prof. Alexander explains how the country’s criminal justice system has been warped to the point of nonrecognition by a series of Presidential actions, Congressional legislation, and Supreme Court decisions; how the system of arrests, prosecution, conviction, and sentencing really works now; and the catastrophic consequences of this sequence of events for our cities, our African-American and Latino communities, and ultimately all of ourselves. The New Jim Crow is one of the most important books published in the English language in a great many years, because it dispels so many of our cherished illusions and takes no prisoners in naming those responsible or in proposing remedies. Read the review.

Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America by Kurt Andersen

At no point does Anderson list the names of the evil geniuses of his title, but they emerge clearly enough along the way as he tells the profoundly sad story of the price American society has paid for their folly. These are the principal architects of the winner-take-all economy that gave rise to today’s extreme economic inequality and the madness that placed Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Read the review.

One Person No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy by Carol Anderson

In One Person, No Vote, Anderson briefly surveys the history of voting rights in America. However, unlike many other treatments of the subject, she explains exactly how the laws and practices that constituted Jim Crow resulted in dramatically limiting African-American voter participation. Of course, Jim Crow was avowedly, belligerently racist. The poll tax, “literacy” tests, the white primary, and other tactics were explicitly designed to keep black people from voting. Today, by analogy, we have voter suppression, gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter roll purges, limiting access to polling places, denying felons the right to vote, and other nefarious tactics. These techniques are not overtly racist. But the effect is similar—and so too, all too often, is the motivation. Read the review.

Pelosi, by Molly Ball

She has one of the most recognizable names in America. Yet far too few Americans have more than the most trivial understanding of who she is and where she comes from. And that ignorance is compounded by a relentless, years-long smear campaign by the Right Wing—a campaign that only intensified since the 2018 Congressional elections that elevated her for the second time to the leadership of the House of Representatives. As Speaker, Nancy Pelosi proved to be far and away the most successful leader of the national opposition to the Administration of Donald Trump. Journalist Molly Ball‘s terrific new biography of Pelosi makes entirely clear how she grew into that role and why she is so successful. Read the review.

The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

For more than a century, the U.S. public has been in thrall to the dangerous fiction of the self-reliant hero propagated by more than 100 of Horatio Alger’s novels and decades of self-promotion by 20th Century corporate leaders and self-help gurus, with their most extreme expression in the works of Ayn Rand, notably Atlas Shrugged. Now, finally, we have in one slim, well-executed volume an answer to the claptrap that lies at the heart of the right-wing politics which has driven American democracy to the brink of extinction over the past three decades. Read the review.

The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis

What does government do for us? Do we really need it? What happens if government ceases to do those things? These are the questions Michael Lewis comes to grip with in his powerful little book, The Fifth Risk. By drilling down into the day-to-day realities in a handful of little-recognized federal agencies, Lewis convincingly demonstrates how government protects us from some of “the most alarming risks facing humanity.” By extension, he relates the dangers we (and the world as a whole) continue to face as the direct result of inattention, greed, and misguided policy by the Trump Administration. Read the review.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

You might expect a political memoir to offer up a smorgasbord of self-justification and score-settling. Many such autobiographical works are that and little more. But that is most assuredly not the case with Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. In this first of two planned volumes, the forty-fourth President eloquently conveys what it’s like to live in the White House and raise a family while the world lurches from one crisis to the next. What emerges, above all, is a self-portrait of a complete human being, fully in command in the most challenging job in the world and passionately committed to his family but subject to the same self-doubt as so many of us. This is the real Barack Obama—cranky at times, profane in private, but undeniably brilliant, charismatic, unfailingly generous to his staff, and always at his best when the pressure’s greatest. Read the review.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin

Dana Priest and Bill Arkin have written a book that, in a rational world, would usher in an orgy of housecleaning through the far reaches of the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and every other department, agency, or office that pretends to be involved in strengthening our national security. Even then—even if we somehow reined in the known alphabet agencies—we would only be scratching the surface. Arkin came up with a jaw-dropping 1,074 federal government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies involved with programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in at least 17,000 locations across the United States—all of them working at the top secret classification level. Read the review.

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country, by Gabriel Sherman

Clearly, the outwardly visible benchmarks of Ailes’ career identify him now as about as extreme as you can get in contemporary America. What’s not so easily visible is Ailes’ behavior at the office and at home in Garrison, New York, where he maintained a 9,000-square-foot mountaintop fortress with a “panic room” underground to protect Ailes and his wife for six months in the event of a terrorist assault on the site. In The Loudest Voice in the Room, you can read all about Ailes’ outrageous behavior toward his colleagues, his subordinates, his neighbors, and even his friends. Read the review.

American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, by Colin Woodard

Does the Red State-Blue State analysis of recent US elections make sense to you? Or pointing to the difference between Republicans and Democrats to explain election outcomes? Colin Woodward doesn’t think either one is useful in explaining how and why we vote as we do. Nor, in his opinion, are the boundaries that define our fifty states or the regions normally termed Northeast, Midwest, South, and so forth. None of these arbitrary distinctions stand up to scrutiny in light of the cultural history he relates so beautifully in his eye-opening book, American Nations. To understand polarization as it defines the American project today, reading this book is a must. Read the review.

Good nonfiction books about politics: historical perspective

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, by Kurt Andersen

One Person No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy by Carol Anderson

Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin III

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley

The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia, by James Bradley

A History of Future Cities, by Daniel Brook

The Fight of the Century: Writers Reflect on 100 Years of Landmark ACLU Cases edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman

Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It, by Jeffrey D. Clements

Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America by Conor Dougherty—Why are so many homeless in America?

The Hidden History of the War on Voting: Who Stole Your Vote — and How to Get It Back by Thom Hartmann

The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic, by Benjamin Carter Hett

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, by Adam Hochschild

Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney

The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, by John Judis

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

One Nation Under Gods: A New American History, by Peter Manseau

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent, by Robert W. Merry

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment, by John Preston

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II, by Richard Reeves

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, by Seth Rosenfeld

Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, by David E. Sanger

Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United, by Zephyr Teachout

1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History, by Jay Winik 

Good nonfiction books about politics: economics and society

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, by Joe Bageant

Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, by Noam Chomsky

99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins

When Money Talks: The High Price of “Free” Speech and the Selling of Democracy, by Derek Cressman

Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, by Robert H. Frank

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giriharadas

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

Rebuild the Dream, by Van Jones

Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together, by Van Jones

Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—plus plenty of valet parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital, by Mark Leibovich

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, by Robert B. Reich

The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It by Robert B. Reich—Robert Reich explains how the ultra-wealthy have rigged the system

This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement, edited by Sarah van Gelder and the staff of Yes! Magazine

The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age, by Tim Wu

Good nonfiction books about politics: parties, candidates, and elections

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

Republican Gomorra: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party, by Max Blumenthal

Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary by Geoffrey Cowan

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank

Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, by Joshua Green

Double Down: Game Change 2012, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, by Luke Harding

The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy by Robert Kuttner

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer

Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost

Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism by Lawrence Rosenthal

Game Changers: Twelve Elections That Transformed California, by Steve Swatt, Susie Swatt, Jeff Raimundo, Rebecca LaVally

Good nonfiction books about politics: biographies and memoirs

A Warning by Anonymous, a Senior Trump Administration Official

Pelosi, by Molly Ball

American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power by Andrea Bernstein

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro

The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un by Anna Fifield

The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, by Luke Harding

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World Warby Stephen Kinzer

Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown by Jim Newton

Becoming by Michelle Obama

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country, by Gabriel Sherman

Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angelesby Les Standiford

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles

Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, by Larry Tye

A Fighting Chance, by Elizabeth Warren

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner

Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover

Good nonfiction books about politics: how government works (or doesn’t)

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

The Mission: A True Story, by David W. Brown

Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, by David Frum

National Security and Double Government, by Michael J. Glennon

It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America, by David Cay Johnston

Media Madness: Donald Trump, the Press, and the War Over the Truth, by Howard Kurtz

How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis

The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

Taxing the Poor: Doing Damage to the Truly Disadvantaged, by Katherine S. Newman and Rourke L. O’Brien

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin

The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America, by Robert Scheer

How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, by Jason Stanley

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff

Fear: Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward

For further reading

Fiction sometimes offers insights about politics, too. If you’re inclined to read novels, check out:

You might also be interested in 20 top nonfiction books about history and Top 20 popular books for understanding American history.

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.

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