Sabbatical reading summaries: political science and sociology books

As part of my Fall 2019 research sabbatical, I was able to get caught up on some of the more popular and influential political science and sociology academic books published in the last two years. Here are some highlights from several of them:

Uncivil Agreement by Liliana Mason: a basic overview on how partisans are sorted and the social psychology behind it (social identity theory, affective partisanship, etc.) as well as some ideas on how to fix it. Good for undergrads at intro level.

The Great Alignment by Alan Abramowitz: an update of his 2012 book Polarized Public, but the argument is mostly the same. Partisans are sorted and polarized and this drives elite polarization. It’s about ideology, race, religion, and geography. Includes a chapter on transformation of New Deal coalition to now and another on the 2016 election and the role of racial resentment.

Neither Liberal nor Conservative by Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe: basically, Converse is still right and most Americans don’t think in ideological terms. They don’t well know the difference between the two. A quarter ID as nothing and half say they’re moderate. Ideology has little effect on voting or other attitudes after PID is controlled for. Instead, Americans think in terms of groups and attachment to groups.

Do Facts Matter? by Jennifer Hochschild and Einstein: an examination of the normative importance of knowing right information and acting on it for democratic citizenship. Relies on about ten different case studies of both Democrats and Republicans getting wrong information and not caring or doing anything about it. Better for graduate students or advanced undergraduates.

The Increasingly United States by Daniel Hopkins: people used to behave differently at the local than national level. Over the last several decades local and state parties have increasingly come to mirror the national parties and also voters tend to vote much more consistently along party lines. So now there are few split ticket voters. Why? Nationalization of media, decline of local news coverage, etc. Also has worrying implications for democratic responsiveness at the local level. Great text for a class on federalism or local politics.

Democracy in America by Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens: their key argument is that government is responsive to wealthy and interest groups but not average Americans due to the influence of money and time and making it hard for people to come into the system. First part: covers realities and contexts of economic inequality. Then they make several policy recommendations; then argue for a mass movement to achieve it. Good for presenting an economic explanation of inequality and American gridlock and polarization. Good to consider for those skeptical of inequality.

Democracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels: basically, a big test of how democracy is “supposed” to work according to romantic visions, then an account of how it actually works.
1. Most Americans don’t think ideologically (Converse)
2. Most Americans are uninformed
3. More opportunities for democratic participation won’t be taken advantage of: most people just don’t want to participate
4. Retrospective voting
5. Voters don’t assign blame very well, making it hard to be accountable
6. Voters do economic voting, but only in the few months before an election
7. More assault on retrospective voting theory
8. Better model: group attachment. Group loyalties drive politics
9. Survey of group behavior 1960s-present
10. Our view of reality is shaped by these partisan lenses
11. View for the future
This is a great book for a voter behavior upper-level course. There is a LOT of classic texts and concepts that would otherwise be in a standard textbook, except it’s better written.

The Polarizers by Sam Rosenfeld: the narrative story of the emergence of American polarization from FDR through 2000. Focuses on people, parties, historical development, etc. Very little about time from 2000 onward. This would be good if a good historical narrative were called for.

From Politics to Pews by Michele Margolis: how politics is affecting religion in American society. Lifecycle effect: most kids drop out of religious participation in early adulthood or adolescence. If they get married and have kids, they usually drop back in, and their choice of congregation will be based on their political views, not vice versa. Moreso the case for better educated people; doesn’t happen as much with blacks; happened in 1960 election.

Uninformed by Skip Lupia: this is a how-to manual on how to increase teaching effectiveness when it comes to civics. Highlights include: 1) attach information to core concerns and perceived needs of students for desired skills, 2) you’re more efficient if they perceive your goals as similar to theirs. Show them how your interest in the material aligns with their interests. Try to emphasize shared in-group status. 3) frame the information in a way that aligns with student’s core values – it’ll be more likely to succeed, 4) cues and shortcuts are efficient and okay! 5) offer information that is helpful to increase a knowledge that the student views as valued and that they view as helpful to attain a goal. 6) focus on skills of citizenship over factual recall. 7) information is valuable to the extent to which it can be used. So… what information is valuable to produce usable knowledge in the skills we hope to promote with our students? What do we want them to be able to do?

Unequal and Unrepresented by Kay Schlozman, Henry Brady, and Sidney Verba: an overview of how political voice is distributed in the U.S. There is a persistent class bias both in participation and responsiveness. Interest groups don’t correct for that. And current inequality sometimes makes things worse but sometimes not. And most ways to fix it usually don’t work, so the class bias seems to be a core feature for now.

Anti-Pluralism by William Galston: written by a non-polemic conservative, an overview of what liberal democracy is and why it’s important, what the major threats are today, and an assessment of the U.S. and Trump. Focuses on both cultural and economic factors. And spends time at the end on “great man” leadership and character (something conservatives are generally responsive to).

Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg: first 2/3 is his version of Sapiens by Yuval Harari, the grand meta narrative of evolution and civilization and politics through the modern age. Last third is his critique of modern politics — welfare state liberals, identity politics liberals, populist Trump conservatives, etc.

The People vs Democracy by Yascha Mounk: really good overview of the rise of populism and the threat to liberal democracy. Defines liberal democracy really well and also focuses on illiberal democracy as well as undemocratic liberalism (European technocracy) and how they’re both problematic. Gives a fair shake to immigration, free speech, identity politics, etc. No sympathy for Trumpism. More detailed than Galston book and written by a non-native American and so there’s a strong comparative element.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: they are comparativists who study democratic consolidation and deconsolidation. They give a comparative overview of illiberal democratic leaders and trace Trump’s similarities. Their BIG lesson is that democratic norms are key: 1) recognize legitimacy of opposition, 2) let them take a turn at governing when they win, and 3) don’t use all the tools at your disposal to handicap them/be willing to exercise restraint.

The Despot’s Accomplice by Brian Klaas: despite lofty American rhetoric, we’ve often enabled and supported authoritarian regimes around the world. We often do it for strategic interests (oil, stability, etc.). At the same time, the U.S. and the west have been a force for good and freedom and democracy. So here’s what works, what doesn’t, how to promote democracy effectively, and why it’s important. (Fairly harsh on both Democratic and Republican presidents)

The Despot’s Apprentice by Brian Klaas: Trump isn’t a despot, but he wants to be; the book details the various ways that Trump meets the authoritarian playbook. Focuses on democratic rules and structures, standard policies like taxes, etc. Conclusion: democracy is worth the fight. Let’s do it!

The Great Revolt by Salena Zito and Brad Todd: this is a series of qualitative interviews with Trump voters. It’s more journalistic than scholarly but helpful to learn trends. They say that the Trump coalition is basically those who feel that the coastal liberal educated elite disrespects them, thinks they’re stupid, and thinks they’re barbarian racists. This even former Democrats who felt like national Democrats were mocking people like them. They distrust institutions, including global institutions, and so want to keep things decided as local as possible.

The Left Behind by Robert Wuthnow: ethnographic qualitative overview of the values, priorities, and worldviews of people in small rural towns. More sober than the Zito and Todd book, but also less politically relevant and less detailed.

The New Minority by Justin Gest: an academic empirical book that combines qualitative and quantitative research, half looking at Britons and half at the U.S. Focused on east London and Youngstown, OH. Same basic findings: white working class see themselves as in a bad spot economically with the decline of factory and other work. They think the government did it to them and hasn’t looked out for them since. And they resent when they see poor people on government assistance or minorities get what they interpret to be an unearned advantage over them despite not working hard enough.


If I were to pick one book to recommend to friends to explain contemporary American politics that was as comprehensive and sophisticated as possible, I would recommend Democracy for Realists by Achen and Bartels.

For introductory-level political science courses on the topic of contemporary American polarization and political behavior, I would recommend Uncivil Agreement by Mason.

For the best overview of the current populist moment around the globe and its threat to liberal democracy both at home and abroad, I can easily recommend The People vs. Democracy by Mounk.

For the best discussion of economic inequality and its effect on democracy, I would recommend Unequal and Unrepresented by Schlozman, Brady, and Verba.

For the best book to understand the Trump phenomenon in the last five years in the U.S., I actually would recommend The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker by Katherine Cramer as I think it does a better job of any of those I read this fall listed above.

For anyone interested in state/local politics, I can easily recommend The Increasingly United States by Hopkins.



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