5 Political Books for the Armchair Politician
Better understand the systems that drive politics
I consider myself an armchair politician. I know what I do and don’t support, and love talking with others about policies. This also means I love arguing about policies.
I feel confident in my opinions even though I expect they will change over time. And I’m well aware I’m nowhere near understanding the complexities of American politics. But understanding the basic foundations of how the government works is knowledge I need no matter my political leaning.
These book recommendations are not designed to try and change your political ideology. They’re not books written about politicians or by politicians. They’re to further explain the political system and its complexities.
These are for anyone who has at least a mild interest in politics. Whether you just voted for the first time this past election or have been engaged for years and want to keep furthering your knowledge. I find myself in the latter group and can say reading these books only opened my eyes to the work and learning that’s still ahead of me.
1. Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop
For those who get excited about the fundamentals of democracy, this is the place to start. Its connection to politics is that it diagnoses the current problems of our two-party system and concludes with explicit suggestions for improvement. During that journey, Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop gives a deep yet easy to understand breakdown of political systems around the globe.
The underlying thesis of this book is that the current two-party system is only going to lead towards worsening outcomes as each party continues to lower the bar for what is expected of them. All because they only have to be slightly better than the other party.
If like me you complain about the two-party system. Or go on and on about needing a third and fourth party, this book examines how to get there.
Author Lee Drutman’s solution to breaking the two-party doom loop is through a revised version of Ranked Choice Voting that combines the best aspects of foreign election systems to create a more representative democracy in the U.S.
For those who just Googled what Ranked Choice Voting is, I promise picking up this book will give you a greater understanding and make you a true believer in how we can improve voter turnout and move towards a better electoral system.
2. The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House
If you came to this list hoping for an easy read, this is the one. A very light-hearted and enjoyable look inside the White House through the eyes of the residence staff. Covering fifty years of first families, The Residence gives a close-up look at the lives of:
- John F. Kennedy
- Lyndon B. Johnson
- Richard Nixon
- Ronald Reagan
- Bill Clinton
- Barack Obama
This is not a deep-dive into the policies of these presidents. It’s a look at the most intimate moments of their lives, often during the most stressful times. Including Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of John, Nixon during his impeachment trials, and the Clinton’s after Bill’s affair became public.
Author Kate Andersen Brower is one of the few people in the world who was able to convince so many staffers to open up about some of the most powerful people in the history of the U.S. Although I’m someone who prefers to read about details behind big decisions and history-altering deals, this book was a truly enjoyable read that provided more value than I expected.
To give an idea of how wide-ranging this book is, be prepared to learn about LBJ’s shower habits. Specifically, the insane amount of money he spent on increasing the water pressure, temperature, and the positioning of the nozzles.
3. The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes
Of course, I had to get a biography on here as they’re my favorite genre. The Price of Peace is a look at the life and lasting effects of John Maynard Keynes. Primarily known for his work as an economist, Keynes thought of himself more as a student of the arts and philosophy.
He was involved in many defining moments of world history including:
- Treaty of Versailles
- Great Depression
- FDR’s New Deal Policies
His influence on monetary policy continues to this day. Many summarize Keynes’ work as pushing for increased government spending, and the lowering of taxes, during depressions and recessions.
Much of politics revolves around economics and the government’s role both domestic and international. Throughout his life, Keynes had a direct impact on both. Such as being a leading figure in England’s banking system during WWI and then trying to work with post-WWI countries in the Treaty of Versailles to come to a fair and reasonable compromise.
As enjoyable as it was to learn about Keynes’ life among his artistic friends like Virginia Woolf, this book does a fantastic job with multiple chapters that extend beyond Keynes’ life. Including the changing of American economics over time and the influence of top economists in policy and education.
When it comes to biographies on economists, this is probably one of the most fun reads you’ll find.
4. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
This is a helpful book to read for multiple reasons. It’s relevant today because of the increasingly loud calls for social and racial justice across the country. It also explains how policy and politics play a large role in how people are treated differently.
In total, this book shows how the justice system and prison industrial complex have played a huge role in segregating Black men, specifically, from everyone else. As you can guess from the book title, it explains how mass incarceration is The New Jim Crow.
For those who don’t know, Jim Crow is used to describing segregation laws after slavery was *officially* outlawed after the Emancipation Proclamation. In essence, they were a set of laws, primarily passed in the South, that was exclusively applied to Black people.
Author Michelle Alexander looks back in time to explain how politics played a primary role in setting up institutions that systematically oppress people of color. She makes a link from the earliest Jim Crow laws to that of the modern-day justice and prison systems.
What I enjoy about the closing section of this book is the realism Alexander shows through her declaration that the solution is not easy nor swift. She shows the complex relationship between the prison system and other aspects of life like policing, military, banking, and politics.
This book takes the stance that although politics plays a role in the problem and the solution of mass incarceration, it is not exclusively politics that will fix the racial justice problems of today.
5. Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy
The most explicitly political book on the list is Global Discontents by Noam Chomsky. It’s really a collection of interviews focused on international relations and domestic issues. If like me you find yourself interested in the deep and critical conversations about the reality of the world, this is a book to put atop your reading list.
For those who don’t know Chomsky, he’s a blunt and straightforward thinker who spent much of his career teaching at MIT and traveling as a political speaker. He’s reached an advanced age but is still incredibly sharp and has a great memory, combined with little restraint for the opinions he holds.
Although I could recommend one of his many other books, Global Discontents seems like a great introduction to a wide range of topics that are still timely given the book was published in 2017. Some topics discussed include:
- State Spying and Democracy
- ISIS, the Kurds, and Turkey
- The Roots of Conflict
- Elections and Voting
This is a dense book, so be warned. It’s a slow read that demands your full attention. But, in my mind, that just shows how valuable it is to those interested in politics.
For book lovers, this even has the added value of containing many, many, book and author recommendations from Chomsky himself.
This is a humbling book to read. It quickly shows how little you actually know about the complex relationships that exist in our world. Ironically enough, you’ll notice early on that one of Chomsky’s favorite phrases is, “it’s really quite simple actually.”
The reality is it might be more accurate to describe this book as the graduate program for the armchair politician.