Best books on polarization
In the process of writing my depolarization book, I've done a lot of research. Part of that research involved doing a lot of interviews of knowledgeable people for my podcast: a compilation of those polarization-related talks is here. And it also involved reading a lot of books, and learning about a lot of books. Below I'll list books that I see as valuable for understanding us-versus-them polarization and reducing polarization, with a focus on American polarization. I haven't read all of these, but I'll note when I haven't and give thoughts on what I see as the value of them.
Best books for understanding polarization
The books in this section are those I view as helpful for understanding the dynamics of us-versus-them polarization. I've put them in a rough order of first the books I think will be most valuable for a regular citizen audience, followed by more academic books. I'm not a big fan of "best of" lists, as there can be different books for different needs and different audiences, so please peruse the whole list and see what stands out to you. Farther down, I include some other books helpful for understanding the narratives each political group has (and understanding the other side's anger is hugely important). Book title links are to Amazon.
by Robert Talisse
Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side, is in my opinion the best book on American depolarization. If I'd read his book earlier, I might not have started writing my book at all and just worked on promoting this book. It's that good. It's important and you should read it.
by Amanda Ripley
High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out examines the emotional roots of us-versus-them feelings, and tells real-life stories to illustrate its concepts, from a conflict resolution expert who ended up in an us-versus-them political battle despite his best efforts, to a Chicago gang member, to other stories.
The Anatomy of Peace
by The Arbinger Institute
The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict delves into how our righteous anger and biased perspectives can amplify the very aspects of other people that make us so angry and upset. It uses a fictional framing to illustrate its points in a dramatic and entertaining way. It shows the similarities between family conflicts and big political/country-level conflicts.
by Erica Etelson
Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide examines liberal-side contributions to our divides from a liberal perspective. This is important because many liberals don't see the ways in which people on their side contribute to our divides.
The Righteous mind
by Jonathan Haidt
The Righteous Mind: How Good People Are Divided By Religion and Politics explains why people can believe such different things, and why their values can appear so different. I consider this a must-read for anyone serious about having an informed political opinion, even apart from polarization.
The Way out
by Peter Coleman
The Way Out: How To Overcome Toxic Polarization is by Coleman, a respected conflict resolution expert. Coleman does a great job explaining the sources of polarization, in our minds and in society. He talks about our polarization problem through the lens of conflict resolution theories and approaches.
by Francis Fukuyama
Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment examines the concept of "identity" and the role it plays in politics. Group identity-related insults and grievances drive a lot of our us-versus-them anger, and understanding identity is important. Fukuyama makes interesting comparisons between current sources of anger and past sources of anger.
The depolarizing of America
by Kirk Schneider
The Depolarizing of America: A Guidebook for Self-Healing is a book by psychologist Kirk Schneider (who I've interviewed for my podcast). He tackles our polarization problem through the lens of existentialist and humanistic psychology, arguing that a sense of awe and wonder about the world is part of reducing our anger and judgment.
One Nation, Two Realities
by Morgan Marietta and David C. Barker
One Nation, Two Realities: Dueling Facts in American Democracy relies on a lot of research to examine how people can arrive at such divergent realities. One important point they focus on: the more politically aware one is, the more likely one is to have us-versus-them anger. This book is rather pessimistic about our hopes for improving things.
I Never Thought of It That Way
by Monica Guzman
Guzman works with the depolarization group Braver Angels. In I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times, she talks about her own life (her parents are Trump supporters, she's liberal) and argues for the importance of being curious about why people believe the things they do.
why we're polarized
by Ezra Klein
Why We're Polarized is Ezra Klein's attempt to summarize the American polarization problem. I think it's a very biased book, because it doesn't examine liberal-side contributions to our divides and takes the most pessimistic view of conservative-side polarization. His sections on the general psychology behind polarization are pretty good though.
Beyond your bubble
by Tania Israel
Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work is described as a "politically neutral book offers concrete skills for holding meaningful conversations that cut across today's intense political divide." I haven't read it but it is highly recommended.
by Steven Webster
I haven't yet read American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics, but it seems to contain important ideas: the benefits of arousing political anger (arousing passions) and the risks and dangers. He argues that "anger is the central emotion governing contemporary US politics, with powerful, deleterious effects."
by Lilliana Mason
I haven't yet read Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, but I know of Mason's work and have read about her research. She's known for doing some of the more important polarization-related research. This book explains how much our polarization has grown over time, the emotional nature of it and the psychological roots of it.
by Taylor Dotson
I haven't yet read The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy, but I like his ideas. He argues our problem is not misinformation or believing bad things, but an unreasonable belief that we know the truth and that others should recognize our truth. This "fanatical certainty" exacerbates anger and tensions.
The myth of left and right
by Verlan and Hyrum Lewis
I haven't yet read The Myth of Left and Right: How the Political Spectrum Misleads and Harms America, but think the ideas are important. They argue that the "left and right have evolved in so many unpredictable and even contradictory ways that there is currently nothing other than tribal loyalty" holding them together.
by Jaime Settle
Settle has researched how social media may increase polarization. In Frenemies: How Social Media Polarizes America, she explains her research that shows how Facebook exacerbates polarization by making it easier to categorize people based on political-group-associated traits. (I interviewed Settle for my podcast.)
by Fathali Moghaddam
In Mutual Radicalization: How Groups and Nations Drive Each Other To Extremes, Moghaddam examines how emotional polarization makes groups more radical. Polarization leads to "intensifying aggressive actions that can even reach the point of mutual destruction." He examines real-world scenarios where he sees this playing out.
by Thomas Carothers & Andrew O'Donohue
Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization examines extreme polarization in several democratic countries around the world. (I've interviewed both Carothers and O'Donohue for my podcast.)
by Matt Grossmann & David A. Hopkins
Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats explains core differences in the nature of the Democrat and Republican parties. Republicans are more ideological, while Democrats are trying to please the various groups in their coalition. We often assume things that aren't true about the other party, which leads to distorted perceptions.
Age of anger
by Pankaj Mishra
Age of Anger: A History of the Present examines political rage and radical movements over the last couple centuries, and the similarities in those manifestations of anger.
Neither Liberal nor Conservative
by Donald Kinder and
In Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public, the authors argue that, as Philip Converse was known for saying, most people are "ideologically innocent." They argue that "political preferences arise less from ideological differences than from the attachments and antagonisms of group life."
books for understanding the other side
For people interested in depolarization, it helps to understand the narratives of both political groups. I think the books below are helpful for this. Most of these books weren't written with depolarization in mind; they were written mainly as criticism. But any work that helps us see what there is to criticize about a group can play a role in depolarization efforts.
Also, when two groups become very polarized against each other, people take more extreme, non-negotiable stances on issues (for example, see Druckman et al 2021 study or book Mutual Radicalization). Our us-versus-them anger at and pessimism about the other side can make our stances on issues more extreme, and make us less willing to negotiate. And we can have an instinctual tendency to take the opposite stance of our enemies. This means that sometimes the things that are most bothering us about "the other side" are being caused by the anger directed at them from our group. We are sometimes helping create the very things we're angry about.
Understanding criticisms of your group is also important because making your own group less polarizing may be the only way to help reduce polarization. This is because we can only change our own group; we can't influence the other group. For more about these ideas, see my talk with group psychology researcher Matthew Hornsey, or this piece where I make the case for why criticizing one's own group is important.
When reading criticisms of your own group, just remember that the goal is understanding perspectives. You can understand someone's perspective without agreeing with it.
Understanding criticisms of liberals
The Once and future liberal
by Mark Lilla
The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics is "a passionate plea to liberals to turn from the divisive politics of identity and develop a vision of the future that can persuade all citizens that they share a common destiny." Mark Lilla is a progressive college professor.
by Richard Rorty
Achieving Our Country : Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America is by Rorty, a committed progressive. He criticizes liberals for embracing pessimistic academic views, and argues for finding a more positive, inspiring message. This book said, in 1999, that the traits of the left would one day result in a belligerent, populist Republican president.
The Madness of crowds
by Douglas Murray
The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity is by British conservative Douglas Murray. It critiques some liberal-side ideas, and is a good tool for liberals to understand conservatives' perspectives of liberals.
by John McWhorter
Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America examines unreasonable and divisive liberal-side antiracism ideas. McWhorter argues modern liberal ideas on race are harmful to society, and to black people.
The coddling of the american mind
by Jonathan Haidt & Greg Lukianoff
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure helps us understand criticisms of liberal academic thought, which relates to debates about antiracism, gender, and more. Haidt's The Righteous Mind is also helpful for understanding the perspectives of both political groups.
The tyranny of virtue
by Robert Boyers
The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, the Academy, and the Hunt for Political Heresies is by Boyers, a progressive college professor. He examines and criticizes some far left ideas and behaviors common on liberal college campuses, and increasingly common in society generally. This is interesting for having Boyers' personal stories from working in academia.
The perils of "privilege"
by Phoebe Maltz Bovy
The Perils of "Privilege": Why Injustice Can't Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage examines the growing phenomenon of calling out people for their privilege. The book asks, "Does calling out privilege help to change or soften it? Or simply reinforce it by dividing people against themselves? And is privilege a concept that, in fact, only privileged people are debating?"
Understanding criticisms of conservatives
addicted to outrage
by Glenn Beck
In Addicted to Outrage: How Thinking Like a Recovering Addict Can Heal the Country, Beck says that his own too-angry commentary has contributed to our divides, as has a lot of anger from influential people on both sides. Beck argues that "This is not simply a Republican problem. This is not simply a Democratic problem. This is everyone’s burden..."
by Joe Walsh
Joe Walsh is a committed conservative. In F*ck Silence: Calling Trump Out for the Cultish, Moronic, Authoritarian Con Man He Is he explains for conservatives why Trump is so bad and divisive. If you don't get why even conservatives can dislike Trump so much, this book will help you understand those perspectives. (Joe should have chosen a much less polarizing title, in my opinion.)
divided we fall
by David French
David French is also a committed conservative. In Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, he discusses the dangers of our divides growing worse, and the threat of America coming apart. He argues we should be brave in attempting to heal these divides.
Conscience of a conservative
by Jeff Flake
Flake is a former Republican Senator. In Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle, he criticizes Trumpism for its embrace of belligerence, rudeness, and xenophobia. If you don't understand why even conservatives can perceive Trump as xenophobic and divisive, this is a good book.
books about polarization-related factors
The books in this section are about some aspects of America that may be contributing to our us-versus-them anger. We may be dealing with some core sources of anxiety (economic anxiety, the loneliness of modern life) that get channeled into our us-versus-them emotions.
by Tim Carney
Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse makes the case that social isolation is behind a lot of our us-versus-them anger. He examines research showing how economic anxiety and feelings of social isolation and loss of hope played a role in early Trump support. (For a general book about America's loneliness problem, see Bowling Alone.)
strangers in their own land
by Arlie Hochschild
Researching Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Hochschild spent time in rural Louisiana with some committed Republicans, and she "finds lives ripped apart by stagnant wages, a loss of home, an elusive American dream." A book that helps to understand some of the economic and emotional drivers behind early Trump support.
by Ben Sasse
In Them: Why We Hate Each Other-and How to Heal, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse "argues that, contrary to conventional wisdom, our crisis isn’t really about politics. It’s that we’re so lonely we can’t see straight―and it bubbles out as anger."
us versus them
by Ian Bremmer
In Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism, Bremmer analyzes the forces resulting in a desire for populism, which includes an under-appreciated amount of economic anxiety. Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary General, said it is "required reading to help repair a world in pieces and build a world at peace."
by Michael Lynch
Know-It-All Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture examines a "digital culture and its tendency to make us into dogmatic know-it-alls." Our arrogance leads us to think we've got nothing to learn from each other, amplifying our divides. (This is a similar theme to Taylor Dodson's book The Divide.)