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polarization-related books

In the process of writing Defusing American Anger, I've done a lot of research. Part of that research involved doing a lot of interviews of knowledgeable people for my podcast. 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. 

Want to listen to some podcast episodes on polarization? See this compilation.  

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 with some of the books I think are most persuasive about the problem for a mainstream 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.

The Anatomy of Peace,

by The Arbinger Institute

The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict uses a fictional framing to illustrate the nature of conflict, and conflict resolution, in an entertaining way. It examines how we can believe we're right in a conflict (as most people in a conflict tend to believe they are) while still being wrong in how we engage with our opponents. It talks about how our hearts can be either "at war" or "at peace" with the people we're in conflict with. It shows the similarities between family conflicts and political/national conflicts. 

The Divide,

by Taylor Dotson

Dotson's The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude Is Destroying Democracy is one of the best books about this problem. He argues our problem is not misinformation or believing the "wrong things," but an unreasonable and too-common belief that we're in possession of the obvious truth. This "fanatical certainty" exacerbates anger and tensions. (And this focus aligns with something I believe: the often desperate human desire for certainty is our biggest problem.)

Sustaining Democracy,

by Robert Talisse

Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side, is one of the best books on American depolarization. Talisse examines the inherent challenges of democracy: that we must be fellow citizens with people who we may think are very bad people doing very bad things. He talks about the demands of democracy, and what makes us good citizens. He talks about a less examined downside of extreme polarization: how it leads to fracturing and discord even amongst politically similar people. 

Undue Hate, by Daniel F. Stone

Undue Hate: A Behavioral Economic Analysis of Hostile Polarization in US Politics and Beyond examines our divides with a focus on our "objectively false, and overly negative, beliefs about the other side," which cause us to "dislike them more than we should." Our distorted, overly pessimistic views of our fellow citizens is a huge factor in polarization, and this is why I think this is an important book.

Our Common Bonds, by Matthew Levendusky 

Our Common Bonds: Using What Americans Share to Help Bridge the Partisan Divide argues that "partisan animosity stems in part from partisans’ misperceptions of one another. Democrats and Republicans think they have nothing in common, but this is not true." The book is an examination of the views that Americans have in common. Part of us growing healthier as a culture is in focusing more on what we have in common, and less on the sources of our divides, so I think this is an important book.

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.

High Conflict,

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. A great examination of how conflict grows that should be an engaging read for a mainstream audience. 

Beyond Contempt,

by Erica Etelson

Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide examines liberal-side contributions to our divides from a liberal perspective, which I think is important because many liberals don't see the ways in which liberals contribute to our divides (for example, the insults and condescension present in liberal-leaning news and entertainment media). In my opinion, Etelson is often overly biased against conservative stances, but I still recommend this to passionate progressives.

The Way Out,

by Peter Coleman

The Way Out: How To Overcome Toxic Polarization is by Peter 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 approaches. One important point he makes is that polarization has many factors, but we often make mistake of looking for a "silver bullet" cause. 

Identity,

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.  

What's Our Problem?, by Tim Urban

Urban is known for his Wait But Why comic series and blogging. In What's Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies, he tries to make the workings of our tribal natures accessible to a lay audience, using illustrations and regular language. 

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 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. He has written several books about the "polarized mind."

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 chances of 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 voters, she's liberal) and argues for the importance of being curious about why people believe the things they do, and not jumping to conclusions about their views. 

American Rage,

by Steven Webster

I haven't yet read American Rage: How Anger Shapes Our Politics, but it seems to contain important ideas: the incentives and motives to arouse political anger (basically, arousing passions to get votes), and the risks and dangers. He argues that "anger is the central emotion governing contemporary US politics, with powerful, deleterious effects."

Political Tribalism in America, by Timothy Redmond

I haven't yet read Political Tribalism in America: How Hyper-Partisanship Dumbs Down Democracy and How to Fix It, but it seems to contain important ideas. Redmond argues that us-vs-them tribalism results in elected officials "who more extreme, hostile, and willing to reject unfavorable democratic outcomes." He provides "actionable strategies designed to reduce the influence of political tribalism in our lives."

Uncivil Agreement,

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 very important polarization-related research. This book examines how our polarization has grown over time, and the emotional and psychological roots of it.

Frenemies,

by Jaime Settle

Settle has researched how social media can 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.)

Mutual Radicalization,

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. 

Democracies Divided,

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.)

Asymmetric Politics,

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. In short: Republicans are more ideological, while Democrats are mainly trying to please the various groups in their coalition (who may themselves be in conflict). We often assume things that aren't true about the nature and goals of the other side, which leads to distorted perceptions.

Age of Anger,

by Pankaj Mishra

Age of Anger: A History of the Present examines political and religious rage-filled movements over the last couple centuries, and the similar psychological and cultural processes present in those manifestations of anger. 

Neither Liberal nor Conservative,

by Donald Kinder &

Nathan Kalmoe

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."

The Myth of Left and Right,

by Verlan and Hyrum Lewis

I haven't read The Myth of Left and Right: How the Political Spectrum Misleads and Harms America, but think the ideas are important. They examine the ambiguity and meaninglessness that simplistic terms like "liberal" and "conservative" and "left" and right" can have. 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. 

Polarization: What Everyone Needs to Know,

by Nolan McCarty

I have not read Polarization: What Everyone Needs to Know. One interesting point in here is that "contrary to popular belief, the 2016 election was a natural outgrowth of 40 years of polarized politics, rather than a significant break with the past." He examines systemic factors that contribute to polarization, like gerrymandered districts, partisan primary nomination systems, and the private campaign finance system. 

Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America,

by James Campbell

I have not read Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America. One interesting part of this book is that Campbell "challenges the widely held belief that polarization is the product of party and media elites, revealing instead how the American public in the 1960s set in motion the increase of polarization. American politics became highly polarized from the bottom up, not the top down, and this began much earlier than often thought."

Preventing Polarization, by Michelle Blanchet & Brian Deters

I have not read Preventing Polarization: 50 Strategies for Teaching Kids About Empathy, Politics, and Civic Responsibility. From the publisher's description: "In an era that has become incredibly polarized, we can help our students learn how to come together despite differences."

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 in the next couple sections 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 this Druckman et al 2021 study). 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 (and here's a podcast episode about this).

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

Here are some books for better understanding criticism and pushback to liberal-side ideas

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. 

Achieving America,

by Richard Rorty

Achieving Our Country : Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America is by Rorty, a progressive political philosopher. He criticizes liberals for embracing pessimistic academic views, and argues for the importance of finding more positive, inspiring messages. This book, published in 1999, is known for predicting that the traits of the left could 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' very pessimistic perspectives of liberals.

Woke Racism,

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?"

How Reasonable Americans Could Support Trump,

by Brian Rees

I haven't read How reasonable Americans could support Trump: Helping liberals understand the MAGAverse, but it seems like it is trying to do some similar things I tried to do with my book: explaining to liberals and "Never Trumpers" the reasons why people embraced Trump. I see this as important to do for depolarization purposes (just as it's important for conservatives to understand liberal views).

Understanding criticisms of conservatives

Here are some books for better understanding criticism and pushback to conservative-side ideas

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..."

F*CK Silence,

by Joe Walsh

Joe Walsh is politically 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 politically 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. 

Alienated America,

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.)

Media Is Us,

by Elizaveta Friesem

In Friesem's Media Is Us: Understanding Communication and Moving Beyond Blame, she examines the role of the media in our divides, and makes the case that the media is not something "out there," some force separate from us, but is simply another aspect of human communication. Includes thoughts on the nature of power, which can be much more complex than liberal-side Foucaltian analyses. (I interviewed Friesem for my podcast.

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.

Them,

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 examining economic anxiety and the under-appreciated role it may be playing. Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary General, said it is "required reading to help repair a world in pieces and build a world at peace."

Know-It-All Society,

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.) 

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