The Coma Patient's Political Reading List
14 books to bring a time traveler from 2000 up to speed on today's politics.
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Over the years, readers have reached out to me with questions, concerns, and general curiosity about the political landscape. If my correspondence is any indication, there are many people out there who feel too overwhelmed by how fast the issues, trends, and news cycles shift to become engaged in politics. Lacking the baseline knowledge of the relevant ideas, tensions, and developments, they feel unable to properly comprehend, much less productively participate in the discussion. If you immerse yourself in something, of course, you will eventually learn the ropes. But not everyone wants to live inside politics, and for good reason. They shouldn’t have to, nor should we want them to.
On the one hand, these folks are blessedly free. They should be thankful not to have been sucked into this cesspool, and continue living on in bliss. On the other hand, part of what’s so deeply toxic about our political culture is that those who aren’t obsessed with politics — and who tend to be less ideological, less partisan, and frankly less psychotic — are largely absent. Any broadening of the conversation resulting from their greater inclusion, it stands to reason, would be a moderating influence. How, then, could a person living under a rock or waking from a 20 year coma be rapidly brought up to speed on politics and related areas, without having to wade through the sewage on a daily basis, with all the deranging effects that brings? I’ve been pondering this for some time. What I’ve come up with is a modest 14 book reading list that would serve as a crash course on American politics for a time traveler from the early 2000’s.
The list is not without its limitations. One can only, in good conscience, recommend books they themselves have read, and as I’ve noted in a previous reading list, I may be an avid reader, but I’m not a walking library. This list is also unavoidably US-centric, and the time-sensitive nature further narrows the range of works to within the past ten years, at most. Given how much happens in the world every day, I knew that the task of catching anyone up on all of the important or notable events would be impractical and perhaps even impossible. What this list instead does is provide readers with the knowledge, familiarity, and insight into the prevailing trends, ideas, and currents needed to understand the specific issues and news items as they encounter them. It won’t teach you every word or turn of phrase, but it will teach you how to understand the language and grammar of modern politics.
“Hate Inc.” (2019) by Matt Taibbi
An insider’s exposé, journalist Matt Taibbi pulls back the curtain of the news industry to explain how a changing media landscape and shifting business models have essentially monetized hate and transformed the press from information to tribal blood sports. The brunt of "Hate Inc." is a witty and blisteringly scathing critique reminiscent of H. L. Mencken and Christopher Hitchens, but far more rigorous. There is something in this book that just about every reader will disagree with, too — which is always an endearing trait in my eyes.
“The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium” (2014, 2018) by Martin Gurri
Few books have come more widely recommended to me over the past several years, and even fewer have lived up to the hype. An analytical history chronicling the blogosphere of the 2000’s, the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, and the rise of social media, populism, and institutional distrust, Gurri, writing in 2014, described the trends he saw with such precision as to effectively predict much of what transpired in the following years. Be sure to read the updated edition from 2018.
“The War on Normal People” (2018) by Andrew Yang
Yang provides a data-driven bird’s-eye view of the changing economic and social patterns reshaping society in the 21st century, including automation, AI, deindustrialization, the opioid epidemic, socioeconomic stratification, the problems unique to men and boys, and the disintegration of family and civic bonds. While the future marches on, it is leaving many behind, and like a corrective lens bringing everything into focus and clarity, Yang gives a cohesive physical form to the undercurrent of turbulence, despair, and decline flowing just beneath the surface of modern America. The bleakness of the picture he paints is tempered by the final third of the book, in which he offers policy solutions and ideas for improvement. Even if you disagree with Yang’s prescriptions, you would be wise to take his diagnoses seriously.
“The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity” (2019) by Douglas Murray
A nuanced and deliciously witty encapsulation of what has gone wrong in today's political activism, advocacy, culture, and discourse; exposing the tissue of assumption, hyperbole, confusion, logical inconsistency, internal contradiction, and hypocrisy that comprises some of the prevailing social movements and trends of our time. It’s a one-book crash course on the culture wars.
“The People vs. Democracy” (2018) by Yascha Mounk
One of the very first people to sound the alarm on this issue, political scientist Yascha Mounk documents and analyzes the decline in public support, both in the US and globally, for democracy. He breaks down the data, some of which are from studies he conducted himself, offering cogent explanations for these patterns, along with prudent ideas to reverse them.
“The Coddling of the American Mind” (2018) by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff
Haidt and Lukianoff examine the social, cultural, pedagogical, parental, and technological trends of the 1990’s-2010’s, and how they have uniquely contributed to campus hysteria, the deterioration of political discourse, and the infantilization of under-40’s. If you've been wondering why young people today are so different from young people of other generations, it’s not you. This isn’t normal. This isn’t something that every generation goes through. The conditions under which Generation Z has been raised are unprecedented, and, the authors argue with ample data, are already having profound and wide-ranging effects on society.
“Woke Racism” (2021) by John McWhorter
“Woke Racism” builds off of McWhorter’s groundbreaking 2015 Daily Beast article, in which he was one of the first public intellectuals to argue the case that the so-called “anti-racism” movement was, quite literally, a new religion. Short, sweet, and to the point, this missive of liberal sanity hits every note on the convergence of politics, race, and culture in America with pitch-perfect clarity and an almost inhuman economy of words.
“So You've Been Publicly Shamed” (2015) by Jon Ronson
Perhaps the first and still-authoritative deep dive on online and public shaming in the social media era, Jon Ronson delves not only into many of the high profile cases (as of the time of writing), but also explores the psychology, politics, and corrosive effects these incidents have on their victims. This is one of those extraordinarily rare books that will change your behavior. Ronson ought to do an updated edition, but this is still my go-to.
“Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” (2018) by David Graeber
A paradigm-shifting look at modern employment that will get you questioning some of the fundamental assumptions about economics, jobs, time, work, and value. “Bullshit Jobs” explores one of the most consequential issues nobody is talking about: that thanks to technology, globalization, and innovation, humanity no longer needs to work as much — and yet, on paper, we still do. While some jobs have been and will be lost, most have not. What we’re seeing instead is the rise of “bullshit jobs” that contribute little to society, nor, in many cases, even the companies or governments who employ them. There is a growing sector of society showing up to work and goofing off for a living, not because they’re bad employees, but because they have no actual work to do, and this trend has wider implications for the future.
“Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” (2018) by Steven Pinker
I would be remiss not to include a fact-based counterpoint to the doom and gloom so pervading media coverage, commentary, and discourse. The task of providing perspective by explaining just how much progress humanity has made in virtually every domain worth caring about may be an unfashionable one. And yet, it is indispensable for understanding any macro-level issue. And the case Pinker builds is nothing if not exhaustive. On page after page, Pinker methodically swings his optimist’s baseball bat into the face of pessimism, bludgeoning it with such a relentless barrage of facts, figures, charts, and data that it cannot help but slink whimperingly off to die in euphoric bliss. In all seriousness, it’s intellectual malpractice not to challenge the popular claim that “we’re screwed.” It’s also a recipe for madness.
“A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right” (2021) by Matthew Rose
A chilling and illuminating look into the lives of five 20th century thinkers — men most people will never have heard of, including those who follow in their footsteps — but whose ideas have paved the way for today’s new radical right. What has become known as the “alt-right”, among other names, did not emerge out of nowhere, nor is it going away. “A World after Liberalism” offers a glimpse into its origin story, psychology, and dark vision for society.
“A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America” (2017) by Bruce Cannon Gibney
Some, particularly those of the generation in question, may not be able to look past the provocativeness of the title, but beyond its cover, the backstory and context it provides is invaluable for understanding the world we live in today. Gibney methodically crafts his case that while of course not all or even most individual Boomers are sociopaths, they have, as a generation, behaved sociopathically, to the detriment of the country, the world, and later generations. In the construction of his thesis, not every brick or plank is the sturdiest, but in totality, the house he builds stands solidly, and bears significant weight. It also provides a needed generational bookend, read together with “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It’s scary how much sense this book makes.
“Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy” (2021) by Batya Ungar-Sargon
The core of Ungar-Sargon’s argument is that journalism has, over the past century, gradually shifted from a working-class trade to a prestige profession reserved almost exclusively for lefty, elite-educated rich kids. She traces the many factors contributing to this trend, as well as the numerous downstream consequences of it, documenting particularly noteworthy examples, and interspersing brief interviews with various journalists and commentators she spoke with. While I have some differences with her populist politics, the well-researched focus, elegance, and cohesion with which the narrative is laid out makes “Bad News” useful for anyone seeking to understand the trajectory of American journalism.
“Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic” (2018) by David Frum
To round out the list, we must address the elephant in the room. There have been a plethora of books written on Trump, and I’ve read a number of them. Frum’s is the best, and the fact that he’s a conservative and a Republican lends more credence — not less — to his insightful analysis. A particular quote that stands out, written three years prior to January 6th, 2021: “Maybe you do not care much about the future of the Republican Party. You should. Conservatives will always be with us. If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.”
Author’s note: Some of the above reviews are borrowed from or inspired by my GoodReads reviews. You can see them all here.
See also: “The Liberal Arts Crash Course”
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