Politics & Society

The Best Politics Books To Read in 2021

recommended by Larry Sabato

A Return to Normalcy?: The 2020 Election That (Almost) Broke America by Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and J. Miles Coleman

A Return to Normalcy?: The 2020 Election That (Almost) Broke America
by Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and J. Miles Coleman

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In many Western countries, citizens have long taken living in a democracy for granted. The last decade has changed all that, with fledgling democracies veering back to authoritarianism and even the most stable democracies being shaken by populist movements. Here, political scientist Larry J. Sabato turns the spotlight on the American republic, long a beacon for democracy around the globe, but now suffering its own internal turmoil. He recommends the best politics books to read in 2021, focusing on the United States.

Interview by Eve Gerber

A Return to Normalcy?: The 2020 Election That (Almost) Broke America by Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and J. Miles Coleman

A Return to Normalcy?: The 2020 Election That (Almost) Broke America
by Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik, and J. Miles Coleman

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We asked you to choose the five most vital political books of 2021, and your choices reflect a core concern. What criteria dictated your choices?

The most important political development, not just of 2021 but of recent American history focused on January 6th, 2021. The Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol is uncovering proof that what occurred was nothing less than a coordinated attempt at America’s first coup. The future of democracy is in doubt. The five books I selected all touch on this theme. It was difficult to pick just five; I’m afraid I’ve slighted several people whose work deserves to be mentioned. The books I chose help us understand the unprecedented assault on democracy that is still underway.

In your own recent book A Return to Normalcy? you examine America’s 2020 election, its aftermath and what it augurs. Any reader seeking an in-depth understanding of American politics would benefit by reading it. Can you please outline what it relays?

We knew 2020 was going to be a critical election not so much because of the candidate who won the presidency but because of who lost it. The book examines the fundamentals of the presidential election, which includes how people vote, why they vote the way they vote, how key subgroups and states align, and how voting patterns are changing. Every two years, at the nonpartisan University of Virginia Center for Politics, we analyze national elections, congressional, gubernatorial and every four years, presidential. We’ve done this since 1996. It’s a library of fundamental analyses. In 2021 we were going to publish right after the new year, then January 6th happened; we held up production to include this unprecedented event. We debated whether we should add a question mark to the title. I’m so glad we did because we have hardly returned to normal.

Let’s begin your book recommendations with Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show by ABC chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl.

Betrayal broke a lot of news but the reason I chose it is because it makes all the points that people need to know about what Karl calls “the final act of The Trump Show” and it is very well written. Karl covered Trump from day one of his presidency and he knew all the central actors in Trump’s world. His previous book, Front Row at the Trump Show, gave great insights into the administration. This picks up where his last book left off.

The American audience seems tired of Trump drama. Do you worry that we are too distracted, divided and fatigued to pay attention to the work of the January 6th committee?

I’m very concerned about that. We live in a society with an attention span of a tsetse fly. We move from topic to topic, not just by the day but by the hour. The media deserve a share of blame, but they are responding to what we want. They follow our eyeballs. So I am very concerned that people will not understand the importance and implications of what happened on January 6th even though it affects all of us and it affects the future of the American Republic. Benjamin Franklin was right. We have a republic if we can keep it. And I’m not sure we can.

Next, you named a memoir by an actor who was center stage for a couple of important scenes in ‘The Trump Show’: he led the efforts to impeach Trump for soliciting foreign interference in the election and for inciting the invasion of the Capitol. Tell us about Midnight in Washington by Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, the man who led Congress’s 2019 impeachment inquiry into Trump’s attempt to extort Ukraine to undermine Democratic front-runner Joe Biden.

Inevitably, a book by a central Democratic party figure like Adam Schiff is tinged with partisanship. So, why did I include it without including a Republican book? Because while I strive to be balanced about politics, I’m not balanced about democracy. I am pro-democracy. I want a republic and I want to make common cause with everyone who does. Schiff shows why we all must be concerned about what is happening. Perhaps it’s a partisan trumpet, but we all need a wake-up call. Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and Bush Republicans should be as outraged as anybody else about the way the Trump Administration tried to derail our democracy. Schiff makes the case that we should all come together to shore up our republic.

The New York Times called Midnight in Washington “rare memoir by a politician that actually has something to say.” What is the central thing Adam Schiff is trying to say?

Schiff was in the weeds of both impeachment inquiries. He underscores that what occurred was not normal. It was not ‘politics as usual.’ His message is in his subtitle: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could.

How Democracies Die by Harvard political science professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt is your next book choice.

This book looks at how democracies all over the world rose and fell, and what caused them to fall. Americans had an almost arrogant attitude that the collapse of democracy couldn’t happen here. Then it started happening here. And it’s still going on. Almost everybody on the Republican side repeats ‘the big lie’—that Donald Trump won the 2020 election—as though it’s true. Levitsky and Ziblatt show us the symptoms to look out for and suggest how to restore health to democracies.

In what organs of democracy is necrosis most advanced?

It’s widespread. It’s not just Trump, it’s the Congress and the Supreme Court. Trump, who lost the popular vote when he won the presidency in 2016, made three appointments to the Supreme Court, his appointees are a full third of the Supreme Court. We are seeing the impact of those appointments in recent extreme Supreme Court rulings involving issues like abortion. In Congress, even mainstream Republicans remain silent or parrot Trump’s ‘big lie.’ Although they admit it’s false off-camera and they know that Biden was fairly elected with a popular vote and electoral college majority, they’re too afraid of Trump and his followers to speak the truth. Right there, is the beginning of the unraveling of the American republic. When people are afraid to speak the truth, the decay of democracy is well underway.

The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum authored your next recommendation, Twilight of Democracy. Tell us about it.

Applebaum demonstrates that the trend against democracy is worldwide and difficult to reverse. And Applebaum outlines the reason why human beings all across the world have moved toward authoritarianism in troubled times. Authoritarians promise easy and absolute solutions. They say they will make the trains run on time then insist the clocks are lying when they’re late.

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Peril is the final title you’ve named. Please tell me about it.

This is a book you can’t put down. Bob Woodward has been revealing what happens behind closed doors in Washington since Watergate. Woodward has the long perspective of watching the American system since the seventies and Robert Costa is a wonderful reporter. The two of them take us through the last days of the Trump Administration. What they report is shocking and their reporting remains unchallenged. Once you start reading this, you have to finish it.

Peril takes us all the way into the Biden White House. What does it tell us about the promise and the weakness of efforts to repel threats to democracy?

This came out when Biden was still popular—before Delta and Omicron and Afghanistan and inflation brought Biden down. I don’t think there is much Biden could do to save our system. Change must come from the states, who control elections. We’re not going to have another Constitutional Convention. And nothing could get out of Congress.

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Political junkies have long leaned on your site, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, for nonpartisan political analysis and election handicapping. What does your crystal ball show is in store for 2022? What’s doable?

Here’s what’s doable: our media organizations and informed citizens can fight the false information that continues to rot our republic. Democracy depends on a shared understanding of basic truths. I don’t have much hope that we’re going to see change coming out of the states or from Congress. Democrats control both houses very narrowly and midterm elections almost never favor the party in power. So, it’s up to us. We must change the formula of this democracy, which too often now is depending on disinformation. Social media companies have got to do far better. A republic depends on its citizens. We must get more active and more educated.

This list feels like a great way to start.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Larry Sabato

Larry Sabato

Larry J. Sabato is University Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, and founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He heads up Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which has won a number of awards and was recognized by the Pew Charitable Trust and the Harvard Political Review as a leader in the field of political prediction. Sabato has written or edited two dozen books about American politics and has received four Emmys for his television documentaries. As well as being recognized as one of the nation’s most respected political analysts, he has taught over 20,000 students in the course of his academic career.

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Larry Sabato

Larry Sabato

Larry J. Sabato is University Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, and founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He heads up Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which has won a number of awards and was recognized by the Pew Charitable Trust and the Harvard Political Review as a leader in the field of political prediction. Sabato has written or edited two dozen books about American politics and has received four Emmys for his television documentaries. As well as being recognized as one of the nation’s most respected political analysts, he has taught over 20,000 students in the course of his academic career.