25 Must-Read Books to Understand Politics and Political Issues
A list of 25 books will never be able to cover all the great political books on a global scale, but it can provide you a starting place! This list is a compilation of some of the classic founding political theory books, an attempt to include political writing beyond what might be considered traditional “political theory canon,” an exploration of intersectionality and politics, and a reflection on some of the major topics that play a role in our political discourse today.
While creating a comprehensive list of the best political books would be an incredibly large undertaking, and perhaps impossible, I think this list will be a great starting place for people who want to learn more about political history, and better understand some major political theories and concepts.
The Republic by Plato
The Republic is a Socratic dialogue authored by Plato sometime around 375 BCE. Plato argues that knowledge should be the determining factor as to who should rule the people, because those with the most expertise—in Plato’s view philosophers, like himself—will be the most fair and efficient leaders. This text was written prior to the time when “democracy” was first put into words a political concept, and obviously Plato’s concept of a republic led by philosophers is not really used in many of today’s modern states today. However, it was a foundational political text in the west at the time. And interestingly, we saw similar thinking in other parts of the world, like in the writings of Confucius who wrote about “benevolent hierarchy” in China around the same period. Much later on, philosophers would call this thinking “benevolent dictatorship” or “benevolent tyranny,” but we’ll get to that idea later.
The Social Contract by Jean-Jacque Rosseau
Jean-Jacque Rosseau was a French philosopher who published this essay about the social contract between governments and people in 1762. The basic principle of his “social contract” is that laws are binding only when they are supported by the will of the people. This concept positions the will of the people above the authority of government, which was in a stark contradiction to governance in France at that time. In Rosseau’s time, the French monarch was thought to be divinely bestowed, and, of course, they could hand down laws without regard for the will of the people. Rather, they often backed laws that served an elite few. Because of this, Rosseau’s radical treatise became a founding text for The French Revolution and the political reformation to come.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft
Published in 1792, this is one of the first feminist political texts. Wollstonecraft simply argues that women are deserving of the same fundamental rights as men. She specifically argues that women have a right to be educated, and makes the case by reasoning that as the the moral compasses for society, and the people responsible for raising future generations, it was logical for women to be properly educated. The context of her writing about freedom and rights is significant, because this text was published during the French Revolution. Because of the sentiment of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” that was in the air during the time of the revolution, this message of women’s equality was actually generally well-received in its time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t acted on politically, but the text became a foundational work for later suffragette and feminist movements to come.
The United States Constitution
The guiding principle of the United States Constitution is that people have “unalienable rights,” which is a departure from the previously prevailing idea that human rights are “given” to the people by the state. In contrast, the founding fathers of the United States believed it was crucially important to limit the power of the state.
Though the Constitution is primarily thought of as a legal document—used to define the branches of the United States government, separate the powers of the federal government and the individual states, and outline the rights of the American people—as a text, it can’t be ignored as a foundational piece of political history and theory.
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
This political text was commissioned by the Communist League and written by the German philosophers Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in 1848. It explores the limits of a capitalistic society and the capitalist “mode of production.” It concludes that capitalistic societies will eventually be “forcibly overthrown” and replaced by socialism. When this manifesto was first published, it was relatively obscure. But it later became a foundational text as social democrat parties began to rise up in Europe throughout the 1870s, and especially later on during the communist revolution of 1917 that began the Soviet Union.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass was enslaved in Maryland until he was in his early 20s. In 1838, he escaped to freedom in New York and became a leader of the abolitionist movement. He was known for his antislavery speeches and writing, and was well-known in his time. He published three memoirs, which are collected in this particular edition, which also contains famous speeches like “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.” His political writings are formative in both the abolitionist movements and the women’s rights movement—perhaps fewer know he was involved in the fight for women’s suffrage until he died.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
This is the first novel included on this list, but I feel a must-read round-up of political books would be lacking if it didn’t include Orwell. First Animal Farm, an allegorical novella which was originally published in 1945. It’s a story about farm animals who rebel against their human owner with the hopes of creating a free and equal utopian state. After they overthrow their farmer ruler, however, a dictator pig fills the power vacuum and takes control of the farm. Under this pig, the animals’ lives are worse off than they were before.
George Orwell, a British writer and democratic socialist, wrote this book as a thinly veiled allegorical response to the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the authoritarian “reign of terror” that followed during Stalinism.
1984 by George Orwell
Our other fiction exception on this list is Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, which was published in 1949 and looks eerily ahead at an imagined future society. This story imagines—rather, warns—of a totalitarian future where society is governed by surveillance, lies, propaganda, and a supreme leader with a cult of personality. Again, Orwell based his fictional authoritarian government off of the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union, and he was writing in response to politics of the time.
Most recently, though, 1984 reached the number one spot on the Amazon best-seller list again in January 2017, after Kellyanne Conway—then Presidential advisor—referred to blatant lies told by then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer as “alternative facts,” a phrase that feels all too Orwellian.
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
Baldwin wrote the essays contained in Notes of a Native Son in the 1940s and 1950s—when he was only in his 20s—and the collection was published in 1955. The essays are foundational reading for the Civil Rights Movement, as is The Fire Next Time, which Baldwin later published in 1963 to instant national bestseller status. I recommend Notes of a Native Son, though, for understanding the Jim Crow era and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, of which Baldwin is a crucial artistic and intellectual figure.
Herein, Baldwin writes about protest novels, art in revolution, rent in Harlem, the paternalism of white progressives, his time as a Black expatriate in France, and the dramatic social changes happening in the United States during this time period.
Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa by Cesar Chavez
This is the autobiography of the Mexican American civil rights and labor activist Cesar Chavez. Chavez is an incredibly important figure in the 20th century United States workers rights movement, for his leadership boycotting supermarkets and major corporations. From 1965 to 1970, Chavez led a non-violent protest movement of largely Latinx and Filipino workers, and also called for a nation-wide boycott of non–union grown grapes, an effort which resulted in a collective bargaining agreement for the United Farm Workers Union.
Unfortunately, labor and workers issues are still a major issue worldwide today, made even more relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic. The story of Chavez and the movement he led is foundational to understanding today’s workers movements.
The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central Eastern Europe by Václav Havel
This text was written in 1979 by Václav Havel, a Czechoslovakian writer and philosopher who would go on to become the first President of the Czech Republic in 1993. The text is critical of the communist regime that controlled the Czech state at the time, and it was originally published by underground grassroots organizers who circulated it in secrecy to avoid Soviet censorship. In it, Havel writes that totalitarian regimes, like the one he was living in, force ordinary citizens to become dissidents. His insistence is that people always have power, despite oppressive circumstances, but this was in complete contrast to pervading Soviet-era eastern European cynicism of the time. After its underground publication, this text became foundational for the revolution to come.
Women, Race, and Class by Angela Y. Davis
Political activist and academic, Angela Davis, published this work in 1981. It is a feminist Marxist analysis of United States history from the era of the slave trade, to abolition, up until the women’s liberation movement (now sometimes called the second-wave feminist movement) of the 1960s. Davis explores the ways racism and class biases have held feminist political agendas back from accomplishing their complete goals. It is a formative text about intersectionality, and still an important one to feminist political theory today.
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
This collection of essays was written by the Black lesbian feminist writer Audre Lorde between 1976 and 1984. It is an exploration of intersectional identity, and how intersectionality must be considered regarding all political issues. Lorde makes her case with examples that were extremely relevant to the time—and also now—including war, protest, police brutality, and the importance of building diverse political coalitions to achieve change.
Deterring Democracy by Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky is a philosopher, political activist, and social critic. He has published many books, but this one, published in 1991, is about the United States’ role of “global police” following World War II up until the present-day of the book. Chomsky criticizes the imperialistic behavior of the United States in the country’s quest to remain a dominant economic and militaristic world superpower. He likens this domination to authoritarian regimes and claims that, throughout the later half of the 20th century, the United States was more concerned with maintaining control of global resources and power than it was with—as the United States government itself asserts—spreading democracy to the world.
No Pity: People With Disabilities Forging a Civil Rights Movement by Joseph Shapiro
This book was published in 1993 following the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. I’m including this selection because the American with Disabilities Act was one of the most significant legal and political rights victories accomplished in the modern United States, and yet the history of this political movement is often left out of narratives.
This book gives people with disabilities a voice and agency; they are not helpless, and their stories are not tragedies. Rather they are activists, fighting against society’s prejudice to demand the rights they are entitled to, just like any other citizen, and winning.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
This is the 1994 autobiography of the revolutionary Nelson Mandela, who would go on to become the President of South Africa. This book is published at the very start of his Presidency, and the majority centers around his anti-aparthaid activism, which resulted in his 27-year long imprisonment. Though this is an autobiography, rather than a political essay, it is crucial text about racial oppression by governments, and how South Africa moved to a majority-rule governance system under Mandela’s leadership.
How to Spot a Fascist by Umberto Eco
This collection was published in the summer of 2020, but it features Eco’s iconic essay “Ur-Fascism,” which was originally published in 1995. That particular essay is about Eco’s experience growing up in Italy after World War II, during and after the reign of fascist Mussolini.
The essay goes on to list the 14 defining characteristics of a fascist regime, including, traditionalism, rejection of modernism, appeals to people who feel deprived of social identity, populism, contempt for others, propaganda, and more. The other two essays in this collection also concern issues of freedom and fascism, and given the text was collected in 2020, it provides a very modern context.
My Seditious Heart by Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy is an Indian writer and political activist. She skyrocketed to global literary fame in 1997 when she won the Man Booker Prize for her first novel, God of Small Things. This collection, however, contains two decades worth of political essays—it is over 1,000 pages long—which Roy wrote following the publication of her novel. She is a social justice and human rights activist, and her political essays in this collection are concerned with globalization, imperialism, and the politics of modern India.
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffery Toobin
The Nine is a book about the United States Supreme Court published in 2007 by journalist Jeffery Toobin. Of course, the United States federal government has three branches, but this is the first book on this list to deal with the judiciary branch of government. Toobin explores the politics and dynamics of the nine supreme judges who sat on the United States Supreme Court at the time. He argues that the Supreme Court was at a major point of transition, and yet during this time of rapid change it was also determining the law of the land on major issues like abortion and women’s rights, civil rights, the separation of church and state, and corporate regulation. And of course, the 2020 reader will understand that this book, and the role of the Supreme Court, are more relevant in our contemporary politics than ever as we face another Supreme Court vacancy with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This is an essay collection of works by writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, published in 2017. The title is a reference to the eight years Black Reconstruction-era politicians were in power before white supremacy and Jim Crow laws clawed their way back. Of course, the title is also a reference to the eight years President Barack Obama spent in power before nationalist and racist powers clawed their way back, once again, following the 2016 election.
These essays deal with a range of contemporary political issues, including Coates’s modern case for reparations, the political legacy of Malcom X, and mass incarceration.
We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights by Adam Winkler
Corporations have been arguing that they deserve the same rights as people under the United States Constitution since 1809, when the first corporate rights case came in front of the Supreme Court. Corporations used lobbying, legal gymnastics, and even civil disobedience to make the case they, too, deserve unalienable human rights.
And these corporations have been remarkably successful. Headway for corporates rights cases was made long before civil or women’s rights, after all. This book is crucial to understanding the origins of the controversial Supreme Court decision Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, in which the court ruled corporations could be exempt from regulations that its owners’ have religious objection to—a ruling which allowed the owner of Hobby Lobby to deny contraceptive care to their employees despite the Affordable Care Act and set precedent which still impacts us today.
As Long As Grass Grows by Dina Gilio-Whitaker
This collection was published in 2019 by Indigenous researcher, environmentalist, and activist Dina Gilio-Whitaker. It engages with the relationship between Indigenous people and American colonizers, and covers a brief history of the Indigenous resistance movements responding to colonization of their land. It is an important exploration of civil disobedience movements, and the leadership Indigenous people have offered these movements throughout centuries.
The collection also explores the relationship between Indigenous people and the mainstream environmental movement, so it will be of interest to any intersectional environmentalists reading. Its final chapters are a look forward toward what a sustainable and just relationship between Native people and the United States could look like, which is an incredibly important issue of our time that is not centered nearly enough.
Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein
This book came out at the start of 2020, and it is Ezra Klein’s exploration of political polarization in the modern United States. Klein poses that the 2016 election was not as much a fissure from “politics as normal” (like the title of Hilary Clinton’s post–2016 election book What Happened implies), rather the 2016 election was shocking because politics actually played out along party lines much as they have before, even when the Republican party’s candidate was far from normal.
Klein explores identity politics, which he believes are growing more defined and extreme because of the feedback loops between people and institutions—institutions like the media which are also growing more and more polarized in our modern era.
Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can Edited by Varshini Prakash and Guido Girgenti
This collection is edited by the co-founders of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led grassroots progressive movement that advocates for action on the climate emergency. This collection contains essays from activists, journalists, environmentalists, and policymakers about why we need the political agenda the Green New Deal proposes, and how the proposals the Green New Deal encompasses could be turned into laws. The Sunrise Movement has grown quickly and become an effective force in today’s political scene with the power to influence the Democratic agenda, build coalitions, and win elections. As electorate demographics rapidly change, and the American left undergoes a political realignment, this movement will play a crucial role in the future of politics.
Politics is for Power by Eitan Hersh
I’ll end this list with a book that claims it will show you how to move beyond political hobbyism, take political action, and make real change. As you read more about politics and become more interested in the subjects mentioned in this article, you might want to know how you can take part. Taking part in politics goes far beyond reading about the news online, complaining about politicians, signing petitions, and making donations.
Pick up this book to learn how to put it all into action. It will teach you about lobbying, advocacy, and mobilizing communities and coalitions to make a difference for the causes you care about.
Like I said, this list, or any other list of political books, is only ever going to be a start. But hopefully this must-read list will help you understand some of the foundational concepts of politics and political issues we face today! Interested in more? Check out these politically-relevant graphic novels, or more books on international politics.