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The 11 most important books on the political landscape of 2019

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  • In a turbulent year, books helped us better understand this transformational period of social and political change.
  • You can find everything from in-depth breakdowns into Trump administration machinations to reflections on the contemporary state of race, gender, and class relations.
  • Below, we’ve included our top political books of the year, including “The Mueller Report” by the Special Counsel’s Office, “Permanent Record” by Edward Snowden, “She Said” by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, and “American Carnage” by Tim Alberta, among others.
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As the news cycle moves at a dizzying pace and days can seem like months, it’s useful to remember what exactly happened this year. 

To help do so, we’ve compiled the top 11 political books of the year. All of these books have an actual author (looking at you, “Anonymous”) and strive to unpack the myriad phenomena driving this period of transformational change. They include a number of different perspectives spanning disciplines and the political spectrum, all with the same underlying message: No one knows what’s going to happen next, but we should at least try to understand what’s happening now. 

Maybe saying that all the books have an “actual author” on this list is a stretch, but at least “The Mueller Report” has a team of impressive investigators behind it. Any list would be incomplete without the report: the culmination of the biggest political storyline of Trump’s term, at least until Ukrainegate, compiled into a massive over-400-page opus that either did or didn’t demonstrate collusion, depending on perspective (and some legalese). Clearly, people enjoyed reading the report — it currently has a 4.3/5 rating on Goodreads

"The Mueller Report"

“The Mueller Report: Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election.”
Simon & Schuster


Although Trump has called the report both “total exoneration” and “total bullshit,” it’s anything but, containing meticulously compiled accounts of the lead-up to the 2016 election, the Trump administration’s dealings with foreign actors, and enough plotlines to fill any number of prestige limited series in the coming years. The Washington Post released an edition of the report with an introduction and analysis by two of its reporters, which is available for purchase if you’re looking for a fun coffee table book. Otherwise, the full report is also available for free online. Now, the whole episode really just seems like an appetizer for Ukraine and the impeachment bonanza. How time flies. 

Ibram X. Kendi came into the national consciousness with his 2016 book “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. The bestselling follow-up came out this year, a hybrid memoir and manual on the underlying mechanisms that perpetuate racism in the United States and how to combat them. The underlying idea is that being an antiracist is different than not being racist. In Kendi’s analysis, “There is no such thing as a not-racist idea, only racist ideas and antiracist ideas.” A racist idea furthers racial inequity and harmful policy, while antiracism requires active — not passive — rejection of these ideas. 

"How to Be an Antiracist"

“How to Be an Antiracist.”
One World


What may seem like a bold assertion is supported through policy proposals and historical analysis that blend sociology and politics, creating a cohesive critique of capitalism and patriarchy and the ideas that stem from oppressive systems of governance. Critics received the book differently, with The New York Times hailing it “the most courageous book to date on the problem of race in the Western mind,” and others reviewing it less favorably. Regardless, it’s undoubtedly an educational and thought-provoking approach to a pervasive issue. 

In 2013, a young NSA contractor named Edward Snowden contacted several journalists with classified documents detailing extensive US surveillance programs. In the past five or so years, the public’s relationship with data has fundamentally changed, in large part thanks to the stunning revelations made by Snowden’s leak. Whether he is a hero or a traitor, Snowden no doubt changed how we think about privacy. His price was exile, and he is currently living in Russia, a particularly ironic fact given the country’s own relationship with surveillance. 

"Permanent Record"

“Permanent Record.”
Macmillan


Although Snowden has been making public appearances for years, mostly through video conference, he finally released his memoir in September. The book details his entire life, from childhood to his career as a spy to his life on the run, “reading like a literary thriller,” according to The New York Times. While the leaks may seem like a lifetime ago, the themes he revealed have never been more relevant, especially in the build up to the 2020 election. 

When The New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published their bombshell investigation on Harvey Weinstein in October 2017, it unleashed a global movement. Weinstein was just the first of a wave of powerful men brought down by investigative reporting and social movements that had long been suppressed. In their account of how they built the story, Kantor and Twohey wrote a contemporary “All the President’s Men,” detailing not only the painstaking process of uncovering long-rumored systemic abuse, but also describing how it fundamentally changed American society. The difference from Woodward and Bernstein is that they were doing it in the age of social media, where Twitter played a central role in both the reporting and the ensuing societal reaction. 

"She Said"

“She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement.”
Penguin Random House


Two years removed from the initial events, “She Said” is an essential account of the legacy of the movement, the importance of journalism as a check on power, and the continued work being done, such as this recent investigation by Jezebel into an editor from The Fader and Vice with a pattern of sexual harassment.

It may seem hard to remember at this point, but there was a time when the Republican party housed a vocal “Never Trump” contingent, and mainstream politicians, now fully in his orbit, vowed against him. 

Tim Alberta, the chief political correspondent for Politico, takes his readers on a journey through the once-unthinkable transformation of the Republicans: the party of George W. Bush to the party of Trump. In context, though, the journey doesn’t seem that unbelievable, and it’s clear the chasms that once seemed so large were really just exaggerated by Trump’s bombast. 

"American Carnage"

“American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump.”
HarperCollins


In the book, Alberta reminds us of proto-Trumps such as Sarah Palin, and the underlying tenets that have unified the Republicans through a period of evolution. Alberta has bonafide conservative credentials, having covered the 2016 campaign for the National Review as its chief political correspondent. He clearly uses his access and reporting strength to great effect, weaving together a stunning narrative of political intrigue, political metamorphosis, and a constant question of what comes next. 

When Trump descended the escalator in 2016, one of his first statements was to accuse Mexico of “not sending their best,” including rapists and criminals. Race and immigration have always been central to his political movement, and the issue of immigration has only become more prominent in discussion with his administration’s severe border policies and approach toward asylum. 

"This Land Is Our Land"

“This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto.”
Macmillan


As journalist Suketu Mehta argues in his new book, the United States is just a few decades away from being a majority-minority country, and we need to address the issue of immigration head on. His central idea is that the fear of immigrants is much more harmful to the United States than immigrants themselves. Mehta also explores legacies of colonialism, including his own history as an Indian-American, and why immigration should be viewed as a form of reparations. He combines economics, history, and personal narrative to form a compelling “manifesto” on the role that immigration has played in the construction of the United States, and how to change the debate over its future. 

Greg Grandin is a giant in American history, having written extensively on US empire building, especially in Latin America, and its pernicious effects. His most famous book is “Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City,” on a rubber colony in the Brazilian Amazon founded by Henry Ford, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History and the National Book Award. 

"The End of the Myth"

“The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.”
Macmillan


In his new book, Grandin takes a wide lens to US history, looking at its history of expansionism and the frontier. By tracing the core tenets of the country back to the Founding Fathers, Grandin demonstrates how conquest, both domestically and abroad, has always been used to rally the country together. Racism often drove expansionism, especially with moves against Native Americans like the Homestead Act, as well as foreign wars like the Spanish-American War (yes Jonathan Chait, Bernie would have opposed it). Finally, he connects American history with the present day, demonstrating how the border is the modern frontier and the latest in a long legacy of racist violence and coalition building. 

The book is unabashedly leftist in its approach, but even those from different political persuasions will be impressed by Grandin’s deft ability to make historical analysis engaging, and most importantly, relevant to our current reality.   

“Badges without Borders” is another book to examine themes of US empire and the border, although from the more contemporary lens of policing. Stuart Schrader is a sociologist and researcher at Johns Hopkins University, and he has long studied the overlap between foreign policy and domestic policing. 

"Badges Without Borders"

“Badges without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing.”
University of California Press


In his first book, he helps explain how the two have been intertwined in the past half-century for the United States, from the Cold War to the Iraq War to the US-Mexico border. The militarization of US policing at home is often overseen by the same people in charge of global counterinsurgency, and to understand how these systems work and evolve, we must look at both together, Schrader argues. 

He takes an academic approach to research, analyzing everything from declassified national security documents to police training handbooks, but still writes in accessible, compelling prose. Policing and foreign intervention are both hot topics in the presidential cycle, and the book is necessary reading for understanding how the two have grown together with little public awareness. 

Journalists have been covering the dark recesses of the internet for years, from Joe Bernstein and Charlie Warzel (now at The New York Times) for BuzzFeed News to Kyle Wagner’s prescient Deadspin article on Gamergate and its impact on politics.

"Antisocial"

“Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation.”
Viking


In “Antisocial,” The New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz goes deep on how the worst of internet message boards have become a major, influential presence in political and social life.

From his position at The New Yorker, Marantz wrote profiles of alt-right leaders such as Mike Cernovich. In “Antisocial,” he’s able to take his background in reporting on the movement to embed with its ranks and build out a full picture of the motivations, goals, and reach of the alt-right and its online ilk. While he doesn’t necessarily humanize the figures, he does paint them as real people with a dangerous amount of power that social media has magnified in our already fragmented country. 

The book is terrifying in its depth, but fascinating for understanding how social movements are evolving in electoral politics. 

Meghan Daum has written for publications such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Some would describe her as being “red-pilled,” or turning to a particularly noxious brand of conservatism, especially given her “YouTube friends” that come from the “intellectual dark web,” such as the psychology professor Jordan Peterson and the “factual feminist” Christina Hoff Summers.

"The Problem with Everything"

“The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars.”
Gallery Books


While Daum swears that calling her experience “red-pilling” would be simplistic, her new book dives into what she views as excesses on the Left: political correctness, overreaches of feminism, and the so-called culture wars. The topic could easily devolve into generational hand-wringing and screeds about “kids these days,” but Daum employs her background as a skilled writer to make a funny and impassioned case, whether you agree with her logic or not. Even though this is yet another entry into the canon of “why identity politics is bad,” the book is still a nuanced take on liberalism. She just might have lost some of her friends along the way. 

Mitchell Jackson came onto the literary scene with his 2014 debut novel “The Residue Years,” an autobiographical novel about a family fighting addiction and poverty, which won the Whiting Award and was a finalist for a score of other prestigious honors. 

"Survival Math"

“Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family.”
Scribner


Changing pace, his next book is the nonfiction “Survival Math,” which also reckons with issues of class and race. Through an experimental combination of literary exploration and reporting, Jackson weaves together poetry, historical documents, and personal narrative to tell the story of his family — over generations — and the disenfranchisement of Americans. Jackson grew up in a poor black community in one of the whitest cities in the country — Portland, Oregon — and his childhood was largely shaped by his mother’s drug addiction, his own experiences with drug dealing, and gang violence. With his skilled storytelling, though, Jackson is able to show not just the hardship but also the beauty in his family’s history. 

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