9 Books on Political Behavior That Every Student of Politics Should Read

If you read the Intercollegiate Review, you are undoubtedly more interested in questions of philosophy and political theory than are most of your peers. You probably aspire to an academic career (despite misgivings about academic life) that will allow you to read and write about the world’s greatest thinkers and ideas.

And while I would never discourage budding scholars from pursuing their intellectual passions, I will say this: many young people considering political science graduate programs have a myopic view of the discipline.

When I first contemplated graduate school, I took it for granted that I would be a theorist, that I would study the great texts of the classical liberal tradition, or perhaps learn to read Aristotle in the original Greek. To my surprise, however, I soon encountered the fields of political behavior and public opinion, and discovered their many great intellectual pleasures. Investigating the nature of partisanship, the logic of voting, and the evolution of public attitudes on critical subjects is no less challenging and rewarding than studying the political thought of the Founding Fathers, Machiavelli, or Rawls.

Even if you decide that your future lies in political theory and qualitative approaches, and that your graduate courses will emphasize languages and history rather than regression models, you will nonetheless read classics from subfields throughout your coursework. Give yourself an advantage by familiarizing yourself with seminal works ahead of time. Understanding how political scientists think about these subjects will make you a better consumer of political information and challenge you to think about the origins of your own political opinions.

Below I list just a small sampling of influential works on public opinion and political behavior. These texts rely on a variety of methods and reach different conclusions. I chose books considered foundational to the field, as well as more recent texts (even though I disagree with some of the authors’ assumptions and approaches). Familiarizing yourself with them will help you think about politics like a political scientist.

This list is far from exhaustive, but these works will give you a sense of the kinds of questions that continue to interest scholars of American politics. I should note that these are not “conservative books” in the sense of promoting a particular political philosophy—the authors are ideologically heterogeneous. They instead wrestle with important questions that should interest political observers of all political persuasions.

An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957)

by Anthony Downs

Downs is an economist, not a political scientist, but he was an early pioneer of the “rational choice” approach to questions of vote choice, party competition, and voter turnout. He begins with the axiom that individuals are self-interested and make decisions to maximize personal utility. His work is particularly notable for pointing out the apparent paradox of voter turnout—given the low probability that any individual vote will sway an election, it is rarely “rational” to vote, even in a high-stakes election.

The American Voter (1960)

by Angus Campbell, Philip E. Converse, Warren W. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes

This seminal work reshaped our understanding of American political behavior by suggesting that party identification is one of the most powerful forces in U.S. politics. The authors advance the controversial claim that our partisan identities are largely the result of early socialization—that is, we inherit them from our parents. This is very different from Downs’s argument, which assumes that our policy preferences drive our voting decisions.

The Responsible Electorate (1966)

by V.O. Key Jr.

In his last book, published posthumously, the legendary scholar V.O. Key defends the rationality of American voters, making “the perverse and unorthodox argument” that “voters are not fools.”

Retrospective Voting in American Elections (1981)

by Morris P. Fiorina

A potential problem with socialization theories of political affiliations is that they have trouble accounting for partisan change. Fiorina suggests that our political affiliations result from a “running tally” of party performance, which we use to determine which party will best serve our interests in the future.

The Rational Public (1992)

by Benjamin I. Page and Robert Y. Shapiro

If we examine the political views of individuals, we find that most people are ignorant about politics and volatile in their policy preferences. Yet, at the national level, we find that public opinion is typically stable and reasonable. Page and Shapiro explore this paradox, and conclude that, when individuals are aggregated, measurement errors and short-term individual whims are canceled out, leaving a coherent collective opinion that reasonably changes according to new developments.

The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (1992)

by John R. Zaller

In one of the most influential books on public opinion ever written, Zaller describes how messages from elites in the mass media influence the public’s attitudes. His “receive-accept-sample” model of opinion provides a compelling explanation for much of the public’s apparent lack of fixed attitudes on political questions.

Partisan Hearts and Minds (2002)

by Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist, and Eric Schickler

This book helped further establish the idea that party identification is more than just the sum of policy preferences: it is a strong part of social identity, which explains in part why it is so entrenched for most people.

The Partisan Sort (2009)

by Matthew Levendusky

We now consider it natural that conservatives are Republicans and progressives are Democrats. This was not always the case, however. For much of the twentieth century, there was ideological overlap between the two parties, and it took many decades for conservative Democrats and progressive Republicans to disappear. Levendusky explains how this ideological sorting occurred. He argues that this was an elite-driven process, in which political leaders increasingly aligned their partisan affiliation with their ideology, and subsequently provided the public with more consistent cues.

Uncivil Agreement (2018)

by Lilliana Mason

It is not possible to know whether a new book will have an important, long-term influence on a field. I am confident, however, that I will cite Mason’s work for many years to come. The book argues that party politics has itself become a form of tribalism, leading to polarization disconnected from policy debates.

The list above provides only the tiniest glimpse into the literature on American political behavior and public opinion. A comprehensive list of books and articles I could recommend would be more than ten times this length. The above texts will nonetheless provide you with a starting point for learning about some of the most interesting and enduring debates in political science.

George Hawley (@georgehawleyUA) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. His books include Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, Making Sense of the Alt-Right, and Demography, Culture, and the Decline of America’s Christian Denominations.

Get the best of intellectual conservative thought

Other posts you might like