From beginner-friendly introductions to classic philosophy books on democracy, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s important to note that there is no single best book on democracy. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or pick up one of the classics.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best philosophy books on democracy in no particular order.
Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction – Frank Cunningham
Publisher’s description: This is the first book to be published in this exciting new series on political philosophy. Cunningham provides a critical and clear introduction to the main contemporary approaches to democracy: participatory democracy, classic and radical pluralism, deliberative democracy, catallaxy, and others. Also discussed are theorists in the background of current democratic thought, such as Tocqueville, Mill, and Rousseau. The book includes applications of democratic theories including an extended discussion of democracy and globalisation.
Models of Democracy – David Held
Publisher’s description: In a succinct and far-reaching analysis, David Held provides an introduction to major theories of democracy from classical Greece to the present, along with a critical discussion of what democracy should mean today. This new edition has been extensively revised and updated to take into account significant transformations in world politics. A new chapter on deliberative democracy has been added, which focuses on how citizen participation can be increased in politics, and how that participation can become more informed. Like its predecessor, the third edition of Models of Democracy combines lucid exposition and clarity of expression with careful scholarship and originality, making it highly attractive to students and experts in the field. The third edition will prove essential reading for all those interested in politics, political theory, and political philosophy.
Philosophy and Democracy: An Anthology – Thomas Christiano
Publisher’s description: This volume collects some of the leading essays in contemporary democratic theory published in the past thirty years. The anthology presents the work of a select group of contributors (including Peter Singer, Joshua Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, Richard Arneson, and others) and covers many foundational approaches defended by scholars from a range of different disciplines. The chapters address many issues that are central to philosophical reflections on democracy, such as questions pertaining to deliberative and economic approaches, as well as to such topics as intrinsic fairness, the role of equality in relation to minority groups, and the limits of democracy. Covering representative work in economics, political science, legal theory, and philosophy, this comprehensive volume is suited to courses in political theory and political philosophy.
The Republic – Plato
Publisher’s description: The revised edition of Grube’s classic translation follows and furthers Grube’s noted success in combining fidelity to Plato’s text with natural readability, while reflecting the fruits of new scholarship and insights into Plato’s thought since publication of the first edition in 1974. A new introduction, index, and bibliography by Professor Reeve are included in this new rendering.
Politics – Aristotle
Publishers description: No other English-language translation comes close to the standard of accuracy and readability set here by Reeve. This volume provides the reader with more of the resources needed to understand Aristotle’s argument than any other edition. An introductory essay by Reeve situates Politics in Aristotle’s overall thought and offers an engaging critical introduction to its central argument. A detailed glossary, footnotes, bibliography, and indexes provide historical background, analytical assistance with particular passages, and a guide both to Aristotle’s philosophy and to scholarship on it.
The Social Contract – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Publisher’s description: “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains” These are the famous opening words of a treatise that has not ceased to stir vigorous debate since its first publication in 1762. Rejecting the view that anyone has a natural right to wield authority over others, Rousseau argues instead for a pact, or ‘social contract’, that should exist between all the citizens of a state and that should be the source of sovereign power. From this fundamental premise, he goes on to consider issues of liberty and law, freedom and justice, arriving at a view of society that has seemed to some a blueprint for totalitarianism, to others a declaration of democratic principles.
Democracy in America – Alexis de Tocqueville
Publisher’s description: In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat and ambitious civil servant, set out from post-revolutionary France on a journey across America that would take him 9 months and cover 7,000 miles. The result was Democracy in America, a subtle and prescient analysis of the life and institutions of 19th-century America. Tocqueville looked to the flourishing deomcratic system in America as a possible model for post-revolutionary France, believing that the egalitarian ideals it enshrined reflected the spirit of the age and even divine will. His study of the strengths and weaknesses of an evolving democratic society has been quoted by every American president since Eisenhower, and remains a key point of reference for any discussion of the American nation or the democratic system.
On Democracy – Robert A. Dahl
Publisher’s description: Written by the preeminent democratic theorist of our time, this book explains the nature, value, and mechanics of democracy. This new edition includes two additional chapters by Ian Shapiro, Dahl’s successor as Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale and a leading contemporary authority on democracy. One chapter deals with the prospects for democracy in light of developments since the advent of the Arab spring in 2010. The other takes up the effects of inequality and money in politics on the quality of democracy, a subject that was of increasing concern to Dahl in his final years.
Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework – David M. Estlund
Publisher’s description: Democracy is not naturally plausible. Why turn such important matters over to masses of people who have no expertise? Many theories of democracy answer by appealing to the intrinsic value of democratic procedure, leaving aside whether it makes good decisions. In Democratic Authority, David Estlund offers a groundbreaking alternative based on the idea that democratic authority and legitimacy must depend partly on democracy’s tendency to make good decisions.
Just as with verdicts in jury trials, Estlund argues, the authority and legitimacy of a political decision does not depend on the particular decision being good or correct. But the “epistemic value” of the procedure–the degree to which it can generally be accepted as tending toward a good decision–is nevertheless crucial. Yet if good decisions were all that mattered, one might wonder why those who know best shouldn’t simply rule. …
Against Democracy – Jason Brennan
Publisher’s description: Most people believe democracy is a uniquely just form of government. They believe people have the right to an equal share of political power. And they believe that political participation is good for us―it empowers us, helps us get what we want, and tends to make us smarter, more virtuous, and more caring for one another. These are some of our most cherished ideas about democracy. But Jason Brennan says they are all wrong.
In this trenchant book, Brennan argues that democracy should be judged by its results―and the results are not good enough. Just as defendants have a right to a fair trial, citizens have a right to competent government. But democracy is the rule of the ignorant and the irrational, and it all too often falls short. Furthermore, no one has a fundamental right to any share of political power, and exercising political power does most of us little good….
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Democracy in Theory and Practice – University of Auckland
- Democratic Theory – Harvard University
- Democracy – Princeton University
You might also be interested in the following reading lists:
- The Best Introductory Philosophy Books
- The Best Introductory Books on Political Philosophy
- The Best Philosophy Books on Liberalism
Or browse this collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists to find more philosophy book recommendations.
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