The True Believer by Eric Hoffer (Harper Perennial, $15).

Hoffer's 1951 classic reads as even more incisive today. It charts why mass irrational movements attract people who feel they have been left by the wayside. It offers a timeless psychological study of the lure of the fanatic. Those hoping for insights into the success of Donald Trump's "America First" politics could do worse than start here.

The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter (Vintage, $17).

Much like Hoffer's book, The Paranoid Style will never lose its contemporary feel. From the Know-Nothings to McCarthyism, America's political DNA has caused periodic eruptions of fear-based politics. They crest and fall every generation or so. But Hofstadter's classic will always be there.

The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell (Basic, $20).

This is a dense, erudite, brilliant, and often infuriating book that never loses its ability to provoke lateral thoughts. Bell beautifully teases out the contradictions of a capitalist system that is built on the virtue of saving yet demands ever more frivolous consumption.

The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen (Dutton, $4 as an e-book).

This minor gem was the first to diagnose the falling rate of productivity growth in the U.S. and the West in general. Cowen skillfully laid out how the "low-hanging fruits" of growth are receding. Today's populist moment was ultimately sparked by fears about the future of work. Cowen's book provides an essential backdrop to our economic anxieties.

India: A Million Mutinies Now by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, $18).

The cantankerous Nobel Prize winner hit his peak with this chronicle of an ever-restless modern India. It presaged the death of deference in India's pluralist democracy, where the future of politics will increasingly be written.

The Rise and Decline of Nations by Mancur Olson (Yale, $22).

Advancing what's known as the barnacle theory of politics, Olson shows how the longer a society is stable, the tougher it is to get things done. This minor classic helps explain why the populist wave is hitting the U.S. and Britain hardest. These are the only two large Western democracies that in the past 100 years neither were invaded nor suffered a revolution.

— In his new book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Edward Luce explains why liberal democracy is facing its gravest crisis since World War II.