Reading from left to right

by John Quiggin on February 29, 2004

Valdis Krebs presents this map of purchasing habits for political books, using the techniques of cluster analysis. leftright
Krebs’ main point is that the books divide readers into two sharply separate clusters, color-coded on the assumption that one group of readers are Democrats and the other are Republicans. The diagram also coincides with the standard left-right coding.

I have a couple of observations on this. The first is the trivial one that this color-coding is the exact opposite of the one that would naturally be used in Australia or the UK (back in my days as a folksinger, one of my more successful pieces (this is a highly relative term) was about a Labour leader who “went in [to office] Red and came out Blue”.) Without wanting to load too much on to arbitrary signifiers, this does seem to me to support my view that there’s a bigger gulf between liberals and the radical left in the US than elsewhere. Even if the mainstream left party in other countries does not adopt the red banner of Marxism there’s sufficient continuity along the political spectrum to make it’s adoption by the right unlikely.

The second thing that’s striking is that, on the left-right orientation, I come out as a centrist. I’ve read nearly all the blue books that are within one or two links of the red zone, and none of those on the far left of the diagram. On the right, I’ve read only Letters to a Young Conservative .

Looking again at the titles of the books I’ve read, while there’s a vaguely leftish slant to them, one could scarcely call either Clash of Civilisations or Elusive Quest for Growth supportive of the left. The striking thing is that these are mostly the serious books, while those on either side are mostly lightweight polemics[1] (I’m inferring this from the reviews I’ve read of some of them and the titles of the others). But it would appear from the cluster analysis that those who read leftwing partisan diatribes also tend to read serious books (and vice versa) while those who read rightwing partisan diatribes don’t read anything else.

In terms of the debate that’s been going on for some time about the relative intellectual capacity of the left and the right, the cluster analysis seems to imply that the left is doing a lot more to enhance its intellectual capacity than is the right.

(Hat tip to Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution)

fn1. On rereading this makes me sound dreadfully highminded. In fact, I regularly read, and occasionally write lightweigh partisan polemics. But the targets are more likely to be obscure Australian politicians and pundits than the great and powerful of the world.

{ 31 comments }

1

chun the unavoidable 02.29.04 at 7:24 am

The striking thing is that these are mostly the serious books, while those on either side are mostly lightweight polemics. I’m inferring this from the reviews I’ve read of some of them and the titles of the others).

That Manufacturing Consent is a thinly sourced rant in particular. You’ve earned the right to judge books by their titles.

2

John Quiggin 02.29.04 at 7:32 am

There does appear to be a little cluster of serious books on the upper left of the diagram, but then I did say “mostly”.

As regards judging books by their titles (and covers), given the disparity between books and time there’s little choice but to do this, and I think I have earned the right to do so.

3

bad Jim 02.29.04 at 8:08 am

As regards red and blue: in the eighteenth century, red was predominantly a royal color. In American revolutionary history, red is solidly associated with the British and blue with the rebels, as evidenced by their uniforms. Likewise with the French revolutionaries, who added blue to their cockades to signal their sympathies.

It’s not coincidental that the French flag has blue nearest the hoist, nor that blue in the American flag has the honor position (topmost hoistwards).

4

Danny Yee 02.29.04 at 10:21 am

Most people seem to think I’ve extremely well-read, but I haven’t read a single one of the books featured in that graph. Hmmm…

5

lms 02.29.04 at 10:28 am

John

irony doesn’t translate well in this format — I hope you jest re the upper left (indeed, upper left, off the planet, long departed reality)…in fact, make that most of the left. What’s disappointing is how few worthwhile books are listed. Which make Friedman (Lexus), Nye (Paradox), Stiglitz (Discontents), even Huntingdon (Clash) stand out. The other predominant theme is betrayal, on both left (of ‘morals’) and right (of service) — which again differ those I’ve listed above.

6

lms 02.29.04 at 10:31 am

sorry — meant to add Lewis (What went Wrong) to that list…

7

John Isbell 02.29.04 at 10:47 am

Another day dawns grey, its enough to make me spit
But we go on our way, just putting up with it
And when i try to make my feelings known to you
You sound like you have changed from red to blue

You’re a father now, you see things in different ways
For every parent will gain perspective on their wilder days
But that alone does not explain the changes i see in you
The way you’ve drifted off from red to blue

Sometimes i think to myself
Should i vote red for my class or green for our children?
But whatever choice i make
I will not forsake

So you bought it all, the best your money could buy
And i watched you sell your soul for their bright shining lie
Where are the principles of the friend i thought i knew
I guess you let them fade from red to blue

I hate the compromises that life forces us to make
We must all bend a little if we are not to break
But the ideals you’ve opted out of,
I still hold them to be true
I guess they weren’t so firmly held by you

Billy Bragg, From Red To Blue (William Bloke).

8

Brett Bellmore 02.29.04 at 2:00 pm

I suppose it’s just a side effect of the left’s dominance of academia, that most “academic” books that get published are somewhat more friendly to the leftist viewpoint. And we might disagree about whether anything Chomsky writes is really “serious”, as opposed to tedious…

9

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 02.29.04 at 2:38 pm

“…[T]his does seem to me to support my view that there’s a bigger gulf between liberals and the radical left in the US than elsewhere. Even if the mainstream left party in other countries does not adopt the red banner of Marxism there’s sufficient continuity along the political spectrum to make its adoption by the right unlikely.”

Actually, as those of us older than 30 can remember, the color-coding of the parties has been more or less inverted in recent years. As recently as the 1980s, many electoral maps showed the Democrats as red and the Republicans in blue.

I don’t know what’s brought on the switch, but I think you’re definitely reading too much of a conclusion into it.

10

Valdis Krebs 02.29.04 at 2:49 pm

The map of books above is from early 2003. A map from one year later is available. Different books, same pattern.
http://www.orgnet.com/divided.html

Enjoy!

Valdis

11

Dick Thompson 02.29.04 at 3:17 pm

I think the read and blue inversion was made in the famous voting map of the 2000 election. And the republicans who did that made the dem counties blue so their areas would look smaller and the gop ones red so they would stand out, in a familiar optical illusion.

12

Ilkka Kokkarinen 02.29.04 at 3:23 pm

“And the republicans who did that made the dem counties blue so their areas would look smaller and the gop ones red so they would stand out, in a familiar optical illusion.”

After all, it is “one vote per square mile”, not “one vote per person”.

13

Ophelia Benson 02.29.04 at 4:24 pm

Or rather, two votes (two senators) per state rather than per X hundred thousand people. So Nevada and Montana, with under a million in population, have two each, and California and Texas and New York, with tens of millions in population, have two each. That’s had some very odd, distorting effects over the years.

14

Senior Administration Official 02.29.04 at 4:41 pm

Funny that Huntington’s on the left. I was hoping that sleazebag would be in red.

15

JX 02.29.04 at 6:02 pm

It shouldn’t be at all surprising that Huntington is on the left. The quotations that follow are from Robert Kaplan’s [url=http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/12/kaplan.htm]profile[/url] of Huntington in The Atlantic:

“When I suggested to Huntington that he is ‘an old-fashioned Democrat, the kind that no longer exists,’ he indulged in a rare display of emotional animation. He snapped in reply, ‘That’s it—that’s what I am. As Arthur Schlesinger would say, I am a child of Niebuhr.’ Reinhold Niebuhr was the leading Protestant theologian of twentieth-century America—a devout Christian who believed that men are sufficiently wicked to require tough methods for the preservation of order …. Liberalism, he wrote, is an ideology of individualism, free markets, liberty, and the rule of law. ‘Classic conservatism,’ in contrast, has no particular vision: it is a rationale, “high and necessary,” for ensuring the survival of liberal institutions …. Real conservatism is about conserving what is, rather than crusading abroad for what is not or proposing radical changes at home …. [I]n his view, ‘The greatest need is not so much the creation of more liberal institutions as the successful defense of those which already exist.'”

Like senior administration official, I disagree with the conclusions of Huntington’s latest article in Foreign Policy. Then again, when I first read “The Clash of Civilizations,” I disagreed with it because I very much wanted it not to be true. However, September 11 forced me to acknowledge the existence of a bigoted, xenophobic force that cast itself not only against the West, but also Hindu India, Buddhist (and Catholic) Southeast Asia, and even China, as well as any outside influences within the Islamic world itself.

Huntington has proven me wrong before. Therefore, I’m willing to be a little open-minded when he draws conclusions that I don’t want to be true. I still disagree with “The Hispanic Challenge,” but it hardly warrants ad hominem attacks such as “sleazebag.”

16

Zizka 02.29.04 at 7:13 pm

Huntington and Tom Friedman, as liberal hawks, are somewhat comparable. It’s surprising that conservatives apparently don’t read them though, and to me is more evidence for the anti-intellectualism of the Right.

There’s nothing on the left as wretched as the two Coulter books and the two O’Reilly books. (The more recent list also has a Limbaugh book and the Michael Savage book). Moore tries, but he can’t sink to that level. (Hell, I try, Bartcop tries — the “conservative” bottom is just too far down). Some of the liberal books are shallow and snarky, but as far as I know none are as abysmally stupid, inaccurate, dishonest, and nasty as the six I just mentioned. Nominations?

17

Zizka 02.29.04 at 7:15 pm

I’m wondering whether the “What Went Wrong” stat isn’t corrupted by the fact that there are two books of that title: Bartlett and Steele in America, and Bernard Lewis on Islam.

18

Neel Krishnaswami 02.29.04 at 7:18 pm

I’m under 30, but I’ll second Patrick’s observation — I recall being surprised in the 2000 Presidential election to see Republicans marked as red, since that was different from the elections I remember from my childhood. I think that the colorings of the parties must arise from the fact that the US flag has red, white, and blue, and graphic designers obviously find it irresistable to color unreported districts white, and districts going for a major party one of red or blue. But there’s no particular reason to expect red and blue to map obviously to either party — trying to link red and communism and Democrats is just putting a little too much symbolic weight on that particular signifier.

19

Zizka 02.29.04 at 7:26 pm

Brett Bellmore breaks more ground on the academic domination of the university front. Liberal books are better documented and better-written than conservative books, proving that liberals are elitists.

I’ve thought for a long time that the reason that working reporters tend to be center-left rather than center-right or right is that if you know what’s actually going on — which is what reporters are paid to find out — the Republican position is usually unappealing. Whereas if you live in some medium-sized Southern town and watch Fox, the Republican point of view is very appealing.

Real media domination is at the top, and conservative, of course. Journalists who register Democratic and vote center-left, will not, from a mix of opportunism, neutrality professionalism, and snarky cynicism, write pro-Democratic pieces, and the editors and publishers succeed in defusing the stories that look like they might end up going that way. Kristoff of the Times has recently made himself a poster boy for the defeated media liberal.

20

Senior Administration Official 02.29.04 at 7:29 pm

Sorry jx, but I don’t think Huntington has proven you wrong. No doubt his work has been vindicated to a certain extent by 9/11, but it’s still radically reductionist. There are fault lines within civilizations which he would rather ignore, and does in his revionist and one-sided assessments of history. Furthermore, the diversity of Islamic civilization defies any reduction into simple Wahhabism. Short of that, any attempt to paint all manifestations of Islamic identity as harmful or contrary to Western interests is, in my opinion, intellectually insulting or sleazy.

When he applies this schema of reduction and revision to my friends and neighbors, in ways that echo some of the nastiest and nativist tracts in recent history, it’s just really damn insulting. For example: In this new era, the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America’s traditional identity comes from the immense and continuing immigration from Latin America, especially from Mexico, and the fertility rates of these immigrants compared to black and white American natives. I’m sure you’ve read enough to see the parallel here, it’s positively sleazy.

Likewise, Huntington pushes a ridiculously skewed view of what immigration was like in the past, the oevrwhelming reference is to people who are happy to assimilate, and melt easily into American/White protestant culture (yes, the two are synonymous now). I’ve never seen the historical experience of black or Chinese Americans so glossed over in my life, and purposefully so. Huntington wants to paint a lilly-white portrait of American culture as a harmonious melting pot that never whipped a slave or interned a “jap.” Just as he wants to potray the Russians (synonymous now with all slavs) as the defenders against the overwhelming turkic/causasian onslaught. Let’s see, a half-million dead Chechnyans and a couple hundred Moscovians… that adds up.

Throughout “The Hispanic Challenge,” Huntington uses anecdotal evidence as testimony to the unpatriotic, un-protestant nature of Mexican-Americans. I would have loved to have shown him what California looked like on September 11th, how many of those same threatening Mexican-Americans were flying the flag (or how many are serving in Iraq today). I think he could learn something about culture, our civilization and its own fault lines, maybe then he wouldn’t be so sleazy.

21

Ophelia Benson 02.29.04 at 8:56 pm

“Short of that, any attempt to paint all manifestations of Islamic identity”

Hmm. What does “Islamic identity” mean? Islam is a religion, not an identity. I realize people ‘find’ ‘identity’ (whatever that means) in Islam and other religions, but that doesn’t make the religions themselves identities. Religions are sets of ideas, not identities. If you conflate the two, that tends to help make it impermissible (or at any rate heavily frowned on) to criticise the ideas that those religions consist of. This tendency has its risks.

See Julian Baggini on this in the Guardian the other day.

22

bunny 02.29.04 at 9:06 pm

I believe the comments pointing to the 2000 election as the culprit for the red/blue maps is correct. I don’t think it was done to minimize the size of Democratic wins, but rather to avoid charges of bias. The networks didn’t wan’t to be accused of painting the Dems as “red”. They could safely assign the color to the Republicans and maintain the overall RW&B scheme.

23

anon 02.29.04 at 9:30 pm

Ophelia, that’s not quite accurate. States have electoral votes equal to senators + representatives. Because no state has fewer than two senators, even the tiniest states have at least three votes. So, a presidential vote by someone in Montana is worth just under three times as much as a California vote.

24

Matt 02.29.04 at 9:33 pm

Re: Red/Blue. Another possibility is that the media have it right (although unintentionally)– that the ‘conservatives’, so-called, really are the latter-day Bolsheviks.

25

JX 02.29.04 at 11:25 pm

Re: “The Clash of Civilizations” and Islam

Soon after September 11, while the US was preparing for Afghanistan, there was a sign at a protest in Pakistan that read, “Americans, think! Why you are hated all over the world!” Americans, seemingly in response, began asking themselves, why do they hate us? The Western left answered, they us because of our imperialism. The Bush Administration answered, they hate us because of our freedom.

Neither answer is correct. We were, in fact, asking the wrong question, which can be corrected by the elimination of a single word. The question that should have been asked is, why do they hate?

Akbar Ahmed, former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK, points us in the right direction, “For the first time in history, Islam is in confrontation with all of the major world religions: Judaism (in the Middle East), Christianity (in the Balkans, Chechnya, Nigeria, Sudan and sporadically in the Philippines and Indonesia), Hinduism (in South Asia) — and even Buddhism, after the Taliban blew up the statues in Bamiyan.”

Do Muslim fundamentalists hate Hindus and African animists? They sure do. Because Hindus and Africans are rapacious imperialists? I’d like to someone try and make that case. Muslim fundamentalists hate them for the same reason they hate Americans: because they’re xenophobic religious bigots.

Neither Huntington nor myself level that accusation at all Muslims.

Re: “The Hispanic Challenge”

I don’t have a problem with Huntington’s habit of generalization as long as those generalizations are useful. I find that, in “The Hispanic Challenge,” Huntington overstates his case. I don’t think that the obstacles to the assimilation of Mexicans are insurmountable though I would agree with Huntington that numbers, isolation from the Anglophone mainstream and a multiculturalist (as opposed to assimilationist) ethos do not help matters.

26

Brett Bellmore 02.29.04 at 11:46 pm

“Brett Bellmore breaks more ground on the academic domination of the university front. Liberal books are better documented and better-written than conservative books, proving that liberals are elitists.”

Nah. Smart liberals like to go into fields where you play a lot of word games, while smart conservatives prefer more physical fields, such as engineering. So the smart liberals are more likely to be writing books, which tend to be identifiably liberal, while you can’t look at a bridge and identify it’s politics.

27

Senior Administration Official 02.29.04 at 11:54 pm

I dunno, this bridge sure has ‘politics’ written all over it.

28

Ophelia Benson 03.01.04 at 12:56 am

Anon, sorry, I was unclear, also slightly irrelevant, I was just talking about senators. The fact that each state has two senators; not electoral votes. Should have been talking about them but wasn’t.

29

Ophelia Benson 03.01.04 at 12:56 am

Anon, sorry, I was unclear, also slightly irrelevant, I was just talking about senators. The fact that each state has two senators; not electoral votes. Should have been talking about them but wasn’t.

30

toni wuersch 03.01.04 at 5:54 am

The clustering methodology looks at Amazon “people like you also read” links. I’d guess Amazon publishes links with the most connections to a book (easy hits), so links with fewer connections are censored from view. There are probably more centrist links in links censored by Amazon than in links shown by Amazon. So I’d take the graph with a big grain of salt.

31

Matt McIrvin 03.01.04 at 2:19 pm

Yes, the red/blue coding in modern American political rhetoric is a recent historical accident, probably arising from which coding more (but not all) US TV networks happened to be using on Election Night 2000, when the close and contested election had people talking about the map a lot.

I do think that the American distaste for the radical left has something to do with it, though. Here red is associated not so much with American radical-left parties, which are pretty insignificant today, as with the Soviet Union and Communist states, to the extent that associating red with the Democrats might be seen as a McCarthyite slur; whereas when used as a label for Republicans it just reminds one of Nancy Reagan’s dresses.

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