What I've been reading

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 moderate. 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 (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)

18 thoughts on “What I've been reading

  1. the red banner of Marxism

    I’d be interested if anyone could establish this as correct. While Marxists, or at least communists, of course adopted the red banner as their own, I suspect that the red flag has a longer or at least a different history, and have always thought of it as the workers’ flag, or perhaps the revolutionary workers’ flag, but not the Marxist flag. Does anyone know the origins of the Red Flag?

  2. The red flag has signified blood for a hell of a long time. The famous “jolly roger” is derived from the “jolie rouge”, a red flag that represented the blood that the pirates intended to shed.

    In terms of the labour movement, the red flag was adopted as it represented the blood shed by martyrs to labour’s cause. Apparently it was first used in that context by striking British sailors (which makes the jolly roger link even more interesting):

    The first time the red flag was used politically was in His Britannic Majesty’s fleet in the 18th Century. The sailors struck for better conditions, threw a few of the more repressive officers overboard and raised the red flag to show their defiance. They won the strike and the King capitulated, but later they went back on their word about no reprisals and many of the “ringleaders” were hanged.

    But the red flag even predates this, in the Carribean in the 17th century there was a serious traffic in gold and many many pirates. Amongst the most vicious were the all-female pirate ships (this is true!). When they went to raid a ship they would fly their battle flag. I’m sure everybody has heard of the “Jolly Roger” skull-and-crossbones style pirate flag, but actually their flag was blood-red and Jolly Roger is a derivation of the French “Jolie Rougier”, for these pirates were Red and Beautiful!

    This history clearly predates marxism.

  3. The song “The Red Flag” was written by an Irishman, Jim Connell, in 1889 and was adopted as the anthem of the International Labour Movement shortly thereafter. I hadn’t considered the Pirate flag antecedents that Rob offers – weren’t Pirates kind of robber baron capitalists? – I’d always assumed that it derived from the tricouleur. When the French National Convention adopted a new flag in 1790 they amalgamated the white of the Bourbon Royal standard with the red and blue of the city of Paris. Red became indelibly asociated with the sans-culottes working class people of revolutionary Paris – particularly through the bonnet rouge – or red phrygian cap – that people wore. When the Bourbons were restored in 1814, they also restored the old white royalist banner with fleur de lis. The tricouleur had reappeared by the revolution of 1832 but in 1848 – the Year of Revolutions that swept Europe – it was the Red Flag which flew on the Parisian barricades – and elsewhere. Thereafter it was associated indelibly with the people in struggle. The Paris Commune of 1871 famously adopted the Red Flag in opposition to the Republican government’s (based at Versailles) tricouleur. The rest is history.

  4. The posts above, more or less, explain why social democrats need to read so much – you haven’t “got it”, and so the search continues, new gurus, new theories, thought trying to escapw from itself, except that it is unaware that it is.

    Why the right buy books? (It was an Amazon.com survey) Probably because we are too busy living.

  5. The French Revolution was, I think, the catalyst for widespread adoption of the red flag as the flag of the underclass.

    As to pirates as “robber baron capitalists”, you are undoubtedly correct. The Eureka Stockade was similar — those miners were closer to the middle class than the proletariat, but that hasn’t stopped their flag’s adoption by militant unions. And the path from the pirate’s jolly roger to the naval mutineers’ flag to labour’s banner seems plausible enough.

  6. And, may I add, as a prolific buyer of Amazon.com books, my political bent is unmeasured.

    The cluster analysis therefore asymptotes into stupidity.

  7. That red represents the US Republicans comes from election night coverage. The states that were going Republican (on this network) were shown in red, and Democratic ones in blue. Nacy Regan saw this and wore a red dress to the inageration. Now states that usually go Republican are refered to as red states.

  8. not 100% certain when the red/blue election map distinction started, but the whole thing scaled up into pop culture after the 2000 election which showed a nation clearly polarized, with the coasts going blue (Democrat) and the inland states going red (Republican).

    In 2001 David Brooks wrote a cover article called “One Nation, Slightly Divisible” that played up the Red America / Blue America divide. Until a few moments ago when via Google I realized Brooks was the author, I had assumed this distinction was played up in a very deliberately ironic manner, a swift jab at the red (as in communism) baiting past of the Republican party. But Brooks is actually a conservative, albeit of a nontraditional mold.

    In any case the divide between the US left and marxism is indeed larger then many other places and there are plenty of us who savour the delicious irony of calling the republican’s red…

  9. Applying social network analysis to book sales is a brilliant idea. Before Amazon appeared on the web it would have been extremely difficult.

    If Krebs is right it’s not surprising that liberals and conservatives have trouble talking to each other. They seem to live in different worlds.

    It would be interesting to take it further by looking at the content of the books. For example, what ‘facts’ are consensual in one cluster but contested in the other? And why do people feel they can demolish the arguments of their political opponents when they haven’t actually read any of them?

    Linguist George Lakoff looked at the difference between liberals and conservatives in the US where he analysed the differences in terms of the metaphors each use. Another useful approach might be applying AI researcher Roger Schank’s ‘story telling’model. Schank argues that people understand the world using stories. People who look at narratives (eg Jack Lule on journalism) often argue that there are a very small number of basic story types and that these are re-worked to apply to new situations.

  10. Huntington’s book is best for those kinds of conservatives who think Ann Coulter is a complete waste of time. However, Samuel Huntington is, as I understand, a registered Democrat.

  11. I thought the location of Huntington odd too (hard to see it as a left wing tract!); then read Krebs’own original piece which says(to summarize) that Clash of Civilizations is not a work that seems a natural fit with its links, which might indicate that readers on the left are more open to debate.

    If anyone who has access to the data has the time, I hope they feel moved to examine whether patterns differ between nations (I suspect the Amazon database would contain enough examples of online buyers from other countries to allow a valid analysis to be done) – wouldn’t it be fascinating to ask if eg Australian or British readerships show a similar divide?

  12. Once again we libertarians are ill-served by these dichotomies. While the so-called ‘right’ reading list would be devoured by neo-cons and freepers (Free Republic Republican rank and file) you’d be struggling to find any libertarians or classical liberals who take idiots like Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly seriously. However you’d find many libertarians who are familiar with ‘blowback’ theory and have read Chomsky et al (John Humphreys, where are you?) as well as anti-World Bank tracts. The most intellectual book on the Right list is Hanson’s. On the other hand, what’s Lexus and Olive Tree doing on the left camp? It might as well be a libertarian primer on globalisation.And why is Buchanan classed on the Right when he writes anti-immigration gibberish when so many on the left when he is a protectionist and proponent of using the welfare state to hold back industrial change? Personally I’ve read more of the Blue books – including the ones by Stiglitz, Michael Moore, Huntington, etc

  13. Jason, the individual books aren’t classified. It’s simply that the data divides them into two natural clusters, which you can then give whatever name you like. What the data shows is that someone who reads/recommends Lexus is more likely be a fan of Stupid White Men than of Slander.

    It would certainly be interesting to do an analysis like this, starting from something obviously libertarian like Virginia Postrel’s recent book The Future and its Enemies (not sure if I’ve got the title right there). If you follow the links to Krebs’ papers, I don’t think it would be hard.

    I suspect you’d find that libertarians as a group are being fragmented along Blue-Red lines by the Iraq war and attitudes to Bush more generally, but that’s only a suspicion.

  14. (Just thought I’d note that the black flag of anarchy is apparently derived from piracy, too. Apparently the skull and bones flag was flown initially, to give the other ship a chance to surrender, but when a plain red or black flag was flown there would be no survivors.

  15. Louis Hissink Seems to have missed the point, and himself appears to be an existence proof of Pr Q’s point about the narrow blinkered views of the ideologues.
    The books on centre-the left are not all “Left”, eg Huntington and Friedman, but they are more intellectually reputable.
    This cannot be said for any of the books on the far left or the right, which are all ideological tirades of low intellectual quality.
    The implication is that Centrists are deeper in their analysis and more diverse in their preferences than ideologues of Left or Right.
    A statement which accords with general observation.
    (If Rightists are “too busy living” to do any wide reading, why is it that GW Bush did not once venture overseas before becoming President? It certainly wasnt because he had his nose stuck in a book, or was off fighting wars or making an honest buck.

  16. I can’t claim to have read all or even a majority of the books on the map – but can I argue with Jack about the quality of the books on the far sides in at least one respect. Whether you like it or not (and I know a lot of people hate it) Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent is far from being of low intellectual quality – it is exhaustively researched, cogently argued, provocative in its conclusions, and a minor classic.

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