Mapping Out American Political Writing with a Little Help from Amazon
The folks at Amazon have created an “Election Heat Map” that indicates trends in the purchase of political books. In line with the practice of TV networks on election night, states are labeled “red” or “blue” depending on what sorts of books are selling more. “We classify books as red or blue if they have a political leaning made evident in book promotion material and/or customer classification, such as tags. We compute percentages, updated daily, for each state and the US by comparing the 250 best-selling blue books during the time period against the 250 best-selling red books during the same time period, including new book launches.” Although the methodology leaves a lot to be desired, the results are roughly in line with those of social scientists who have mapped out networks of books based on the “people who bought this also bought” function and found little overlap between, roughly speaking, a “liberal” wing and a “conservative” one. I say roughly speaking because, in that data, as in the current “heat map,” the “liberal” side is quite heterogeneous, in stark contrast to the conservative side. Here I will describe the composition of “blue book” and “red book” America. The lists shift from hour to hour, but are fairly consistent in substance. Similarly, while I only look at the top twenty, a glance at the top hundred, which Amazon keeps track of, shows the same patterns.
First, on the blue side, there is a very wide range of political opinion, which can be loosely grouped into several categories. There are radicals, including Howard Zinn, Michelle Alexander, Chris Hedges, and James Loewen. The radicals are extremely pessimistic about the existing political class, and often believe that core American ideals themselves constitute part of the problem. They typically implore readers to build social movements to push for radical change. It should be noted that the radicals have themselves been critiqued from the left by various marxists, anarchists, and black nationalists. But this hard left position has no presence on the Amazon list, in line with its weakness both in producing widely read books and in making an impact on American public life.
Next to the radicals would be such left liberals as Barbara Ehrenreich, Donald Bartlett and Joseph Steele, and Joseph Stiglitz.They tend to identify problems whose size and scope is more manageable than those mapped out by the radicals. Depending on their mood, they may call on people to engage in protest, or they may attempt to shame liberal politicians into acting in a more progressive manner.
A little to their right are those aligned with the Obama administration. Only one book on the list explicitly defends the administration of Barack Obama: Michael Grunwald’s “The New New Deal,” which celebrates the stimulus as an important piece of legislation. But Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” which basically argues that the Republicans have lost their minds, might be taken as a covert defense.
Then there are several authors that can’t really be classified as liberal, at least in the way that term is used in the U.S., to mean “left of center.” Thomas Friedman is loathed not only by radicals, but also by left liberals like Wonkette. Richard Dawkins’ argument for atheism, like those of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, is also an argument for supporting Anglo-American wars in the Middle East. And Jonathan Haidt, who tries offers a psychological explanation for why people are divided about religion and politics, usually sounds more sympathetic to the conservative side of that divide when discussing his work.
A number of other books– “The Other Wes Moore,” “Globalization: A Very Short Introduction,” “The Passage of Power,” and “The Travels of A T-Shirt in the Global Economy“–I find difficult to classify without more information. I suspect that they can all be loosely described as liberal, in the sense that they believe sober examination of the world can be followed up with intelligent reforms that make things a little better for the worst off. Many of these books, as well as some of the others described above, such as “Nickel and Dimed” and “Lies My Teacher Told Me” are on the list because they are currently being purchased by college or high school students who they have been assigned to. This in itself, I think is telling. A good chunk of the market for liberal and radical books (loosely defined) is the captive market of students. While radicals have little presence in the mass media, their ideas are shared in academia.
So “blue books” range from radicals to the center-right world of Friedman and Haidt. In this sense, it is a different spectrum from that offered by mainstream media like The New York Times or NPR, which rarely includes radicals, and only sometimes offer space to left liberals. It does seem to capture the range of opinion among the college educated middle class in the U.S. What about the “red” side of the equation?
The most popular category on the red side is denunciations of Obama, most paranoid rather than illuminating. Paul Kengor warns us that Obama’s “mentor,” Frank Marshall Davis, was a communist. In fact, Obama condescended and dismissed Davis in his autobiography. Dinesh D’Souza locates the roots of Obama’s “rage” (huh?) in the anti-colonial writings of his father. Ed Klein worries about, among other things, Michelle Obama’s “inordinate” power over her husband. None of these books are remotely serious, even allowing that they were quickly written, edited and published to be timely. It is inconceivable that a scholar twenty years from now will consult any of them to learn about the Obama administration.
The only other significant category of books among the red ones are manifestos exulting economic freedom for the wealthy by the likes of Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Friedrich Von Hayek. It is possible that Friedman and Von Hayek are selling primarily to students, although the economics discipline is actually a little to the left of their ideology, for the most part.
And that is about it, although a book about the killing of Abraham Lincoln, “by Bill O’Reilly” (yeah right–at least Martin Dugard, likely responsible for the entire text, is also acknowledged on the cover) is on the list. Not present in the red top twenty, and only minimally present in the top 100, are any books that address the position of the U.S. in the world today, actual policy options politicians are considering, accounts of social life in the U.S., indeed anything besides paranoia about the Black president and restatements of libertarian ideology.
As mentioned, Amazon’s methodology leaves something to be desired here, but the pattern described above is in line with efforts to more rigorously map buying patterns based on the “people who bought this also bought..” function. The pattern is not that blue books constitute left/liberal perspectives, while red books offer conservative views. Instead, blue books network together heterogeneous books ranging from the radical left to the center right, while red books do little besides reiterate far right talking points and libertarian ideology. In the map linked in this paragraph, from 2008, the only exception on the red side is Saul Alinsky’s community organizing handbook, “Rules for Radicals,” which was often discussed on Fox News. The pattern lends some credence to the Ornstein and Mann position noted above, that the U.S. political divide is increasingly a split between those with some grounding in reality and a purely delusional worldview. But it should also be noted that blue books do not map onto the Democratic Party in any simple way. Radicals have a real presence here, while their numbers among elected officials are miniscule. This is also suggestive of larger trends, namely the agonized debate among progressives every four (or even two) years about whether to vote for the Democrats or not. The heat map accurately indicates that the radicals are part of a public debate that includes mainstream Democrats and even the center-right. At the same time, the failure of the radicals, and even left liberals, to make a political impact is manifest. Hence the torment about staying in the Democrats or leaving. Finally, we should note that notwithstanding the ideological homogeneity of red books, and the larger numbers of blue books which students are forced to purchase, Amazon indicates that red is outselling blue by a wide margin, 57% to 43%. This likely has a lot to do with the impact of Fox News, which promotes these books with a single mindedness not matched by any blue force, including MSNBC. It may also be the case that a few right wing books sell a lot, while many liberal/left books sell in moderate amounts. It is disturbing nonetheless.
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