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Red-Blue Roundtable: Valdis Krebs

Krebs_valdis_150_2 For a social network scientist, Amazon is a great sandbox for experimenting and searching for interesting patterns! 

I started mapping book networks in the last century. It was 1998 when an on-line conversation raised my curiosity. Here is the original white paper I wrote about that initial investigation.

After the late Tim Russert brought us the "red states – blue states" meme during the 2000 election I started to investigate patterns of political books. I tried various data collection techniques and found an interesting outcome –- no matter how I collected the data I ended up with highly similar patterns. I use snowball sampling  -- start at a known point and follow the data out 1 or 2 steps. Once the snowball sample is complete, I start to eliminate the noise in the network -– I want to find the strong patterns that multiple overlapping networks provide. When the patterns emerge I usually see two strong clusters, with a minor cluster or scattering of books between the two large components. I only color the components after my network analysis software finds the emergent groups in the data –- then it is obvious which cluster is blue and which is red.

Below is the first political book map I published on my web site. It showed the famous red-blue divide that had become common wisdom by 2003. It was ironic, and a commentary on our situation, that the center book -– holding both sides together -– was titled: What Went Wrong!


The sharp left-right divide remained in place for the 2004 US presidential election. Below are two graphs of the same data. The first graph is the emergent cluster view –- those similarly connected are closer together. This map was done about 1 year after the 2003 map above. They both contain many different books, yet reveal a very similar pattern and a strong divide.


The second view is of the very same data as above. This view was made after the emergent view showed us who was in which cluster. This view accentuates the divide by putting each side into facing arcs and then sorting the books alphabetically for easy reference. As in the diagram above most links are within the cluster with no direct links between clusters, only through 3 intermediary books that ended up spanning the boundary between red and blue.


During the 2008 US presidential election we expected a different pattern to appear. After all both candidates were initially talking of bridging the divide and the 2006 mid-term elections showed us several examples where the strong boundaries were becoming more fuzzy. The blues and the intermediates [often books outside of 2-party mainstream thinking] started to overlap. Ron Paul, Jesse Ventura, and Lou Dobbs were finding more blue readers than red readers. 

The map below was done just before the two major party conventions in 2008. We again see: different books, same pattern. We also now see [based on on current snowball sampling scheme] that the left reads a greater number of books than the right. This map does not indicate volume or quantity of sales. It is very possible that the right buys more books of a more focused set. As a general rule we do not compare quantities of books sold, we just use it a bar to include/exclude books in our starting sample -– a top % of Amazon’s bestsellers are chosen as our starting point. Our maps reflect patterns found in the bestsellers on Amazon –- we do not know what is happening amongst low volume books. Our maps capture the most common patterns.


As we have witnessed, after both national conventions this summer, there is still a strong and vocal divide between red and blue. The war of words and accusations grows louder as election day draws nearer. Arms merchants do well in times of war –- no matter if the ammunition are bullets or words! --Valdis Krebs

See the whole Red-Blue Roundtable


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Just coming back to this thread after several years. One thing that strikes me, which I didn't pay attention to the first time around, is that I've never read any of these books. I would estimate that, during the time of this study, more than half the books I read were books about politics, in one way or another, but not one of them is on this list. It would be interesting to see what sort of pattern emerges for less popular books.

In fiction and other forms of entertainment, it seems to me that the more popular examples tend to be more black-hat/white-hat, with subtler arrangements being generally less popular. This is true whether we're considering movies, books, or even TV talk shows. I wonder if less polemical political books might be less popular specifically because they're less polemical, but therefore also show less of a divided pattern?

The key to understanding the dynamics of networks is reading the emergent patterns of connections that surround an individual, or that are present, within and around, a community of interest. I wanted to see the network in which my book of interest was embedded. Seeing those connections would give me insight into the 'network neighborhood' surrounding this book and hopefully help me make a smarter purchase.

The graph above looks so confusing on my part, good thing support text explains everything and identify myself in blue camp.

Nice post.

All sentences are about a little something or someone. The a little something or another person that the sentence is about is called the subject with the sentence. From your weblog, I see that, and study anything I would like. Thanks for sharing.

We obviously inhabit two completely separate realities. If two groups cannot agree even on basic facts, what hope is there for calls to unity? The divide seems to be getting deeper.

I think Samuel Davis has hit the nail on the head. What's needed is much less discussion or debate about specific issues, and much more discussion of basic facts and, even more importantly, fundamental premises and definitions. People on both sides like to characterize the other side as illogical, but in my experience both sides have (at least in some cases) sound logic, just fundamentally different premises. Only a discussion about fundamental premises can bridge the gap.

To be clear, here are some examples of what I mean by fundamental premises and definitions. What is economic value, and how can it be determined? Where do you stand on the trade off between freedom and security (or do you think there needs to be a trade off)? What is the purpose of government? To what extent does the separation of church and state mean preventing the state from controlling or influencing religious choices and to what extent does it mean keeping religion out of politics? Are people essentially bad or essentially good, and can anything be done about that?

That sort of thing.

Interesting that pro-globalization books like "The World is Flat" and "Lexus and the Olive Tree" appear on the left rather than the right.

I'm also wondering how you chose the starting point. In particular, I'm wondering what the results would have been if you'd chosen a more neutral starting point like "The Age of Turbulence" by Alan Greenspan.

(There's also supposed to be a quite good neutral account of Bush's presidency whose name eludes me.)

I definitely dwell in the Red camp. I have tried to read books sent to me by "Blue" friends, but I find them to be incoherant screeds rife with faulty logic based on false assumptions.

We obviously inhabit two completely separate realities. If two groups cannot agree even on basic facts, what hope is there for calls to unity? The divide seems to be getting deeper.

I definitely dwell in the Red camp. I have tried to read books sent to me by "Blue" friends, but I find them to be incoherant screeds rife with faulty logic based on false assumptions.

We obviously inhabit two completely separate realities. If two groups cannot agree even on basic facts, what hope is there for calls to unity? The divide seems to be getting deeper.

There are some serious and well-researched books on both sides that deserve to be read by all Americans.

Over half the books are no more than rants and finger pointing.

A few points:

1. If the left buys more books than the right, that doesn't necessarily mean they READ more books than the right. I suspect that many books are purchased as status-markers, to sit on shelves unread but so their titles can be perused by visitors to one's home. It seemed to me that during the Bush years, liberals were especially eager to prove their bona fides to each other.

2. It could be that conservatives would buy more books if more were produced that cater to their point of view. The decision-makers in the publishing industry have a leftward tilt, and are more inclined to publish books that reflect their prejudices and assumptions.

3. When a party is out of power, party adherents tend to be more charged up, more inclined to consume literature (books, magazines, etc.) that attack the other side and reaffirm their beliefs. I predict we will see a corresponding rise in right-leaning critical literature during the Obama years.

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