Libs Love Books--Or Do They?

Cartoon of hippy reading a book. Click for larger imageLiberals around the country are smiling today at an Associated Press poll and story circulating on the web claiming that conservatives read less than liberals, none more so than former Colorado Democratic congresswoman Pat Schroeder who despite being president of the American Association of Publishers decided she felt like insulting half of her potential reading audience by dusting off an old liberal refrain:

"The Karl Roves of the world have built a generation that just wants a couple slogans: 'No, don't raise my taxes, no new taxes,' [...] It's pretty hard to write a book saying, 'No new taxes, no new taxes, no new taxes' on every page. [...] She said liberals tend to be policy wonks who "can't say anything in less than paragraphs. We really want the whole picture, want to peel the onion."

It's all too familiar and really kind of sad since this poll is hardly conclusive (more on that in a minute). For all their talk about being "regular people," the left sure loves calling their fellow citizens stupid and moronic. You'd think that after employing this method for so long—think Reagan-as-idiot-savant, rationalizing the radio failure of Mario Cuomo, Air America, etc.—that the left would realize their elitist and snobbish attitude and either drop it or drop the whole "party of the people" nonsense. After all, how can you be for the common man if you regard him as an ignorant dolt?

That aside, the poll that Schroeder touts is hardly meaningful, first since the data for it are not available online (although the questions and preliminary data are). That ought to give pause to anyone trying to interpret this poll who is not an employee of pollster Ipsos or the Associated Press, especially since the AP reports about the survey are similarly reticent in revealing the different reading habits by region, age, political party, race, income, education level, etc.

The poll's sample size is important, too, when you consider that only 1,000 adults were polled. That means that Ipsos is making generalizations about hundreds of millions of people nationwide based on 340 conservatives and 250 liberals (34 percent of respondents self-identified as conservative while 25 percent said they were liberal).

Even if it could be proven, however, that liberals read books more than conservatives and that the AP-Ipsos poll is correct in pointing this out, it's interesting that both media companies chose to focus on this than who does not read books. Why is it that AP reporter Alan Fram omits political background from his description of those who don't read?

Who are the 27 percent of people the AP-Ipsos poll found hadn't read a single book this year? Nearly a third of men and a quarter of women fit that category. They tend to be older, less educated, lower income, minorities, from rural areas and less religious.

Minus the rural part, doesn't that sound like a general description of the average Democrat? It sure does to me. It's more than a little curious why Fram didn't give a political breakdown of the non-readers.

A further point against giving too much credence to this meme is that in times when Republicans hold the White House, left-wing publications inevitably enjoy greater popularity given that politics is more about stopping the "bad guy" than rooting for the home team. That same disparity exists for conservative publications as well. During the Clinton years conservative journals enjoyed huge numbers. Political books are similarly affected by presidential trends. Might these facts have skewed the Ipsos numbers? I'd say it's a virtual certainty.

There's more that could be said to question this poll but the reasons above should more than dispel any assumptions from eager-to-gloat liberals. Even if Ipsos is correct in saying that liberals read more books, it's also likely saying that liberals are more likely not to read at all. Too bad it took an "ignorant" libertarian conservative to point them out.

Update 18:01. Another area where the Ipsos poll is questionable is in the age breakdown. Young people are generally known as more liberal and if that is true, could the fact that they are also more likely to be students forced to read books be skewing the liberal numbers? A very likely possibility.

Update 19:56. Jonah Goldberg makes a number of additional worthy criticisms of Schroeder's pronouncement. Here's a few:

I should also say, that Schroeder's comments contradict my personal impressions and experience, but of course there's a selection bias problem here. I know more conservative policy wonks than liberal ones. I can't think of any prominent conservatives who brag about not reading books, I can think of at least two prominent liberals who are at least somewhat boastful on this score: Michael Kinsley and Markos Moulitsas. Kinsley is famous for shunning books in favor of magazine articles. He even boasted that he didn't read all — or even most — of the books that were nominated for a National Book Award, even though he was a judge on the panel. I think Kinsley is a special case, because whatever disagreements I have with him, he is brilliant and can get away without reading a lot of books (though he was in the wrong on the Book Award thing). As for Moulitsas, when Hunter S. Thompson died he confessed , “One of my dirty little secrets — I read very few books. In fact, the only time I read books is when I'm traveling, at the airport and on a plane. There are only two authors I have ever gone out of my way to read everything they've written — Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." Now, that hasn't made him less effective, and good for him for admitting it, but it does run counter to Schroeder's bowl-stewing inanity. (My own dirty little secret: I'm a terrible book nibbler, reading the introductions and then grazing from the tasting menu called the index).

The post I put up last night by Michael Tomasky also runs against the spirit of Schroeder's comments. He observed — from a better vantage than mine — that liberal politicians don't read seriously any more.

And that raises another interesting point. Self-described liberals may read more books, but what kind of books? Reading most of the books I see in the front sections of bookstores hardly qualify liberals or conservatives as policy wonks with a gift for intellectual nuance and a yearning for deep understanding. "Ohhh...he's a scholar, he read You Can Run But You Can't Hide by Duane Chapman" is not a sentence I expect to hear soon — or often.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013