Even conservatives generally imagine that liberals are more intellectual. In fact a negative spin on that premise is central to the popular American conservative worldview. To summarize: Liberals are tweedy, pipe-smoking professors and their ‘60s-throwback students; earnest unionized schoolteachers; evil, cunning trial lawyers; head-in-the-clouds enviro-goofballs; and so on—all of them marinated in theories out of books and oblivious to the common-sense wisdom of ordinary folks who may not have a Ph.D. in Advanced Tax-Raising but have been through the College of Real Life and know a helluva lot more about how the world works than a bunch of arrogant, elitist brainiacs.
Liberals also tend to think of themselves as smarter. We are enlightened; they slog through darkness. This is arrogance, of course, but it is also naiveté. There is something sweet and innocent about the notion that people disagree with you because they don’t understand the inherent truth of your opinion. Unlike the good old days when lefties read Karl Marx, it may be conservatives today who are more likely to see politics as a clash of material interests. This view can also be a fantasy: It takes real mental energy to persuade yourself that big corporations, devout Christians, wealthy families, and other conservative interest groups are the embattled underdogs in a great power struggle against the tweedy pipe-smokers et al.
And where is the evidence that liberals, for good or ill, are brainier? (“Brainier,” of course, confuses very different concepts like innate intelligence, thoughtfulness, and reading habits. But only some kind of un-American intellectual pedant would raise that objection.) At least one good piece of evidence suggests that tarring liberals as the eggheads around here is a bum rap. As many people, including me, have suddenly noticed, the nonfiction book best-seller list is dominated by explicitly conservative political tracts. By contrast, there isn’t a single overtly liberal political book on the list.
I noticed this in writing last week about Bernard Goldberg’s Bias (about TV news), which is now No. 1. Final Days (about the end of the Clinton administration) by the late Barbara Olson, is No. 7, followed by The No-Spin Zone by Fox-TV spin artist Bill O’Reilly. When Character Was King, a Peggy Noonan love poem to Ronald Reagan, is No. 10, and Pat Buchanan’s latest tract, subtly titled The Death of the West, is No. 11. Five out of 15: not bad. And that’s not even including the memoir of a TV psychic and a biography of a racehorse, both of which smell pretty conservative to me. (Would a liberal horse be named “Seabiscuit”? C’mon.)
Is it possible that conservatives are actually the intellectuals, reading books and playing with ideas and thinking about issues, while liberals are, at least comparatively, the unreflective know-nothings? I canvassed various liberal friends, who reassured me that it is not possible. Could not be possible. Is unthinkable. Look, let’s just not think about it—OK?
They note that most of these conservative best sellers are barely books at all. No sustained argument, but rather sloppy stews of tired anecdote and unsurprising statements about familiar issues. They are bought for comfort and reassurance, not intellectual challenge. That’s probably true, but you can’t beat a horse with no horse. Even the shoddiest of these books—probably O’Reilly’s—is undeniably engaged in ideas, and buying it—let alone reading it—is evidence that the buyer is too. The best-seller list offers no such evidence about liberals.
My friends note that these books tend to be spin-offs of popular conservative TV shows. They point out that liberals don’t have a network of lavishly funded propaganda machines passing as foundations that subsidize the production of ideological books. Liberals don’t have a pet publisher like Regnery to publish tracts masquerading as tomes. And so on. I do believe that the self-interest of people with money tilts American politics in many ways. But let’s face it: You don’t have to be rich to buy a book, and these conservative books are meeting the reality test of the market. For that matter, so are the conservative TV shows. More theories: Liberals read more broadly and deeply, so their intellect infuses the entire catalog, or even all of Western literature, not just a few tawdry best sellers. Or, liberals are buying those conservative books because they have the intellectual integrity to want to test their ideas. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support these hypotheses, or others of increasing desperation.
If the shoe were on the other foot, conservatives would be screaming that book publishers were biased against them. The people in book publishing probably vote Democratic even more heavily than people in the news media. They would measure further left than journalists, on average, by other tests. The fact that conservative books dominate the best-seller list demonstrates how bogus such measures are as evidence of bias.
But—pending a better theory of why not—this literary triumph also suggests that conservatives are now the tweedy pipe-smokers, the ivory tower naifs who never lift their eyes from the printed page to let the chill wind of reality smack them in the face, the … well, you get the idea.
We liberals have more important things to do than read books.