Study shows books can bring Republicans and Democrats together

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Political rhetoric has never been more polarized but getting together to discuss a good book may be the answer, or so research into literary behavior suggests

This falls election offers a poignant reminder of how polarized our political rhetoric has become. Sundays debate was no exception. The mutual contempt on display was unquestionable. In this, the candidates felt like all-too-vivid proxies for the electorate at large.

It seems as if every day we are reminded of the ways some Americans hold strongly opposing views on a variety of issues. A host of academic studies has reinforced this belief, revealing one finding after another on just how differently liberals and conservatives think. A vicious circle is at work today in which reporting on political polarization only creates an even more entrenched sense of the problem. How, many of us are starting to ask, are we ever going to get out of this?

This past year we began a project to try to reverse this tendency. Using the techniques of big data, we wanted to see if there were spaces where Republicans and Democrats occupied common ground. Rather than look for more divisiveness clearly an easy find we set ourselves the more challenging task of trying to discover what we have in common as a culture.

The linguist Roman Jakobson once contrasted political conventions with literary ones: the problem with political conventions, he said, is that they encourage people to mindlessly agree with slogans, which in turn, create unnecessary antagonism between different groups of people.

Literary conventions, on the other hand, where individuals get together to read and talk about books, were different. Unlike slogans and speeches, literature encourages people to discuss their differences in more thoughtful and flexible ways. We might disagree on a number of issues, but literature helps create a space where we can compromise.

Toni Morrison: a book like Beloved enables readers with differing political beliefs to debate a subject like slavery. Photograph: Caroll Taveras (commissioned)

As professors of literature, we are constantly reminded of the ways that literature can provide material where readers engage in meaningful debate about tough ideas. We see it time and again in our classrooms, when two students who hold divergent political beliefs find a way to debate a difficult topic such as racism through a discussion of Toni Morrisons Beloved or the Holocaust through a reading of WG Sebalds The Emigrants. Over time, weve maintained a belief that Jakobsons idea of literary conventions still exists, at least in the classroom.

But what about in the wider world? Conventional wisdom, supported by a spate of recent studies, tells us that literature and books are precisely the things that divide conservatives and liberals: conservatives are illiterate while liberals are well read. Could we find evidence to the contrary?

To answer this question, we decided to study readers behavior through the website Goodreads is a website owned by Amazon where users can list books they have read or would like to read, post reviews, and carry out discussions. Currently, the website has 55 million users who have posted reviews, annotations, or discussions of over 10m books. It represents a vibrant literary convention.

We began by identifying readers political affiliation by seeing if they had positively rated one or more books from a hand-curated list of highly partisan writing titles like James Carvilles Its the Middle Class, Stupid! or Paul Krugmans End This Depression Now! on the left and Glenn Becks Cowards, Ann Coulters Demonic, or Pat Buchanans Suicide of a Superpower on the right, to name a few of the 200 titles we used. These are books that are unabashedly written to divide peoples sentiments on the left and right. If you liked a book from the left group (meaning you rated it three stars or higher) then you were labeled a liberal reader, and if you liked a book from the right group, you were labeled a conservative reader. This gave us a total of 27,852 readers.

Next, we catalogued all of the books that appeared on our conservative reader bookshelves and labeled them as conservative, and vice versa. We only focused on books labeled fiction or literature because we wanted to test our belief in Jakobsons idea of the literary convention. This gave us just under 3,000 books that appeared on a minimum of 100 readers bookshelves (out of several hundred thousand books overall). Finally, we conducted a statistical test to find out which books were more likely to be on one group of readers shelves than the other.

Albert Camus smoking a cigarette on the balcony outside his publishing firms office. Photograph: Loomis Dean/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

The initial results tended to confirm our worst stereotypes. (Readers can explore the full lists here). Conservatives like to read low-brow genre fiction such as novels by John Grisham and Tom Clancy, as well as recent book-to-movie titles, such as The Maze Runner, while liberals enjoy reading more demanding, high-brow novels that win prizes, such as Jennifer Egans A Visit from the Goon Squad, Morrisons Beloved, as well as European classics like The Outsider by Albert Camus, which are often taught at colleges. These lists support polarizing stereotypes that pit sophisticated readers of difficult prose (liberals) against simple-minded readers of formulaic fiction (conservatives).

Yet, when we dug deeper we also found a sizable set of books that appeared on both types of readers shelves in roughly equal amounts. As we suspected, it wasnt all polarization and difference. We identify these books as bridge books because they bridge the gap between right and left. These are books that liberals and conservatives both like to read.

In a sense, these books point to some kind of shared culture. We were surprised to find more than 400 of them, many of which were some of the most popular in our data set: To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Lord of the Flies, but also The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Game of Thrones (#1), The Lovely Bones and Bridget Joness Diary. The space of cultural compromise was larger than we expected, but also more diverse. It contained classics like Romeo and Juliet and Jane Eyre, but also highly popular contemporary books like World War Z (the top 100 are listed here).

Just skimming these lists, though, one might conclude that they are basically random or arbitrary. After all, both Democrats and Republicans like Taylor Swift. That doesnt mean that Swifts songs possess some profound, underlying capacity for political reconciliation. For these books to have any meaning, they must together convey some coherent message or set of ideas. Only then can we know that they provide a key to the forms of cultural expression that hold us together rather than drive us apart.

We turned to new techniques in the field of text analytics to better understand what might distinguish the content of non-partisan books from their more partisan kin in other words, to figure out what makes them special. Our tests revealed a few interesting bits of insight, such as non-partisan books tend to have more first person pronouns, and they talk considerably less about themes like money or work. But overall, we couldnt find a signal that was particularly strong or revealing.

Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender in Jane Eyre, a book that unites both liberals and conservatives. Photograph: Allstar/BBC Films

Only when we turned to analyzing how readers talked about these books did we discover some intriguing results. That is, we wanted to know not only whether there were differences in the content of non-partisan books, but also whether they elicit different reactions on the part of readers through the content of their reviews. What we found was surprising: when both conservative and liberal readers talk about bridge books instead of their usual partisan books, they change their way of talking and thinking in significant ways. They use less negative or hateful language. They use more words related to cognitive insight, such as admit and explain. In short, what is special about these books is that they make readers who otherwise have strong political dispositions become less tribal. When people read these books, they embrace a more tolerant worldview.

But our most startling result was this: it was conservative not liberal readers who are most active in producing this space of cultural compromise. When discussing our bridge books, conservatives used more positive emotions than liberals, something that runs counter to the angry white man thesis of conservative voters. Conservative readers, at least on Goodreads, are more generous when talking about the same books as their liberal counterparts. They tend to be less heated or emotional, and based on an analysis of grammar, they tend to formulate more complex thoughts. If our bridge books are making right- and leftwing readers less extreme in their language and worldviews, it is conservatives who are doing the work. This finding runs strongly opposite to todays conventional wisdom. A series of studies, reported widely in the media, claim that polarization is asymmetric, and Republicans are to blame. If there is an imagined villain in todays crisis of political polarization, it would be the right.

These are counterintuitive results that should give us pause. Literature and books, long seen to be the thing that drives Republicans and Democrats apart, can be a site of political reconciliation. And there exists a particular group of books that facilitate this process. Were not sure what makes this group of books special, but we do know that readers see something special in them, and these books are changing how they talk about ideas and how they talk to other people. Most importantly, these results should change how we distribute the blame for polarization. Liberals, who have long derided the reading habits and ideological extremism of the right, might have something to learn.

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