Can America’s Two Tribes Learn to Live Together?

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Experiencing cultural anxiety. Photo: Getty Images

Nearly everyone writing about politics today seems anxious about tribalism. Although trends toward greater political polarization have been in place for decades, the chaos of the Trump era has made the country’s divisions seem starker and more dangerous than at any time since at least the 1960s. And no wonder: Geographical mobility, racial and ideological sorting along party lines, and the segmentation of media mean that for many Americans, their political opponents are no longer friends and neighbors but a nation of hostile foreigners with whom they happen to share a country — they look and speak differently, live in different places, and cling to strange and potentially malevolent beliefs with all the irrational fervor of a doomsday cult. More literal forms of tribalism are on full display as well: Trump ran and won as, among other things, a white racial demagogue who mocked and insulted minorities on his way to the White House; while the left, as it has grown more diverse, has become accustomed to periodic spasms of hostility and mutual recrimination among its various minority groups and their white allies. Perhaps the most bitter of all contemporary political battles — and a Trump favorite — is immigration, which behind the ideological posturing is a referendum on whose tribe will control the country’s demographic future.

Making sense of this mess is the task set by Amy Chua in her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, published in February. Chua, a law professor at Yale, is most famous for her 2011 book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother — a paean to authoritarian Asian parenting — but she has a long history of publishing unorthodox books on race, ethnicity, and nationalism. Her 2003 book, World on Fire, argued that the combination of free markets and democracy in diverse societies often leads to ethnic conflict, as certain “market-dominant minorities” become disproportionately wealthy and provoke majoritarian backlash. And her 2014 book, The Triple Package, co-authored with husband Jed Rubenfeld, argued that three cultural traits — insecurity, impulse control, and a feeling of superiority — are the secret to success in America (though a subsequent study suggests otherwise). Moreover, Chua herself knows something about just how bad ethnic relations can get. Her family are ethnic Chinese from the Philippines, members of a market-dominant minority that accounts for a little under 2 percent of the population but controls perhaps 70 percent of the economy. Such stark inequality tends to undermine ethnic harmony. In 1994, Chua’s 58-year-old aunt, still living in Manila, was stabbed to death with a butcher’s knife by her ethnic Filipino chauffeur, an episode Chua recounts in the opening of World on Fire. The belief that diversity inevitably leads to universal brotherhood is not an illusion to which she is likely to be inclined.

The central conceit of Political Tribes is that Americans, and especially American elites, are afflicted by a blindness to the importance of tribalism and group identity, of which ethnic and racial identity are but two particularly stubborn examples. The United States is what Chua calls a “super-group,” which means that unlike the ethnic nations of Europe, it provides its citizens with an overarching national identity without asking them to abandon their more particular and specific identities — one can still be a Southerner or a Korean-American without being any less of an American. Because the United States has proved successful in absorbing people from so many different backgrounds, the American political elite has, since the mid-20th century at least, tended to look on group identity as a kind of irrational atavism. Given the opportunity, they believe that most people, whether they live in Baghdad or Kansas City, will jump at the opportunity to shed their restrictive, premodern identities and become citizens of liberal-democratic states, with political preferences defined by individual interests and ideology. If it works in New Haven, why wouldn’t it work around the world?

For Chua, this idealism is both inspiring and completely false. People care very much about their group identity, tribalism is a part of our evolved psychology that cannot be educated away, and history is full of evidence that groups — whether ethnic, racial, religious, or political — are more than happy to dehumanize, exploit, and murder one another at the drop of a hat; indeed, we may take positive pleasure in watching members of our out-group suffer. Conflict becomes especially likely in conditions of extreme between-group inequality and in political systems that foreground group difference rather than providing a basis for common identity and solidarity — conditions that apply to the United States today, and which help to explain the country’s worsening partisan and racial divides. Conflict is not inevitable, and Chua is optimistic that America can find a way out of the downward spiral into tribalism. But doing so requires taking group feeling seriously, lest we blindly march down the road to Yugoslavia.

Much of the first half of Political Tribes is dedicated to showing how the American elite’s group blindness has crippled U.S. foreign policy in far-flung parts of the world. In Vietnam, for instance, American policymakers interpreted the war as a Cold War ideological conflict between communism and capitalism. Yet there was a hidden ethnic dimension that undermined U.S. efforts to prop up the South. South Vietnam, like the Philippines and many other Southeast Asian countries, had a private economy dominated by a tiny Chinese minority called the Hoa. This was a source of great resentment for ethnic Vietnamese, whose own national identity had been defined by centuries of resistance to Chinese imperialism. To many Vietnamese, “capitalism” was code for exploitation at the hands of the Hoa, and “communism” a dog-whistle for Vietnamese ethnic nationalism; predictably, the latter proved more popular. Subsequent chapters focus on Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S. ignorance of sectarian and tribal divisions spelled disaster for postwar reconstruction efforts. Washington needed local allies who opposed the regime, and these often came from formerly subordinated groups eager to take revenge on their old masters. Meanwhile, American troops were inevitably seen by formerly dominant groups — the Pahstun in Afghanistan and the Sunni Arabs in Iraq — as foreign patrons of their ethnic rivals, pushing them into extremist sectarian movements such as the Taliban and ISIS. Referring to Pashtun intransigence, Chua lays out what she calls a “cardinal rule of tribal politics: once in power, groups do not give up their dominance easily.” It’s a rule that applies to the United States as well.

While the bulk of Political Tribes’ page count is taken up by examples drawn from around the world, the real focus of Chua’s book is contemporary American tribalism. The short version of the problem is, as she writes, that “race has split America’s poor, and class has split America’s whites.”

Whites, that is, have begun to separate more and more cleanly into two tribes defined largely along class, educational, and increasingly, partisan lines. (There are also, though Chua doesn’t mention them, subterranean ethnic divisions: Germans, Italians, and “Americans” — usually a proxy for Scots-Irish — were more likely than other whites to vote for Trump.) Better-educated whites, who dominate the country’s political and cultural institutions and are the main beneficiaries of the globalized economy, have adopted as their “tribal” identity a sort of post-national cosmopolitanism, defined against what they regard as the provincial culture of poor whites. Meanwhile, less-educated whites have defined their tribal identity in opposition to the Establishment, which they perceive as a distant, occupying foreign power, indifferent to their interests and intent on elevating minorities and foreigners to pride of place within “their” country. Donald Trump was their tribune, and his election has led to an omnidirectional escalation of hostility and mistrust. Progressive whites see him as a monstrous goon elected through appeals to America’s worst impulses; poor whites identify with his vulgarity and open contempt for elite mores; and minorities see in him the face of a terrifying white revanchism that has long bubbled under the surface of post-civil-rights America. Every group feels it is under attack, causing them all to “close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.”

This analysis is not exactly new — we know, for instance, that poor whites feel alienated from the “coastal elite” and that minorities fear the backlash of poor whites. Much of the post-2016 debate on the left, for instance, has concerned the extent to which the Democratic Party should tone down its focus on identity politics in order to make inroads with working-class whites. Where Chua innovates is in applying her ethnic- and tribal-based lens specifically to the transformations of white America over the past few decades, a difficult task made easier by considering the country’s racial neuroses as a specific case of a global problem. People everywhere are attached to their own group cultures, and dominant groups don’t like to give up their dominance. This is as true of America’s whites, Chua argues, as it is of Pahstuns in Afghanistan. And thanks to the combined effects of immigration and fertility, it seems inevitable that American whites will lose their majority status sometime around the middle of the current century. More cosmopolitan whites tend to view this prospect with indifference or even excitement, but for many others it is a source of deep anxiety, made worse by the sense that they and their culture — which they view as identical with American culture writ large — are increasingly objects of scorn and vilification in the eyes of the progressive coalition. (Fifty-two percent of Trump supporters, Chua notes, feel like “strangers in their own land.”) The sense that they are rapidly losing both demographic weight and cultural influence to people who despise them is leading these whites to adopt what Chua calls “ethnonationalism lite” — a form of white identity politics that, while officially colorblind, would like to return to an era of implicit white cultural hegemony. It is not that these whites would like for minorities to be expelled or oppressed, but they would like them to quit complaining so much.

Something like this narrative has been repeated countless times in analyses of the 2016 election, but any recognition that cultural anxiety drove white Trump support is typically taken as proof that these voters were motivated by racism, or “racial resentment,” to use the social-science term of art. From Chua’s perspective, however, they are simply doing what you would expect most groups in most places to do most of the time: hold on to whatever power they have, an impulse that becomes all the more desperate the more tenuous that hold on power becomes. Chua does not intend this as an excuse for white racism, and she is emphatic that ethnonationalism lite is not a viable way forward for an increasingly diverse country — minorities are not going back in the closet, so to speak. But she is critical of those on the left who regard even a limited empathy with this perspective as tantamount to compromising with evil, and suggests that the more aggressive forms of left-wing identity politics, which move from demands for equality to the blanket demonization of American society, tend to exacerbate tribal sentiment on both sides of the country’s racial divide. A less tribal future will likely require talking whites off the identitarian cliff by addressing at least some of their cultural anxieties — without, however, indulging their uglier impulses.

Ultimately, Chua believes that the way forward is dialogue between America’s hostile camps, and the strengthening of a superordinate American identity capable of acknowledging the country’s past sins while elevating the aspects of history that everyone can believe in — recognizing, for instance, that the Constitution was written by white male slaveholders, but that the principles enshrined in it can fit all people. (The musical Hamilton, she suggests, is evidence of a viable American nationalism.) It’s a nice thought, as far as it goes, but it feels curiously underpowered after pages and pages on human tribal psychology and examples of the universal tendency to fear and mistrust out-groups. It is true, for example, that “with every wave of immigration in the past, American freedom and openness have triumphed” over the sorts of nativist fears we see today. Yet the great wave of European immigrants that came before 1924 was only forged into the cohesive American nation of the 1950s by decades of reduced migration, an intensely assimilationist public culture (consider the brutal suppression of German language and culture during World War I), a political economy based on mass male factory employment, and, perhaps most importantly, the shared experience of national mobilization in World War II. Even then, it was premised on the exclusion of black people.

In short, it was not simply “freedom and openness” that created a somewhat unified American identity — one in which Italians and Irish and Jews could become simply “whites” — but tectonic cultural and material forces and decades of shared historical experience. We have some forces working in that direction today — intermarriage is likely to slowly erode racial distinctions — but others are working toward the opposite: Polls, for instance, show decreasing approval of cross-partisan marriage, dating apps are making it easier to filter out political rivals, and party and ideology are becoming more and more important facets of personal identity. Our tribes are no longer unified by a shared national myth or religion, and absent some convenient external enemy like Nazi Germany, for which Putin’s Russia and Islamic terrorism are poor substitutes, the impulse to exclude is mostly exercised against other Americans. Some speak of a new civil war. That’s an exaggeration, probably. But it does suggest that without more pushing us together than good will and an open mind, Hamilton alone won’t cut it.

Can America’s Two Tribes Learn to Live Together?