Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
304 ppg., Penguin Press (February 2018). $28.00
“Humans are tribal.” Thus begins the insightful book Political Tribes, written by Amy Chua. The premise of the book is that we all cling to our tribes, whether they’re familial, political, ideological, or racial/ethnic. That’s perfectly natural for us as human beings, but that tends to create conflict, especially when we don’t understand how tribes work.
Chua begins with a perfect example: during the Vietnam conflict, U.S. leaders failed to understand the tribal dynamics of the country. Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese populace, just one percent of the country, controlled 70-80 percent of Vietnam’s commercial wealth. Many Vietnamese became naturally resentful of capitalist America and “every procapitalist step [the U.S.] took in Vietnam was guaranteed to inflame popular resentment”.
The book outlines the history of tribal lines among race and class in several locations throughout the world: Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, and the United States, among others. Particularly in the U.S., Chua warns that tribalism can be inflamed through the democratic style of governance as tribes compete for control, power, and influence. The Western values of free markets, private property, and equal protection under the law (in theory) enable individual competition for resources without having to become a member of a tribe. It’s this collective approach to resources, be it wealth, raw materials, or power, that creates tribal conflict; individualism prevents the necessity competition as a tribe. And that’s partly what’s made the West so great — the promotion of the individual, endowed with unalienable rights, to pursue Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
But identity politics — political, racial/ethnic, or ideological tribalism — does the opposite. Identity politics forces individuals to group up into tribes as well, and that’s what Chua describes when addressing the Trump phenomenon. The Left were so cocooned into their thinking that the Right would not pursue their own tribalism that they missed the white, anti-establishment identity movement that got Trump elected.
“But what these elites don’t see is how their tribal cosmopolitanism is. For well-educated, well-traveled Americans, cosmopolitanism is its own highly exclusionary clan, with clear out-group members and bogeymen–in this case, the flag-waiving bumpkins.”
Chua does a very good job of explaining this new white tribalism movement by striking at its root cause: anti-white tribalism. “When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.” The concepts of cultural appropriation, white privilege, the “browning of America”, and microaggressions are all targeted towards whites. According to Chua, two-thirds of white working-class Americans and 29 percent of black Americans believe “that discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities”. It’s foolish to believe that, when attacked, whites would not also tribe up, yet that’s exactly what’s happening and that’s part of how Trump was elected. It’s no wonder that Chua bemoans the state of politics today, writing that the U.S. is “in a perilous new situation”. Tribes competing against each other over the same finite resources engenders resentment and hatred, and historically leads to conflict.
Past race and ethnicity, America has other forms of tribalism. Street gangs, religious groups, “NASCAR Nation”, and the class divide among Whites are among several others. More than anything, what Political Tribes has done for me is reaffirm that America is already Balkanized culturally. We aren’t “two Americas”, we’re four or five or maybe more Americas. But one could say the same at just about any time during American history. Our 13 colonies were three distinct cultures: New England, Middle, and Southern colonies were divided at least by religion and slavery, and even then colonists were later divided into Patriots and Loyalists. During the War of Northern Aggression, similarly, not only was the nation split between slave-holding and non-slave states, but in the South a handful of “free states” existed, like Jones County, Mississippi and Winston County, Alabama (where the locals seceded from the state and murdered Confederate soldiers). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish, Italian, and other European immigrant groups were treated poorly, and formed their own areas (“Little Italy”) and joined their own ethnic tribes (as depicted in the film Gangs of New York, which has some basis in historical fact). In fact, the history of America is rife with domestic conflict: settlers versus natives, settlers versus settlers, nation versus nation, immigrants versus natives, and so on. Jim Crow-era violence, black radical violence of the 60s and 70s, anti-war violence; even more contemporary history is shaped by violence. Domestic conflict is the norm of American history, not the exception.
So after a period of relative peace during the late 20th and into the 21st century, we shouldn’t be surprised to be standing on the precipice of another period of domestic conflict. Given the nation’s fiscal outlook, the likelihood of another recession, and the increased displacement of American workers due to artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics, there’s little reason to not to expect more tribalism as we’re forced to compete against each other for opportunity and resources.
I recommend Political Tribes to anyone interested in understanding the various factions in America. Perhaps the book gives you insight into the tribes of your own area and a starting point to begin identifying potential fault lines. Amy Chua fairly represents the situation in America. And although the solution is rather bland and unimaginative — “we need to view one another as fellow Americans” — the book does present America’s fault lines clearly and concisely. At just over 200 pages of text and about 100 pages of notes, it’s a simple and straightforward weekend read.
Always Out Front,
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