American politics is becoming increasingly tribal. The camps are well known: Democrats vs. Republicans, globalists vs. nationalists, elites vs. the working class, Occupy Wall Street vs. the Tea Party, “oppressor” vs. “oppressed,” etc. Tribalism may seem like a recent phenomenon, but, as Yale Professor Amy Chua argues in her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, it’s part of human nature.
Americans aren’t used to thinking of themselves as tribal. That’s because there’s something about the American idea and being American that is distinctly un-tribal. Chua argues that America has become something more than a tribe: a “super-group…a group in which membership is open to individuals of any background but that at the same time binds its members together with a strong, overarching, group-transcending collective identity.” For America, that identity isn’t about ancestry, but about “a connection to the land, of being bound by a shared constitution.”
With the Declaration of Independence, birthright citizenship, Brown v. Board of Education, the end of the national-origin quota system for immigration, and in so many other ways, Americans have, haltingly and imperfectly, made good on the promissory note of the Founding. This has given Americans a sense of shared identity, but also “a naïve view of ourselves” as somehow beyond tribalism.
The Lessons of Vietnam
But, just as America isn’t beyond tribalism, the rest of the world certainly isn’t either. Chua is at her most interesting when describing America’s mistaken “belief that other countries can handle diversity as well as Americans assume that we can handle our own diversity.”
Take Vietnam, as the North did after the American withdrawal. Chua maintains that Americans were wrong to use a Cold War lens of ideologies—capitalism vs. communism—to evaluate the conflict, and even more wrong to think that, because the North was communist, it was a puppet of the larger, neighboring communist China.
Though Ho Chi Minh was a communist, he was, more importantly, a passionate believer in the idea of a unified Vietnamese tribe based on ancestry and, like most Vietnamese, resentful of a millennia-old Chinese domination.
Meanwhile, most of the U.S.-backed capitalists in Vietnam were not in fact Vietnamese. They were Hoa, a market-dominant minority group of ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam. They were wealthier than ethnic Vietnamese, lived apart from them, were generally seen as exploiting Vietnam, yet were the primary beneficiaries of American intervention, while ethnic Vietnamese in the South disproportionately suffered from the war. This bred resentment among the ethnic Vietnamese, making native popular political support for America’s role untenable.
The ethnic side of the conflict became even more apparent when the war ended and the new socialist government undertook an anti-capitalist campaign, the overwhelming majority of whose victims were Hoa. Of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled South Vietnam at the end of the war, including the “Vietnamese boat people,” more than 70% were ethnically Chinese, and Vietnam was at war with China by 1979. Hardly a unified communist bloc.
By missing the ethnic component of the conflict, the United States painted itself into a corner in Vietnam, misunderstood what it was doing, and was unable to gain the support of the local population.
More recently, policymakers have missed the tribal elements of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, to tragic effect. In our own hemisphere, says Chua, Hugo Chavez was elected due to a battle between “Venezuela’s dominant ‘white’ minority and its long-degraded, poorer, less educated, darker-skinned, indigenous- and African-blooded masses.”
In addition to tribalism’s universal appeal and Americans’ ability to miss its dangers, Chua’s foreign examples, and in particular the elections of Chavez in Venezuela and al-Maliki in Iraq, show that democracy isn’t necessarily a cure for tribalism, and can sometimes exacerbate its ills.
How is the tribalism of the rest of the world like the tribalism at home? “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots—a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.”
Many groups in America feel threatened, and it is in the face of threats, real and perceived, such as changing demographics and economics, that tribes emerge.
American tribalism is hard to understand. Some of it is clear and obviously dangerous, while some of it isn’t. For elites, there’s a tribalism of “disdain of the provincial, the plebian, and the patriotic.” Other tribal phenomena include everything from the Occupy Movement, to anti-government groups like the Sovereign Citizens, to street gangs, to narco-saints.
As the 2016 election made clear, white America is divided into tribes along class lines, from NASCAR fans to coastal elites. There are declining life expectancies for some, and an upwardly mobile culture for others. Those interested in the divides in modern white America would be well-served by following up Political Tribes with Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, the definitive early description of the decline of the white working class and of the emergence of a categorically different “new upper class.” Chua cites Murray when she discusses falling church attendance of poor and working-class whites, an important cultural phenomenon.
Precisely because American tribalism is so difficult to comprehend, Chua may go too far in describing some aspects of American political life as tribal. In a section on the “new tribal right,” Chua uses the examples of Marco Rubio comparing “the war with Islam to America’s ‘war with the Nazis’” and of Jeb Bush advocating “for a religious test to allow Christian refugees to enter the country preferentially” to back up her points.
But the interview with Rubio that Chua cites does not include him saying that the United States is “at war with Islam.” In the interview, he wasn’t appealing to an anti-Muslim tribal identity. Rather, he said that the United States is at war with “radical Islam,” a distinction with a difference. Indeed, radical Islam has been compared to Nazism in The New York Times, Slate, and The Guardian.
Similarly, when advocating for preferential treatment for Christian refugees from the Middle East, Bush was not playing tribal Christian politics. Christians have been the targets of genocide by ISIS, and he was arguing in favor of helping those who need it most. That’s not right-wing tribal politics; that sort of prioritization for asylum applicants is required by federal law.
This is a minor disagreement, and Chua’s book is a welcome reminder that the fragile, hard-fought, American identity or “super-group” is worth defending. That important lesson is the only way that our diverse populations can live together while maintaining the wonderful things that made them diverse and American in the first place.