“Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations” by Amy Chua
It sounds odd to say it, but I remember a time when opening my Facebook page was entertaining. In the carefree days of university, when I’d be twenty pages into my Rationalists 101 reading, I would turn to social media for a mental break. I’d see my friends’ status updates and new pictures, smile and ‘like’ one or two things, and go back ready for another round with David Hume. Today, opening Facebook is the emotional equivalent of opening my son’s diaper—whatever I find in there is likely going to be somewhat distasteful. I’m very happy to have friends and family of all political stripes, but (like all of us) there are some whose political opinions I struggle to understand. It takes a mighty effort of the will to read the posts and articles carefully, think about them, and (if I think it wise) engage thoughtfully and courteously. It’s not because I think those positions are irrational or ludicrous, it’s what I think they might indicate about the character of the person holding it.
My husband has helpfully pointed out that life would be much easier if I just got off Facebook, and he’s right—as someone who’s naturally prone to anxiety, it’s arguably not conducive to my peace of mind to expose myself to the vitriol of political social media (or to his, since he’s the one who’s forced to endure my immediate reactions to what I see on it). The problem is that I don’t like the idea of shutting out ideas I disagree with, or unfollowing someone because I find their opinions offensive. I might disagree with someone very strongly, but I feel obligated to try to understand why they think the way they do, and (as much as I’m able) to sympathize with their concerns before I criticize their solutions. So when I saw Amy Chua’s Political Tribes at a local bookstore, it was a godsend. I’ve read her work before, and have not only found her prose accessible and attractive (no mean feat for a law professor) but her insights both instructive and edifying, and this most recent book was no exception.
In her forthright but measured manner, Chua opens by describing the current state of American political discourse and the anger and frustration felt by citizens on both sides of the aisle:
“In America today, every group feels [threatened] to some extent. Whites and blacks, Latinos and Asians, men and women, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, straight people and gay people, liberals and conservatives—all feel their groups are being attacked, bullied, persecuted and discriminated against. One group’s claims of feeling threatened and voiceless are often met by another group’s derision because it discounts their own feelings of persecution. This, combined with record levels of inequality—is why we now see identity politics on both sides of the political spectrum.” (p 9)
She summarizes the various sociological studies that have demonstrated the deep-seated tribal instincts of human beings. It’s not just that people like to be around those who share their interests and pursuits; it’s that there’s a biological urge to identify themselves with people they perceive to be most like them. As a super-group, America not only allows its citizens to retain their ethnic and cultural heritage (unlike China and France, who at worst forbid any sort of religious expression and at best require only a public display of national fidelity) while adopting a national identity, it (in most instances) actively encourages it, so that tribal identities are allowed to exist coterminously with national identity. The difficulty today, she says, is that the US “[is] in a perilous new situation: with nearly no one standing up for an America without identity politics, for an American identity that transcends and unites the identities of all the country’s many subgroups.” (p 11) The political and social ideals that created the US national identity and united the ethnically-diverse citizens under one flag is in danger of fracturing along tribal lines.
She illustrates this by showing how this pattern of tribal organization has manifested itself among the people of four separate countries over more than thirty years—Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Venezuela—and convincingly shows how the US’ failure to understand (or disregard for) each country’s tribal affiliations (Vietnamese vs. ethnic Chinese in Vietnam; Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazaras in Afghanistan; etc.) has resulted in unsuccessful military campaigns and frustrated political objectives. Cutting to the present day, she demonstrates how the 2016 election of President Trump exposed the racial and class divisions that have effectively organized the country into tribes, with each thoroughly convinced that the other is aggressively antagonistic to them. “The Left believes that right-wing tribalism—bigotry, racism—is tearing the country apart. The Right believes that left-wing tribalism—identity politics, political correctness—is tearing the country apart. They are both right.” (p 166). The Left’s fear of the continuing systemic injustice and inequality has resulted in an inversion of their traditionally-inclusive rhetoric, to the point where the overarching goal of their political aims is not a group-blind government and society, but an exclusive right to their unique group’s (African-American / Latinx / womanist / LGBTQIA) heritage and patrimony. The Right’s fear of the obliteration of the specifically ‘American’ way of life has resulted in an inversion of their traditionally-individualist rhetoric, to the point where the overarching goal of their political aims is not freedom and opportunity for all, but an exclusive right to their unique group’s (WASP) heritage and patrimony. The result, according to Chua, is that, “[…] at different times in the past, both the American Left and the American Right have stood for group-transcending values. Neither does today.” (p 178)
It’s important to note that Chua’s purpose is to describe the primary motivations for each group’s reaction to the other, not to critique the validity of their claims. She cites evidence that shows that the feelings of aggression (each one to the other) are at least somewhat justified, but refrains from making any objective assessments. I understand why—she’s trying to build a bridge, not determine who owns the land it’s built on—but there’s a significant difference between the existential threat posed by the dominant group to a non-dominant group, and the existential crisis felt by the dominant group when its primacy is challenged by the non-dominant group. I don’t think Chua would deny this, but her analysis would have been more compelling had she addressed that distinction directly and discussed its role in how we assess our political and sociological beliefs.
Ultimately, her strength lies not in her solution to the problem of tribalism in America (it’s not a solution so much as a way forward) but in her ability to articulate the nuances of contemporary tribalism clearly and accurately. By taking each group seriously and interacting with them thoughtfully, she provides clarity and understanding, both of which enable the reader to view those outside their own tribe with more sympathetic eyes and to see the need for a common identity apart from our tribal distinctives. Chua locates that identity in the American ideal—the belief that this is the one nation in the world where people of all tribes, tongues and nations can thrive under a constitution built on the premise that liberty and justice for all reign supreme. As Christians, we locate it in the universal image-bearing essence of humanity—the understanding that all people everywhere are created in the image of the same Creator, and can thrive as they love him and their neighbor. This is a simple answer, but it’s not easy—it means taking your opponent seriously, asking them why they believe what they do, and (above all) listening respectfully when they answer. It requires thanking them for talking with you and thinking over what they’ve said before responding; it compels you to forgo vicious diatribes and ad hominems in favor of charitable dialogue and the humility to admit that you were (or are) wrong. It’s emotionally and mentally exhausting—sanctification always is—but if we would live in harmony with all, disdain haughtiness, and overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:16-21), then we have to try.
Brooke Ventura is a writer. She lives in Ontario, Canada with her husband and two children.