Political tribalism is getting worse in the US, says Yale professor Amy Chua

by Joanne Black / 28 June, 2018
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There’s an alarming rise in political tribalism in the US yet failure to recognise the same trend elsewhere has led to catastrophes on the international stage, says writer Amy Chua.

Does Amy Chua find consolation in thinking that, in American foreign policy, things can only get better? Chua, who achieved world fame with her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and was once named by Time magazine as among the 100 most-influential people in the world, is one of the most-talked-about writers in the disunited states of America.

Speaking from her home in New Haven, Connecticut, where her day job is as a professor at Yale Law School, she reels off the list of countries that have been sites of US debacles abroad: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela. It’s a grim roll call, but maybe, from such abject lows, there is nowhere to go but up.

Maybe, but maybe not. Talking to the Listener just after US President Donald Trump announced that his country was pulling out of the deal that tried to delay, and perhaps prevent, Iran developing nuclear weapons, Chua offers no comment. It is too new and she likes to do thorough research before offering an opinion. However, she says, the debate over the Iran deal throws up an example of a subject on which she is only too happy to talk: tribalism.

It’s the subject of her fifth book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, which was published in February and has been widely discussed, reviewed and excerpted around the world.

Tribalism, she says, is now so pronounced in the US that, no matter what someone says, their opponents will argue the opposite of a position that, just a few years ago, they would have supported.

“There’s no nuance any more,” Chua says. “It’s almost like we’re hunkered down in our [respective] sides. Whatever Trump says about North Korea, we’re against it because he’s not on our side. Or if he says something about China, we’re against that.

“I worry because, if you look back five or 10 years, there was more overlap, things were more settled and in fact the people who now oppose Trump were even proposing some similar things.”

Amy Chua. Photo/Getty Images

Now, there seems to be no room for conciliation, she says. If Hillary Clinton had become President, or it had been former President Barack Obama who had helped bring the US and South Korea to the cusp of a possible peace breakthrough with North Korea, “I think the press coverage would be very different”.

That is not to say that Chua admires the President. She does not. As a first-generation American born to poor Chinese immigrant parents, she opposes many of his views, but America’s failure to recognise tribalism at home and abroad predates his election by a long way, she thinks.

In its forays abroad, the US has been, and remains, spectacularly naive, Chua believes. There are compelling examples in her book: after a US-led coalition toppled Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011, President Obama declared that, “one thing is clear … the future of Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people … it will be Libyans who build their new nation”. But, writes Chua, the term “Libyans” covers peoples of about 140 different tribes and, far from coming together to build their new nation, “the country began a slow descent into fragmentation and eventually a bloody civil war”. By 2016, a US general had labelled it a failed state.

Obama later said that “failing to plan for the day after” in Libya was probably the worst mistake of his presidency. But Chua says the case is one in a string of examples of America’s failure to understand and heed the destructive potential of the group instinct in other countries. Too often, American foreign policy is founded on the assumption that other countries can be built in its own image as a multicultural nation that has largely overcome primal group divisions out of a shared belief in a strong national identity.

“We forget how unusual it is to have both an extremely diverse, multi-ethnic population and a strong overarching national identity capable of binding people together. Libya, Syria and Iraq are all, like the US, postcolonial, multi-ethnic nations, but none of them has a national identity anywhere close to as strong as ours.

“In countries like these, it can be a catastrophic mistake to imagine that through democratic elections, people will suddenly rally around a national identity and overcome their pre-existing ethnic, religious, sectarian and tribal divides. On the contrary, in sharply divided societies, democracy often galvanises group conflict; political movements and parties coalesce around these more-primal identities. America has made this mistake over and over again.”

Romanticising democracy: the way America waged war in Vietnam and Iraq was practically designed to turn large segments of those populations against it, Chua says.

Romanticising democracy: the way America waged war in Vietnam and Iraq was practically designed to turn large segments of those populations against it, Chua says.

Anti-communist blinkers

In Vietnam, the US lost a war against what President Lyndon Johnson had described as “a piddling pissant little country” (indeed, as Chua notes, the enemy was actually only half of the country) because it failed to understand tribal instinct and ethnicity.

The conflict between Vietnam and China goes back more than 2000 years, but the US, blinkered by its loathing for communism, thought that North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh must be a Chinese puppet. In fact, Ho, whose political philosophy derived from Marxism-Leninism, had spent time in Chinese prisons and, like his countrymen in both the north and south, had a deeply ingrained antipathy towards China. “Yet, astonishingly, US policymakers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn. This was a group-blind mistake of colossal proportions.”

After the fall of Saigon and the US pullout in April 1975, Robert McNamara, who had been US Secretary of Defence to John F Kennedy and Johnson, was told by his former North Vietnamese counterpart that if the Americans had ever read a history book, they would have known that the Vietnamese were never pawns of China.

“Don’t you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for 1000 years,” McNamara’s opposite number reportedly told him. “We were fighting for our independence. We would fight to the last man and no amount of bombing, no amount of US pressure, would ever have stopped us.”

A Chinese minority who dominated commerce, banking, trade and industry in Vietnam were disliked and resented by the Vietnamese, but once US money started pouring into the war effort, it enriched the Chinese. In 1971, Chua writes, 84% of the direct and indirect importers in Vietnam were Chinese.

Aggravating the animosity, Chinese who had stayed out of it as Vietnam fought the French before Vietnam was divided systematically avoided the draft once the war with the Americans started. “In effect, the US-backed regime was asking the South Vietnamese to fight and die and kill their northern brethren in order to keep the Chinese rich.”

Most American soldiers could not distinguish between Chinese and Vietnamese; none would have known about the country’s history. “All Asians were dinks and gooks, slants and slopes,” says Chua. To Vietnamese, the idea that Americans were offering them freedom was absurd. They endured horrific civilian deaths in relentless bombing campaigns. A million people died and more than two million homes were destroyed.

“From a tribal political perspective, virtually every step we took in Vietnam was guaranteed to turn the Vietnamese against us. The regimes we supported, the policies we promoted, the money we spent and the attitudes we brought made Vietnamese hate us, hate capitalism, and only enhanced the appeal and status of the charismatic Ho Chi Minh.” After the US defeat, a brutal ethnic cleansing of Chinese people took place. Rarely was it reported, Chua says, that the “Vietnamese boat people” fleeing in the 1970s were sometimes up to 85% Chinese.

“Thus, Vietnam’s Communist revolution was not only nationalist but intensely ethno-nationalist. We completely missed the heart of political tribalism. Far from being a pawn of Communist China, as the US imagined, Vietnam would by 1979 be at war with China. It would be difficult to come up with a more effective strategy for shooting ourselves in the foot, undermining our own objectives, and maximising popular resistance against us.”

The “colossal failure” in Afghanistan has likewise been the result of “terrible miscalculations”, says Chua, as the US repeatedly underestimated the importance of ethnic and tribal identity. “In daunting part, this is because we either failed to understand or chose to ignore the country’s complex tribal politics.”

General Stanley McChrystal, who led the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq, wrote in 2009 that Nato-led forces had “not sufficiently studied Afghanistan’s people, whose needs, identities, and grievances vary from province to province and from valley to valley”. That was true of the US as well, Chua says.

“Consequently, as with Vietnam, nearly every move we made in Afghanistan was practically designed to turn large segments of the population against us. We have in some ways brought so much disaster on ourselves by romanticising democracy and failing to understand the group dynamics on the ground in the countries where we intervene.”

Romanticising democracy: the way America waged war in Vietnam and Iraq was practically designed to turn large segments of those populations against it, Chua says. Photo/Getty Images

Romanticising democracy: the way America waged war in Vietnam and Iraq was practically designed to turn large segments of those populations against it, Chua says. Photo/Getty Images

Domestic tribalism

Chua is emphatic that the US also fails to recognise tribalism at home. There is a racial element to some of that division, but it is not the only faultline running through the American social landscape. And the divisions are getting worse, she says.

She started writing her latest book more than a year before the 2016 presidential election. Trump’s victory discombobulated progressives, but Chua says it is time to abandon the expectation that the police will kick down the door of the White House and take the President away in handcuffs. So, Russia may have tried to meddle in the election, and Clinton won the popular vote. But a huge number of people voted for Trump.

Chua thinks that America’s cosmopolitan elites, Republican and Democrat, are horrified by a President who does not sound or act like they do. They have no idea what the rest of America thinks.

That was a familiar contention in the wake of the election whose result was not predicted by pollsters or the media. But Chua had called it for Trump before polling day for two main reasons: she asked her students what their relatives were saying and “I found people were so silenced in many progressive circles, including on Ivy League campuses, that nobody was going to admit anything”. Only reluctantly, and with a sense of shame, would students reveal that their parents, grandparents and neighbours were going to vote for Trump.

The second reason Chua predicted Trump’s election was that she saw who was working for Clinton. Clinton attended Yale Law School and Yale was a bastion of Clinton support: many of Chua’s former students worked on Clinton’s campaign. But Chua could see that Clinton’s Brooklyn campaign office was filled with people who looked like each other.

“They were lovely, bright, wonderful people but they were completely of the same demographic. Part of that is a class reason. Who else could afford to take two years off to work on a political campaign? It’s usually privileged kids whose parents can pay for their housing. There were zero people from the Midwest, or from working-class backgrounds. It was a not-diverse team of wonderful people.”

Urban, liberal, educated, mostly white Americans in coastal cities – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC and New York – have very little understanding of the lives of working-class, less-privileged, white Americans in the rest of the country, Chua says.

“These two groups intermarry so rarely now that the difference between them is more like an ethnic divide. It’s more likely that a white person from Manhattan or Washington DC would marry a Nigerian American or a South Asian American from a comparable educational background – someone you met in law school, for example – than marry someone from Appalachia or Kentucky.”

Yale, she says, is trying to be more diverse. Of 200 students in its class of 2018, there are about 50 from minority backgrounds, but just one white student from a low-income family. “The line I use is that race has divided America’s poor, but class has split America’s whites. But even for me to talk about white underprivilege means I instantly have people say, ‘What about slavery? Are you diminishing it?’ I always have to go through the usual caveats that, ‘No of course there are many unique problems and, yes, other groups suffered slavery and of course the situation for poor whites is not the same as for native Americans’, but from the point of view of this individual young white man whose parents are unemployed and who feels constantly attacked for being a white male, yet is probably poorer than almost anybody else in the whole school, yes, he feels aggrieved and he is not able to express it.”

President Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

President Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

The I-word

It is equally hard to talk about immigration in a country with 11 million illegal immigrants without being accused of being racist or xenophobic. “But it’s a fact that every nation should be able to control its borders and decide who should get in, how many, from where and what the rules are.

“It shouldn’t be incendiary and racist to suggest that maybe there’s a problem with illegal immigration. But if you were to say that on a Yale Law School campus, you would be instantly ostracised as being some conservative racist.”

The problem with pushing those conversations underground, Chua says, is that that is where you can find real white supremacists, the ones who oppose all minorities. It is healthier, she thinks, to have conversations in the open.

White Americans are heading towards becoming a minority, and a new pressure is arising, Chua says. Many people are wondering if America’s two-party political system can cope with society as it is, still operating a political system designed for a different era.

If there is a weak point in Chua’s book, it is the Epilogue, in which she writes that she senses a shift in America. “You’d never know it from cable news or social media, but all over the country there are signs of people trying to cross divides and break out of their political tribes.” Citing an example of Bosnian Muslims and Unitarian Christians in Utica, New York, deciding to watch the Super Bowl together, and other examples, feels too little to resist the forces that in the rest of her book Chua so eloquently expounds.

She acknowledges that individually any single example seems trivial and it is hard to prove they represent a trend. However, she says a prodigious body of evidence shows that when individuals from different groups get to know each other, there can be tremendous progress.

Support for same-sex marriage in the US, for example, has gone from 11% to 62% since 1988, largely because more straight people now know someone who is gay. But more exposure to people from different tribes is not sufficient in itself to break barriers. A Harvard University study showed that being exposed to men speaking Spanish on a train led non-Spanish-speaking commuters to be more hostile to immigration. One-on-one human contact is required. Beyond that, she says, Americans need to reassert their faith in their nation’s ideals. There is a world of difference between saying the country has failed to live up to its ideals and saying that the principles that unite the country are just a smokescreen for oppression.

Overall, Chua says, she is optimistic. Along with the hate mail she has received since her book was published have come more than 100 invitations to speak to various groups, including at the State Department – the equivalent of our Foreign Affairs Ministry. People in foreign policy circles in particular – from diplomats to the CIA – are telling her that the expertise she thinks is missing is actually there; the problem is getting it through to the country’s political leadership.

“As an American, I am optimistic,” she says. “We do things so foolishly, there is so much room for improvement. I mean, we can only improve.”

Chua on...

Political Tribes rethinks the big issues


“Those who are worried about terrorism should be able to express that worry without being branded an Islamophobe. Those who view America’s seismic demographic changes and massive influx of immigrants with anxiety should be able to express that anxiety without being branded a racist. Transformational population change is dislocating, and diversity has costs. But we’ve been through this before. Over and over, throughout American history, waves of new immigrants have come to our shores, always met with suspicion and fear that the nation’s character will be endangered, its streets made unsafe, its values lost. Every time, we’ve overcome this fear, prospered, and grown stronger. With every wave of immigration in the past, American freedom and openness have triumphed. Will we, telling ourselves ‘These immigrants are different’, be the weak link, the first generation to fail? Will we forget who we are?”

On democracy

“Americans tend to think of democracy as a unifying force. But under certain conditions, including inequality that tracks racial, ethnic or sectarian divides, democracy can actually ignite group conflict.”

On terrorism

“Numerous studies have purportedly ‘disproven’ the link between poverty and extremism – by showing, for example, that low per-capita national income is not associated with terrorism and that individual poverty does not predict the likelihood of engaging in terrorist acts. What these studies overlook is the critical importance of tribal politics and group identity. Of course poverty doesn’t always lead to violence. The key to understanding extremism lies not in poverty, as such, but in group inequality. Every major terrorist movement of the last several decades – from the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka to Chechen separatists in Russia to Nigeria’s Boko Haram to the militant Islamic movements of the Middle East – arose in conditions of group inequality, group disempowerment, group humiliation and group hatred. Poverty alone does not create terrorism. But when stark inequalities track deep, pre-existing racial, ethnic, religious or sectarian divides, intense feeling of injustice, resentment, and frustration will become widespread … These are the breeding-ground conditions of terrorist violence.”

On a divided America

“There is now so little interaction, commonality and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic’ difference.”

On Iraq

“Vice President [Dick] Cheney predicted that after the United States liberated Iraq, ‘the streets in Basra and Baghdad are sure to erupt in joy’ and the ‘freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace’. In the months before the war, CIA analysts were so confident that Iraqis would warmly welcome US soldiers that one operative suggested ‘sneaking hundreds of small American flags into the country for grateful Iraqis to wave at their liberators’. Of course, none of this happened. On the contrary, as in Vietnam and Afghanistan, we soon found ourselves in an unwinnable war, hated by the people we were supposedly trying to help. Instead of establishing a shining model of free-market democracy in the Middle East, we produced Isis.”

On America’s poor

“It’s hard to get excited about politics when no matter which party comes into power, your life never changes.”

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, by Amy Chua (Bloomsbury, $40.95)

This article was first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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