Political Tribes: Group Instinct and  the Fate of Nations

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and  the Fate of Nations

by Amy Chua

Amy Chua is probably best known through social media as the Tiger Mom following widespread publication of her 2011 Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. More importantly from the perspective of this book review, she is also a law professor at Yale Law School, specializing in international business transactions, law and development ethics.

Her 2018 Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations essentially focuses on the United States and its ongoing malaise with international politics. She describes how her thesis on how tribalism works in society and politics could equally well apply to any country, nation state or territory.

Professor Chua describes how humans, like other primates, are tribal animals and absolutely need to belong to tribes or groups. Their identities are powerfully bound to their selected groups. They generally seek to benefit members of their own group, even when gaining nothing in return, while they often penalize outsiders, seemingly gratuitously. In some cases they may even sacrifice themselves or kill for their group.

She cites neurological studies which confirm that group identity can produce physical sensations of satisfaction. Seeing group members prosper seems to activate the brain’s “reward centers” even if the observers receive no benefit themselves. Under some circumstances these reward centers can be activated when members of an out-group are observed to be failing or suffering.

The power of tribalism rarely seems to factor into high-level discussions of politics and international affairs, especially in the United States. In seeking to explain global politics, U.S. analysts and policymakers focus on the role of ideology and economics; they tend to see nation-states as the most important units of organization. By so doing they have grossly underestimated the role that group identification plays in shaping human behaviour and influencing national and international affairs. Amy Chua’s central thesis is that the recurring failure to grasp this truth has contributed to some of the worst debacles of U.S. foreign policy in the past 50 years.

Americans in their own country are not immune to the forces of “tribal” politics. Democracy can sometimes catalyze group conflict as typified by the rise of ethnonationalist movements, eroding trust in institutions and electoral outcomes, hate-mongering demagoguery, populist backlash against both “the establishment” and outsider minorities and, above all, the transformation of democracy into an engine of zero-sum political tribalism.

Amy Chua links these phenomena to a massive demographic transformation in the U.S. The white ethnic group is on the verge of losing its status as the country’s majority. Some studies show that more than half of white Americans believe that they have replaced black Americans as primary victims of discrimination. The classic response has been a retreat into tribalism. Groups are closing ranks and becoming more insular, more defensive, more focused on “us versus them”. In the case of the shrinking white majority, these reactions have combined into a backlash, raising tensions in an already polarized social climate in which every ethnic group feels attacked, bullied, persecuted, and/or discriminated against.

All this does not engender a warm fuzzy feeling, especially if you’re an American. It gets worse. In recent years economic inequality and declines in geographic and social mobility have caused a split along class lines amongst white Americans, more intense than in previous generations. The result is the emergence of a market-dominant minority sometimes referred to as “coastal elites” (although group members are actually neither all coastal nor all elite).

Wealth in the United States is now concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of people, most of them resident on the coasts. They dominate key sectors of the economy, including Wall Street, the media, and Silicon Valley. They may be of various ethnicities, are culturally distinct, and share cosmopolitan values such as secularism, multiculturalism, toleration of sexual minorities, pro-immigrant and progressive politics. However, they are also insular, they interact and intermarry primarily among themselves, they live in the same communities and their children attend the same schools. They are viewed by middle Americans as indifferent or even hostile to the country’s interests.

The outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election was exactly what Amy Chua would have predicted would happen in the presence of a deeply resented market-dominant minority – the rise of a populist movement in which demagogues called on “real” Americans to “take our country back.”

The author doesn’t mention Canada or the environment, so you’re probably wondering what her book and its subject matter have to do with us. A great deal, I think. She writes about tribal identities and how groups are strongly bound to those identities, about tribal members seeking to benefit their own members while penalizing outsiders, about things like the closing of ranks, insularity, defensiveness, and polarization. That all sounds remarkably like our current western Canadian stand-off over oil pipelines, carbon taxes and mudslinging over the Rockies between smug west coast elites and prairie oil folks feeling victimized over economic setbacks and job losses.

In Chua’s mind, all is not lost for the U.S. She argues that moving away from more tribalistic impulses starts with embracing the idea that America is a “super-group.” A super-group allows ethnic subgroups to maintain distinct identities while still bonding them through the ideals put forth by the Constitution.

To overcome tribalism in the US situation Amy Chua thinks Americans need to collectively fashion a national identity capable of resonating with and holding together Americans of all sorts. Her suggested first step is to start bridging the chasm of mutual ignorance and disdain separating the coasts and the heartland. She espouses public service programmes for young Americans to spend time on the “other side”, not necessarily “helping” members of other groups in the normal sense but interacting with people with whom they would normally never cross paths, ideally working together toward a common end.

Internationally, as in the United States, unity will also come not by default but only through hard work, courageous leadership, and collective will. Cosmopolitan elites can do their part by acknowledging that they themselves are part of a highly exclusionary and judgmental tribe, often more tolerant of difference in principle than in practice, inadvertently contributing to rancor and division.

How could the tribal situation in western Canada involving pipelines and carbon taxes be tackled? Amy Chua’s book offers some clues to be sure. How about some Elder-ly musing and advice. Please feel free to add your views below.

Reviewed by Stan Hirst, 2019


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