How can past cases of the U.S. failing to appreciate political tribalism abroad teach us how best to approach contemporary political tribalisms back home? How can we most proactively and constructively harness these tribalizing forces, rather than simply succumb to them? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Amy Chua. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on Chua’s Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Chua is a professor at Yale Law School, with expertise in international business transactions, ethnic conflict, law and development, and law and globalization. Her first book, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, was selected by both the Economist and the Guardian as a Best Book of 2003. She is also the author of Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance, and Why They Fall, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups (coauthored with Jed Rubenfeld), and the memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua has addressed numerous government and policymaking institutions, including the Brookings Institution, the CIA, the World Economic Forum in Davos, and the World Knowledge Forum in Seoul. She has been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people, one of the Atlantic Monthly’s Brave Thinkers, and one of Foreign Policy’s Global Thinkers.
ANDY FITCH: Much of this book provides an incisive account of U.S. foreign policy, revealing America both at its best and its worst — overvaluing national identity at the expense of regional, or linguistic, or ethnic, or more generally tribal identities: in part due to our own successes at cultivating such a diverse and inclusive citizenry back home, and in part due to our reliance on crass racialized generalizations derived from our own problematic past and present. So here I’ll hope to get to many compelling points you make regarding our chronic misreadings of tribal dynamics within Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. But Political Tribes’s concluding chapters, with their focus on U.S. domestic tribalism, on our own increasingly fraught social polarities, pick up such urgency that it’s hard not to sense this book’s heart right there. So could you first sketch any intellectual/personal trajectory that has (for now) redirected your focus away from questions related to international policy (or from tracking the status of market-dominant minorities abroad, or from longitudinal tracings of particular immigrant communities within the U.S.), and towards grappling with a present-day domestic context in which, as you say, every group now feels attacked, everyone eyes warily some supposedly “identity politics” push from some supposedly opposite side of the political spectrum? What concrete details from your own life and thought have shifted your attention from the U.S. government undervaluing tribalist politics, to U.S. citizens feeling immersed in and/or overwhelmed by tribalist politics?
AMY CHUA: I think you’re right that this book’s energy and urgency really come together in those chapters about the United States. It’s interesting you pick up on that, because there is a bit of a backstory. For 25 years my academic work has focused on globalization and ethnic conflict in developing countries (my first book, from 2003, was called World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability), and my basic take throughout has been that because the U.S.’s ethno-political dynamics are so different from those in developing and non-Western countries, we keep making terrible mistakes in our foreign policy, because we assume that other countries are just like us.
Anyway, when I started writing Political Tribes three years ago, I originally intended for it to be a pure foreign-policy book. The truth is I was tired of just talking about the Tiger Mom thing all the time, and wanted to get back to my actual area of expertise. I’d written about three-quarters of the book when, in February 2017, shortly after President Trump took office, I was teaching my International Business Transactions class, and making this point I’d made for 20 years — that we keep getting our foreign policy wrong because we fail to understand how developing countries’ internal dynamics differ from our own. I was quoting a passage from World on Fire that said something like “Under certain conditions, democracy can give rise to demagogues with no political experience, who sweep to power on an anti-establishment platform to the horror of elites, by tapping into deep social resentments and racially tinged populism,” when I stopped. All 80 of my students were staring at me, thinking the same thing, which one student finally articulated, which was: “It sounds exactly like you’re describing the United States.”
I’d actually been reading a passage about Hugo Chávez in Venezuela! But a lightbulb went off, and after that I completely reframed Political Tribes, so now a major theme of the book is that, for the first time in our history, the United States has started to display destructive political dynamics much more typical of “developing” countries: ethno-nationalist movements, erosion of trust in institutions and in electoral outcomes, lurches towards authoritarianism, elite backlash against the popular side of democracy, and so on. I actually wrote Political Tribes’s first two and last three chapters all in the space of two months, working around the clock with 18 research assistants. Maybe those parts feel more urgent because the election had just happened, and all of us wanted desperately to understand what was going on.
And then for a bit of additional early-21st-century context picked up from your book, let’s say that our factionalized politics largely stem from racial divides persistently splitting America’s poor, and from class divides increasingly splitting America’s whites basically into separate quasi-ethnicities. Let’s say that intellectual elites’ emphases upon complex intersectional identities continually prioritize ever-more-specific and potentially divisive sub-group status. Let’s say that, amid these atomizing pressures, polarized political affiliation increasingly fulfills one’s sense of tribal identity (even though people at the same time distrust their political parties): with those on the left perceiving bigotry (right-wing tribalism) tearing the country apart, and those on the right perceiving identity politics and political correctness (left-wing tribalism) tearing the country apart. Finally, let’s add your broader point that American politics always in fact have been identity politics, again bringing out our worst side (in terms of histories of white majoritarian dominance) and our best side (in terms of at least one major political party always making the idealizing case for group-transcendent values — often as an appeal to some form of American exceptionalism). Then, in 2008, one of history’s most eloquent spokespeople for such group-transcendent values gets elected president (needless to say, the first African American president) by a substantial majority, and governs well. How do we arrive, a decade later, at a moment when foundational cultural paradigms of liberalism, secularism, and free-market economics fail more than ever to satisfy what you see as most Americans’ basic biological drives towards tribal group identity, and at a moment when almost nobody (either in political arenas or in intellectual arenas) feels willing to publicly prioritize such group-transcendent values? Or here could you at least begin to parse what you see as causes, and what you see as symptoms, of our present political tribalism?
That’s a great synopsis of all the various factors and dynamics in play, but the lawyer in me wants to clarify what’s happening more systematically. And it starts from the fact, as you say, that for most of U.S. history, America was dominated economically, politically, and culturally by a white majority. Obviously, “whiteness” is a social construction, and who counted as white has always been a moving target, but that was the basic dynamic. Now when one group is so overwhelmingly dominant, it can violently oppress and persecute with impunity, but it can also afford to be more generous, more universalist, more inclusive — like the WASP elites of the 1960s who voluntarily opened up the Ivy League to more Jews, blacks, and other minorities, in part because this seemed like the right thing to do.
Today, however, things are very different, in part because of the massive demographic transformation we’ve undergone. For the first time in U.S. history, at least at the national level, whites are on the verge of losing their majority status (the usual predictions put it around 2044 or 2050). The result is that today every group in America feels threatened — not just our racial and ethnic minorities, but whites as well. Over half of white Americans believe that whites are subject to more discrimination than blacks, and some 67% of working-class whites feel that way. Or today, it’s not only religious minorities like Muslims, Hindus, and Jews who feel threatened. Christians feel threatened. You’ll often hear about the “war on the Bible.” And when groups feel threatened, that’s when they close ranks, and become more insular and defensive and us-versus-them — when they retreat into tribalism.
The demographic changes we’re seeing are unprecedented at the national level, but we have experienced similar dynamics at a state level. After the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, whites found themselves on the verge of losing their majority status in a number of Southern states, and responded with Jim Crow. They protected their historical dominance by effectively disenfranchising the newly freed blacks (and much worse). If there’s one axiom of political tribalism, it’s that dominant groups do not give up their power easily, and we’ve seen this from Afghanistan to Venezuela.
In the U.S. I think there’s no question that we’re seeing a new brashness in bigotry and white supremacy. You should see all the vicious emails and tweets I get. Something has clearly changed. People are emboldened to openly take white-nationalist positions. But having said that, I don’t think it adds clarity to the conversation if we just dismiss 60 million people as white supremacists and bigots.
And this gets me to the second major factor contributing to today’s specific dynamics of political tribalism. Class (or maybe more accurately, education) has split America’s white majority. There is now so little interaction and intermarriage between America’s two “white tribes” (loosely speaking, between urban/coastal/professional whites and rural/heartland/Southern/blue-collar whites) that the difference between them resembles what social scientists describe as an ethnic divide. There is such deep mutual contempt that it’s not uncommon for someone from New York or D.C. to put on their Tinder profile: “I will not date a Trump supporter” — and vice versa. Educated whites who attend schools like UCLA, Harvard, or the University of Chicago are much more likely to interact with and possibly marry someone Asian American, Muslim American, or Nigerian American from their same socio-economic background — than someone from, say, blue-collar Appalachia.
But here’s the key point. As a result of these two factors (the broader demographic transformation, and the growing class divide among whites) we may be seeing, again for the first time in U.S. history, the emergence of our own highly idiosyncratic version of a market-dominant minority.
When I coined that phrase in 2003, it referred specifically to outsider ethnic minorities that tend under market conditions to control vastly disproportionate amounts of a nation’s wealth, like the 3% Chinese minority in Indonesia who control up to 70% of the country’s economy. Other examples include the Indian minorities in East Africa, the Lebanese minorities in West Africa, the Igbo in Nigeria, whites in South Africa and Zimbabwe (note that groups can be market-dominant for very different reasons, including a history of colonialism and apartheid), and many more. In any event, whenever you have a hated market-dominant minority, democracy — which Americans tend to romanticize — can easily become an engine of ethno-nationalism. Given free and fair elections, the poor (self-proclaimed “indigenous”) majority often will vote for a scapegoating demagogue who says: “Hey, you know why you guys are poor? It’s because this little minority controls everything and doesn’t care about you. Let’s confiscate their property and expel them, and take back our country and give it back to its rightful owners.” Hence all the slogans like “Malaysia for Malays,” “Serbia for Serbs,” “Whites out of Zimbabwe.”
Of course we don’t have anything that extreme yet, but we are starting to see here in the U.S. our own idiosyncratic version of the same ethno-nationalist dynamic. The group I see emerging as a kind of market-dominant minority in the U.S. is often referred to as “coastal elites” — a bit misleadingly, because they’re not all coastal or all elite, at least in the sense of being wealthy. They’re also not all white. For many heartland Americans, the super-eloquent, Ivy League-educated Barack Obama epitomizes a coastal elite.
The parallel’s not perfect, but if you think about it, coastal elites bear a strong resemblance to the market-dominant minorities of the developing world. Wealth in the United States is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of people, most of whom live on the West or East Coast. They dominate key sectors of the economy, including Wall Street, the news media, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley. And while coastal elites are not an ethnic group, they’re culturally distinct and extremely insular: attending the same fancy schools, sharing the same cosmopolitan progressive values, and so on. They even speak in their own politically correct vocabulary.
Most important, coastal elites are viewed by many in the heartland as a smug minority controlling the levers of power from afar, constantly favoring minorities and immigrants, caring more about the poor in Africa than the poor here, and unconcerned about “real” Americans — in fact threatening “real” Americans’ way of life. What happened in America in 2016 is exactly what I would have predicted for a developing country pursuing elections in the presence of a deeply resented market-dominant minority: the rise of a populist movement in which demagogic voices called on “real” Americans to, in Donald Trump’s words, “take our country back” and “Make America great again.”
I should add that America is a complicated place. I still believe that America is what I describe in the book as a “supergroup.” Alone among the major powers, we’ve always had a very strong overarching national identity as Americans, but we also allow subgroup identities to flourish. Someone can be Irish American, Italian American, Syrian American, or Korean American, and very patriotic at the same time. Most countries aren’t like that. China, for example, has a very strong national identity (defined by the ethnic Han Chinese) but suppresses minority cultures like the Uighurs. Even a multiethnic Western democracy like France is not a supergroup. After the World Cup, France’s ambassador said France doesn’t allow hyphenated identities, and they ban headscarves. But the U.S.’s unusual status as a supergroup is under enormous strain right now, as tribalism takes over the political system.
Some of what we’re experiencing as “tribalism” is just previously suppressed groups finally having a voice. I see us undergoing a somewhat traumatic and disorderly process, which, given our changing country, is probably necessary and can ultimately be quite healthy (though that does mean we’ll need to renegotiate what the content of our national identity will be). You hear a lot these days about how the authors of our founding document were slaveowners and oppressors, so why should we even respect it? But I actually think the constitution is the secret to holding this country together — which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expose our country’s moral shortcomings. If the Constitution can’t unite us, nothing can. We just have to fight to make the constitution’s promises resonate more for all of America.
This goes back to every group in America now feeling attacked and persecuted. Everyone now wants to defend their own tribe or subtribe. It’s not uncommon anymore to hear a white person say: “I never wanted to talk about this, but since you keep saying that being white is the worst thing on Earth, I actually feel proud of being white. In fact, we’re the best.” You also see a hardening of group boundaries, whether among Asian Americans, Latino Americans, or African Americans. You hear members of each group saying: “We have very specific experiences of oppression, and if you’re not a member of our group, you can’t understand us.” Any broader sense of Americans all being connected and able to talk to each other keeps losing ground to a sense of zero-sum political tribalism, in which people say: “Wait a minute, it’s time people listened to our group’s grievances. We’re the ones really suffering and being discriminated against.” Soon you get what some have called an “Oppression Olympics.”
Yeah, I see your book addressing causes of political tribalism on the right, and then addressing symptoms of political tribalism on the left. So here could we try to outline causes on the left as well? I’d said, for example, that I would place political tribalism at the center of your book. But really, more specifically, I would place progressive political tribalism right at this book’s center (emotionally at least, again with most of the text addressing other topics). Amid this progressive tribalism, endorsing the group-transcendent values mentioned above emerges as the ultimate sin, the most nefarious means of masking hierarchies of oppression. Amid anti-oppression movements, a “new exclusivity” has emerged, proudly making the epistemological claim that only in-group members can access certain types of knowledge, that even the most sympathetic efforts at understanding made by members of dominant groups might just offer further micro-aggressions and ongoing cultural appropriation. Again I’d love to hear your take on how communities within the progressive left have arrived at such constrictive-seeming formulations. But I’d especially appreciate if we could do so from the premise that such arguments didn’t emerge in a historical vacuum, that civil-rights activists of various sorts long have oscillated between appealing to the idealizing tendencies, and critiquing the less-than-ideal consequences, of group-transcendent politics — that any new exclusivity echoes legitimate longstanding frustrations with integrationist politics. So again, just based on your own lived intellectual timeline, where do you find the underpinnings of present-day progressive political tribalism most understandable, defensible, necessary, praiseworthy, and where do you find these underpinnings the most problematic?
Regarding causes, there’s first what you might just call “strength in numbers.” I grew up as the only Asian kid in my school (or maybe one of a few) in West Lafayette, Indiana. And identity politics won’t take you very far if you’re the only person from a certain ethnicity. You can’t have a movement by yourself. But from 1965 onwards, the wave that brought my parents in has brought millions more people from Asia, Latin America, and Africa. This gives these groups confidence and the ability to organize and to feel solidarity. Yale used to have Asian American clubs with maybe 15 members. I recently hosted an event at my house for 85 people. So that’s point one.
Point two involves, as you mentioned, the growing disillusion with group-transcendent rhetoric. In the Reagan era, for example, minorities and others on the left started to notice that this noble-sounding, universalist language about equality, justice, and color-blindness was being used to block affirmative action and other policies that progressives saw as necessary for redressing historical wrongs and racial inequities. So progressives started getting cynical listening to President Reagan citing Martin Luther King, even as he bashed “welfare queens.” I also came of age at a moment when a lot of minorities looked around and said: “All these liberal policymakers and lefty academics championing color blindness, equality, universal human rights, postmodernism, deconstruction, Marxism, whatever — they all seem to be white males.” I remember noticing that when I was in law school.
This leads into point three, about our own interesting moment. In reaction to all the identity politics, liberalism is suddenly back in vogue. There are a number of very smart new books calling for “post-identity liberalism,” where we’re all just individuals — returning to the group-blindness thing again. I think it’s a beautiful vision and, given the herd mentality everywhere, I agree that we could use a big dose of individualism. But having said that, I think it’s totally unrealistic (and against human nature) to ask people to give up their group identities and loyalties: to stop thinking in ethnic, racial, or religious terms, and just be good individuals not part of any tribes. That’s like asking people to stop rooting for their favorite sports team and just be a fan of all athletes. Also liberal cosmopolitans are themselves a tribe, and a very exclusive one at that.
Most important, I think calls to end identity-based movements misunderstand what makes America special. As I already mentioned, I think the best way to think of America is not as a melting pot, but as a supergroup — a tribe of tribes. Flourishing subgroup identities are part of what has made America vibrant and strong. There’s always a fine line, but tribalism and group-identity movements are not the problems in themselves. It’s only when they take over a country’s politics (when every political and group conflict becomes a zero-sum war for America’s identity, or when group conflict makes people forget their identity as Americans) that there’s real danger. When America is at its best, people shouldn’t have to choose between having a strong group-transcending collective identity and multiculturalism — we can have both.
Political Tribes tracks (say within Iraq and the former Yugoslavia) a corrosive combination of pent-up ethnic/religious tensions, and of weak, non-unifying national identity. And I could see, post-2016, progressives figuring out a way to grasp the previously unrecognized pent-up tensions that certain rural and/or working-class Trump voters might feel. But I see progressives less likely to proactively, constructively, seek to strengthen a sense of unifying national identity. Or your book makes the broader case that while many poor Americans may have withdrawn from certain modes of civic engagement, they still might embrace intense (and intensely prosocial) tribal identifications — a profound, self-sacrificing patriotism, for example. Though here you point to an animating drive amid present-day progressive politics to expose such group identities (be they amid military culture, NASCAR culture, the Prosperity Gospel movement) as deserving of derision, as citadels of authoritarianism, or of complacent privilege, or delusional desperation. Could you take your concerns about poor (white as well as non-white) Americans feeling disconnected and/or disgusted with progressive public discourse, your concerns about elite progressives feeling the need to tear down the very group identifications vital to many poor and working-class voters, and place this problematic vector again within patterns of Americans failing to recognize the importance of tribalism both shaping supposed others, and shaping ourselves?
I definitely think one of our greatest challenges going forward is whether we can arrive at an understanding of a national identity capable of resonating with (and holding together as one people) Americans of all sorts: old and young, urban and rural, the descendants of slaves as well as descendants of slaveowners. Given our history, that’s not going to be easy.
Right now, we really need to figure out (in both our public and private schools, and starting from a very young age) how to tell a story about America that allows children to grow up proud of living in this country, while at the same time saying: “Look, we did truly terrible, disgraceful things to certain populations like the Native Americans, to African people brought over in chains, to Asians brought over to work on the railroads.” So how can we do both? How can we tell a story of progress, of America as a land of aspiration, but one which did documentably horrible things and is still doing horrible things? Here I see dangers on both the right and the left. The right says stop whining, as if we already have achieved complete freedom and equality of opportunity, which of course is ridiculous (and frequently, I suspect, in bad faith). On the left, though, you see the opposite problem. How do you acknowledge the flawed implementation of our founding principles, but without trashing and mocking all of American history? I don’t think we can just gather up the constitution, the founding fathers, Paul Revere and the Liberty Bell, and say: “We need to dump all this.” That’s not a solution. For one thing, at least half the country, including many immigrants, still love those aspects of U.S. history and find inspiration in them. For another, there really is a lot in American history to be proud of. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveowners. But they were also political visionaries who helped give birth to what became the most inclusive form of governance in world history.
Again, I think progressives should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to the constitution, which is the core of America’s national identity. A history teacher in a prestigious private high school recently said to me: “I don’t know what to do. I feel I can’t open my mouth about this, because I’m a white male, but my students seem to have no reverence for the constitution now. They’re taught to disdain it as the handiwork of dead slaveowners.” I think this is a problem.
It’s of course extremely important that we not whitewash our history. But the constitution is an aspirational document, and there’s a huge difference between saying that we have repeatedly and shamefully failed to live up to the principles in our constitution, and saying that those principles are all bogus — just smokescreens to hide white supremacy and oppression. I come from a very different starting point, as someone who has spent decades studying countries like Iraq, Libya, and the former Yugoslavia. I’m very conscious of all the multiethnic countries out there that have literally fallen apart because they lack a sufficiently cohesive collective identity.
On the right too, people don’t realize they’re playing with fire when they say things like: “Since we can’t get along, why don’t we stop being one nation and just break into a loose federation of 50 autonomous states?” Or: “Why not just split the country in half? It’s time to get a divorce.” Maybe because my own family came from a developing country, talk like that just sounds reckless and poisonous to me. We have something much more precious to hold together.
I also think the left should be careful not to cede patriotism and the American dream to the right. It’s correct to point out that, over the course of our history, many groups were completely excluded from this American dream — and that, today, structural factors have made upward mobility impossible for many Americans. But people like hope. And while this may be hard for coastal elites to swallow, I think candidate Trump did a better job than other candidates at channeling hope to many parts of the country.
In the United States, being anti-establishment is not the same thing as being anti-rich. We hear a lot these days about millennials liking “socialism.” But the fact is many of America’s have-nots don’t hate wealth — on the contrary, they’d love to strike it rich or see their kids strike it rich, even if they think the system is rigged against them. Just think of the enormous popularity of shows like Shark Tank or Keeping up with the Kardashians or Duck Dynasty. Elites sometimes forget this, but many working-class and middle-class Americans of all ethnicities still love the idea of the American dream, and hunger for it.
In terms of the curricular model you just sketched, part of what I hear you saying seems to be that, if we can make any coherent case for American exceptionalism, it may have to do with our capacity for self-correction. It’s not that we always have acted perfectly. But maybe we can figure out (and maybe show the world to some extent) how you address your own deeply problematic legacies, and continue to move beyond them. And I consider our academic colleagues quite good at theorizing and articulating these self-corrective processes. At the same time, on a more personal or interpersonal level, many progressives seem pretty bad for now, as you have noted elsewhere, at creating social space for fallibilism, for being able to make a mistake — to think through what you want to say without some severe sense of accountability hanging over you. So in terms of broader curricular developments, have we figured out pretty well the case to make, but maybe not the tone or space in which to make it?
I do think that we in the United States have the best apparatus for self-correction. I’ve been giving talks all over the country, and I’m often asked whether I know of another country that could serve as a model for the United States on how to overcome our divisions. I always respond: “No — America is the best model.” Of course our constitution is imperfect. But think about this. Under the U.S. constitution (as amended during Reconstruction), if you are born in this country, you are an American citizen, no matter your race, creed, or background. It doesn’t matter whether your parents are from Mexico, Somalia, or Iowa. We forget how rare birthright citizenship is. No Asian country grants it. No European country grants it. In fact, the United States is one of very few developed nations to recognize birthright citizenship (Canada is another).
Our constitution, and the fact that our national identity is ethnically/religiously neutral and not a matter of “blood,” is a big part of why we’ve been more effective than any other country in the world at integrating an extremely diverse population. These days, frustrated progressive Americans will often romanticize countries like Canada and Sweden, and those countries have lots of great things going for them. But Sweden historically has been extremely ethnically homogenous, and they’ve been having serious difficulty integrating the recent influx of immigrants. The same with Denmark, so I wouldn’t just assume that Scandinavia has all the answers. In the U.S. we’ve been dealing with large-scale immigration for most of our 240 years, whereas some of these countries just started seeing significant immigrant flows within the last 20 years. Canada, as another example, is famous for its multiculturalism, so they have the second piece of the supergroup concept. They are good at allowing lots of subgroup identities to flourish. But I gave a talk in Canada recently, and a number of people raised the interesting question of whether Canada has as strong a collective national identity as the U.S., especially given Quebec. Also, we need to keep in mind that Canada has a much smaller population than the U.S., and a far smaller absolute number of immigrants. Whether and how Canada will be able to deal with large, sustained immigrant inflows in the future remains to be seen.
As for being able to make mistakes without being immediately condemned, I definitely think there’s a shortage of generosity on all sides right now. It’s too often a gleeful game of “Gotcha, you’re a horrible person.” In my own classes, I’ve tried to generate some real back-and-forth, and to get beyond echo chambers, in part by setting the ground rules. So I’ll say to my students, especially if we’re talking about something controversial: “Look, for just this one class, we’re going to try to give each other a break. If someone says something you find off-putting or insulting, don’t immediately assume it was intended hurtfully, and that the person is a bad person. Just try to explain what you object to, and what premises you disagree with, and try to hear the other person out.” Believe it or not, I’ve had pretty good luck with this. It’s not always fun and never easy, but if you can get people talking in good faith, progress sometimes happens quite quickly.
We all need to recognize that, outside of very small academic circles, if somebody calls you a racist, or bigot, or homophobe, the typical human does not react by saying: “Oh my gosh, you’re right. Let me improve myself.” People get angry. And sometimes they’ll go underground, where there really is a lot of extremism and ugliness. So we need to be more forgiving of small mistakes — which are sometimes just a matter of someone using the wrong vocabulary or phrasing. I mean I teach on a university campus and work really hard at it, and it’s still difficult for me to keep up with the latest acceptable terminology. How could someone from a small town with less experience with multiculturalism know exactly how to phrase things?
By the way, I should add that there are also some incredibly heartening developments all across the country. Ever since my book came out, people have been writing to tell me about amazing organizations like Better Angels, or a veterans organization called With Honor, which are trying to promote understanding across partisan divides. I love this project called Make America Dinner Again, started by two progressive young women in California. They were horrified by the 2016 election, and then realized they’d never actually met a single Trump voter, so they started these amazing across-the-aisle dinners. If you look beyond the loudest, shrillest voices on cable news and social media, you’ll see many people trying to talk to each other right now.
So let’s say Political Tribes’ readers appreciate these additional suggestions for how individual citizens and educators can help to push such constructive conversations forward. Given our present-day geographical, social, and ideological polarities, how then to bring such discussions to catalyzing scale — particularly if we agree with you (and, say, with Plato’s Socrates) that perhaps only intimate personal conversation (as opposed to grandstanding public speech) really holds the potential to change us for the better?
Well I’m really excited about this one idea that at first felt too Pollyannaish, but which people all over the country keep writing me about — from celebrities to a 13-year-old. It’s almost like an organic convergence of thought. The idea is to try to establish some sort of public-service or national-service program for young Americans. Right now, lots of well-off students do a gap year after graduating from high school. Very often these students will spend that year with other elites in Australia, Amsterdam, or Guatemala. But what if, after graduation, or even for a high-school semester, you had students from coastal cities go to another part of America where they otherwise would never set foot, and had them work alongside young people from the heartland on a common project? It would be a bit like Teach for America, a bit like the Peace Corps, but it wouldn’t be one group “teaching” the other in a condescending way. It would have to be a much more collaborative, equal-footing kind of project. I’m excited about the idea. I have students starting to experiment with it on a small scale.
For one related constructive/interactive project that comes to mind, when your book presents America as a supergroup, when it contextualizes this supergroup paradigm as never yet fully realized (as America continues to manifest extremes both of inclusive and of violently exclusive approaches to tribal boundary lines), my mind moves to one of history’s more self-consciously arbitrary, proactively instituted, quite successful reconceptualizations of tribal identity: Cleisthenes’s construction of 10 “tribes” for ancient Athens, with each tribe deliberately combining members from urban communities, agricultural communities, and coastal communities. Can you envision any equivalent American (or perhaps within a single state) project working well, without some citizens panicking about “social engineering” (as if various modes of socio-cultural segregation don’t imply their own forms of social engineering)? Or where else have humans most pro-socially, most creatively molded (rather than simply succumbed to) tribal tendencies — simultaneously strengthening supergroup and sub-group identity, not thinking of these as necessarily zero-sum?
I love the 10 Tribes idea. Though you’re right: as soon as you start using words like “engineering” or “quotas,” people get wary. Maybe it would be better to think in terms of “cross-pollination.” I do notice and worry about a tremendous amount of self-sorting and self-selection on university campuses. Critical Race Theory classes will often only attract minority and progressive students, who already agree with this approach anyway. So in my Contracts course, a required first-year course, I deliberately expose everybody (including conservative students) to a little bit of the best from Critical Race Theory. I get wonderful results. Students will say: “Oh, that’s what this is? I actually like this piece.” At the same time, I expose students predisposed to Critical Race Theory to influential libertarian theories of contract, or to law-and-economics arguments, and I’ll say: “Look, you have to pay attention to the effects of the policies you’re advocating, because if you end up harming the people you wanted to help, what good have you done?”
Again, I don’t love the term “engineering,” but it does take some thinking and self-conscious effort to lay the ground rules for how you can expose students to different schools of thought, in a way that feels welcoming and non-threatening. If we could do this at a national level, or even at a curricular level from a very young age, that would make a huge difference. Right now, I’ll see these incredibly brilliant and eloquent people with so much to say (who could be so effective in persuading others) just preaching to those already converted — and effectively accomplishing nothing.
Specifically in terms of the classroom engagements you describe, I’ve seen your colleague Asha Rangappa emphasize proactively designing situations where positive interactions can occur across supposed subgroup differences, prior to any more fraught conversation — so that before an inevitably tense or uncomfortable discussion arises, you already have tipped the balance by having 10 or 15 positive interactions take place.
I love my good friend Asha’s idea. It’s too bad, but just one really negative interaction with someone from a different group can lead people to form sweeping negative impressions of the whole group. It’s human nature, and you have to affirmatively resist the impulse. It happens to me. Someone will say or tweet something incredibly cruel and mean, and my head will fill with all these angry thoughts, and I’ll have to force myself to say: “This is just one person.”
Well your epilogue repackages the proverbial neighborly “Joneses,” here as working-class whites publicly expressing racist rejection of anonymous people of color, even while treating individuals whom they know personally with respect and even loving generosity (regardless of race). That speaks to my own lived experience of seeing many people who make Trump country Trump country nonetheless proving themselves, on a daily basis, more supportive and more nurturing in many ways than my impassioned, progressive, cosmopolitan city-based friends. And if we’re going to discuss the need for one-on-one connections to help alleviate social tensions, where does a potentially corny concept like love have to come into the conversation? I know for example that if I have acquired any respect for antithetical political views, it comes from loving specific family members and just people I interact with regularly who embrace these views. So to what extent would you agree that people need not only to talk across partisan divides, not only to tolerate each other, but to figure out ways to love each other (or at least love the same things) across these divides? And as you warn progressives about the perils of tearing down idealizations of the American dream, what might you add on the perils of tearing down ideals of love — even at the fraught level of the tribe?
You’re reminding me of a student who graduated a few years ago. Unusually for Yale Law School, he came from a white working-class Catholic family from the Midwest. His parents had adopted two orphans from Africa, so he has two black younger siblings, and they are a very close family. Anyway, his parents voted for President Trump, and he told me how stunned and frustrated they would feel whenever they heard people say things like: “If you voted for Trump, you must be racist.” Obviously someone could say: “You think it’s impossible to be racist just because you adopted those kids?” But there is something so fundamental about the love between a parent and a child that makes this kind of reductive attack seem just mean-spirited.
But getting back to your really interesting question about love: for sure, sometimes love can conquer hate. Intermarriage is one of the best ways of breaking down ethnic and religious divides. But sadly, sometimes hate can conquer love. Take the former Yugoslavia, where Serbs and Croats had lived together and intermarried for generations. In that case, and in Rwanda too, love ultimately couldn’t stop the genocidal fury fomented by hate-mongers. Neighbors killed each other. Cousins killed each other. Teachers killed their pupils. So I’m afraid it’s not so simple.
Yeah, I never would claim that, as the song says, “All you need is love.” I just consider this one of several topics or types of identifications with which progressives might need to get much more comfortable in order to make a broadly persuasive case. I also sense (perhaps less in Political Tribes than in public discussions you’ve done about the book) your interest in making a more sustained argument that populist cultural preferences and affiliations currently associated with rural or Rust Belt white communities (among them a deep alienation from, and distrust of, liberal elites) don’t always differ from sensibilities expressed among economically marginalized (and even middle-class) communities of color as much as progressives would like to think. By extension, could you foresee a scenario in which, say, Republicans come up with an effective strategy for rekindling what you have described as this rhetoric of the American dream (however mythical, ahistorical, structurally unattainable or not) and its basic normative parameters, both among working-class whites and among a substantial portion of working-class nonwhites? Wasn’t this in fact part of Karl Rove’s “permanent majority” strategy? And wasn’t Obama’s own wildly popular 2004 Democratic Convention rhetoric not so different from such a universalizing normative appeal? Again should we assume that if Democrats leave a dream-debunking vacuum here, Republicans eventually will fill it?
One of the themes of Political Tribes is that America’s elites are often ignorant about, or disdainful of, the group affiliations that matter most to ordinary Americans. For example, most coastal elites have never heard of the Prosperity Gospel movement. I had never heard of it until a student whose parents belonged told me about it. And this is not a marginal movement. Tens of millions of Americans, including an exponentially growing number of African Americans and Hispanic Americans, have made this one of the fastest-growing religious movements in the country. Donald Trump took advantage of this — he had Prosperity pastors and televangelists with millions of followers campaigning for him in the 2016 election. Believe it or not, these preachers tell their congregations that being rich is godly, that you should pray for money.
More generally, religion is important for a lot of working-class people and communities of color. You find a lot of religiosity in African American and Latino communities. Here again progressives are too often blind to, or condescending about, the group affiliations that matter most to the people they’re supposedly trying to help.
I think progressive elites sometimes imagine that working-class people are just like them, only poorer, but wanting and voting for all the same things. But again look at how well shows like American Idol or The Apprentice do among working-class audiences. A lot of Americans would love to hit it big. They’d love a big mansion. They love the way Trump Tower looks and the stuff Donald Trump buys. The tribal instinct is all about identification, and Trump’s base identifies with him at a gut level: with the way he talks, dresses, shoots from the hip, gets caught making mistakes, gets attacked over and over by the liberal media for not being politically correct, for not being feminist enough. The difference between elites and nonelites is always partly aesthetic. And American elites, especially progressive ones, often don’t realize how judgmental they are, with all the things they find tacky. So yes, you’re right, my book’s biggest theme has to do with how elites in America are often remarkably oblivious to the group identities that matter most to the people they imagine themselves helping, whether in countries like Iraq or Libya, or right here in Kentucky or Atlanta.