June 2018

Book Review: Political Tribes


In recent years, the term "political tribalism" has been thrown around with increasing vigor when discussing America's political culture. As much as we all want to believe that we are all independent thinkers who always come to our own conclusions of our own volition, we all fall victim to the powers of political tribalism in one way or another. After all, humans evolved to survive in groups, and groups need to think alike in order to survive. Amy Chua's new book "Political Tribalism: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations" provides an excellent example of how this manifests itself in today's American political culture. The importance of these tribes cannot be overstated in foreign policy decisions.

Chua's book starts by citing several case studies of how America has been blind to political tribalism over the past several decades in foreign policy decisions. In Vietnam, America believed it was helping to South Vietnamese to defeat the North, but was completely blind to the reality of Vietnam's political tribes. The Vietnamese people in general were far more concerned with Chinese influence over Vietnam than whether or not Vietnam would become a communist country. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States also ignored critical tribal/ religious differences.  Iraq was a particularly embarrassing mistake, as America believed that Iraq's Sunni-Shia-Kurdish divide would magically be repaired in the face of free and fair elections. Instead, the process of elections further ripped the country apart as the minority Sunni feared brutal treatment at the hands of the majority Shia (who would naturally elect other Shia to oppress the Sunnis).

Chua goes even further to describe this phenomenon as something she calls the "market dominant minority." This is where a minority population holds the vast majority of wealth within a country. This is what happened in Vietnam (where the Chinese in South Vietnam actually had most of the economic power) and Iraq (where the Sunni had all the power until they were removed by American forces). These groups do not give up power easily, and it often goes very badly when they are removed by the majority. Forced wealth redistribution, the purging of political rights, and even removal or genocide are all possible effects of the reduction in status (or attempted reduction) of a market dominant minority.

The last major concept of this book is called a "supergroup." Here, the United States is considered a supergroup. This is where a country contains many different ethnic, religious, and cultural groups that are all held together under a common nationalism. This nationalism is neither ethnically nor religiously based, meaning that all people are welcome to share in this identity regardless of other factors that typically divide people. In America, this has helped create a unique situation where the white majority is quickly becoming a market dominant minority within the larger society. As this "browning" of America occurs, it may become very difficult for the United States to prevent the same fate that has befallen other nations in similar situations. However, if there is one positive, it is that America has always endured this. Not long ago, the Irish and eastern European immigrants were feared to be doing the same thing. This time, skin color has returned as a much more defining feature driving the fears of the market dominant minority in America.

Pros: Political Tribes is extremely insightful and provides a fresh new perspective on the reasoning for previous American policy failures. It also highlights a very serious problem that threatens the survival of the American social fabric. Few can deny that we are living in one of the most divided times in modern American history. Cons: Chua does not provide much in the way of solutions to these problems. There is a call for dialogue and understanding, but this seems like a futile effort when so many individuals support positions that directly harm them solely because they make the other side angry. Chua also seems to paint the rise of populism as a completely grassroots movement rather than one that is partially exploited from the top. Politics is always a two-way street. Much of the Trump phenomenon came from legitimate frustrations at the local level, but even more of it was fueled by key individuals like Trump himself and exploited by powerful foreign agents. Until those elements are removed that revel in this division, the problem will never truly be solved.

In all, both sides of the political divide are to blame. Conservative groups have been consumed by the fear of losing their white-majority status and the changing shades of America. Liberals have taken the extreme on racial issues and ignored the real problems facing the white working class. They also tend to overemphasize racism to the point where it loses its value (when everything is racist, then nothing is). It used to be the highest sign of respect to dress in the clothing of another culture and share in its customs, now it's highly offensive and considered "appropriation."  To make matters worse, people on both sides are clinging to their tribe even in the face of direct contradiction or evidence to the contrary. This can be seen in the outright denials of facts in the Russia investigation, or the sudden shift in the Republican party from supporting global free trade to promoting tariffs on America's closest allies. We are quickly devolving into a political environment where we elect someone every four years just to undo what the last person did the previous four years. This doesn't help anyone in the long run and does not move us forward as a nation. Accept that you may be part of a political tribe, and that sometimes this tribe is wrong. And know that any political opinion that exists for the sole purpose of pissing off other people is morally repugnant. It may not be much, but it's a start in the quest to blur the lines of America's political tribes.