When Two Tribes Go To War

1 August 2018
When Two Tribes Go To War - Featured image

Tribalism is splitting the United States down cultural and political lines, and Matthew Lesh fears Australia is heading in the same direction.

As the infamous author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua was typecast as a Chinese American mum with a forceful parenting style, but she’s also a law professor at Yale University with expertise in human tribalism, which is skilfully applied in her latest book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.

Chua argues the United States was once united by widely shared liberal values and symbols. Today, however, due to a mixture of identity politics, social and economic exclusion, and technology, America is becoming dangerously divided, both culturally and politically.

‘Humans are tribal,’ is Chau’s short but powerful opening sentence.

‘We need to belong to groups. We crave bonds and attachments, which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, family… But the tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong. It is also an instinct to exclude.’

This insight comes from evolutionary psychology. We evolved in tribal settings, in communities of about 100-150 people. In order to survive the evolutionary contest, our forefathers were united against potential threats to their group. This has established a neurological bias towards group identity. From a young age we favour and remember people who look like ourselves. We like to see our group succeed and other groups fail (as football fans know)

Chua claims that the United States became a ‘super group’ in the 20th century, meaning the US had a uniting national identity transcending ethnic, racial and religious grounds. You could be a patriot, someone who loves the founding fathers, the constitution, and the flag, whether you’re a white orthodox Jew or a black Christian. Chua contrasts this with blood and soil Asian and European nationalism which one cannot simply adopt. You can become American by immigration, you cannot become ‘Chinese’ by living in China.

America, however, is an increasingly tribal nation. There is a growing divide between the ‘rural/heartland/working class whites and urban/costal whites’. Chau contends that ‘the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an “ethnic” difference’.


‘When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism,’ Chau writes. ‘They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them. In America today, every group feels this way to some extent.’

As sociologist Charles Murray explored in Coming Apart, working class and coastal class Americans live separate lives, rarely communicate, and do not understand each other. This is feeding anger and resentment, reinforced by the internet, social media, and network news which delivers opposing perspectives of the world.

Chau argues that both sides of
this divide are tribal in nature:

‘American elites often like to think of themselves as exact opposite of tribal, as “citizens of the world” who celebrate universal humanity and embrace global, cosmopolitan values… [but they] don’t realize how judgmental they are. They disdain tacky things, and, not coincidently, those tacky things—fake tans, big hair, pro wresting, chrome bull’s testicles hanging from the back of a big truck—are usually associated with lower-income Americans.’

On the other side, a ‘powerful antiestablishment identity’ has formed in the working class, which helps explain Donald Trump’s rise. ‘What these elites don’t see is that Trump, in terms of taste, sensibilities, and values, actually is similar to the white working class.’ The working class identity includes Trump’s locker room banter and dress sense, shooting from the hip, getting caught making mistakes, and being attacked by the media for political incorrectness. ‘His enemies, they feel, are their enemies,’ Chua writes. They even identity with his wealth, the beautiful wife, and the big buildings. ‘For many working-class Americans, being antiestablishment is not the same as being anti-rich.’ They are aspirational, they want to get rich.

Chua builds on the themes of Hillbilly Elegy, the celebrated memoir by J. D. Vance exploring the culture, patriotism, poverty and social pathologies of small-town America. Vance, who was taught by Chua at Yale and encouraged by her to write the book, has described Chua as the ‘authorial godmother’ of Hillbilly Elegy.

There are many reasons for working class to feel threatened. Coastal elites disparage their cultural habits and patriotism, and have labelled them ‘deplorable’ sexists, racists and homophobes. The working class faces unemployment, addiction, and declining life expectancy. Whites will be a minority in the United States by the end of the century. Meanwhile, popular culture is increasingly anti-Christian and the rightful increased status of minorities has led to a relative decline in status for whites.


White Christians from conservative states are the most under represented group at elite colleges. There are just three students in the Yale Law School class of 2019 from a working class background. Nor are they well represented in Congress. The white working class is at least 50 per cent of the US population, however just 2 per cent of legislators have a working class background.

Chau’s discussion on tribalism is not only directed at the domestic sphere. She argues that historic unity through group blindness led to a lack of appreciation of the group-ish tendencies of others, with disastrous foreign policy consequences. During the Cold War, America saw global politics as a competition between capitalism and communism, and since 9/11, between freedom and terrorism.

Chua argues that in the disastrous Vietnam War the US overlooked the resentment of the mass of the population against the ethnic Chinese who dominated the commercial life of the country. In defending capitalism, the US was seen to have allied itself with the ethnic Chinese, fueling further hatred. Later, the Chinese were a large component of the post-war refugees fleeing ethnic persecution. Chua claims the US similarly, and fatefully, overlooked ethnic tribalism in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Venezuela.

Ironically, considering it is her area of expertise, the least persuasive elements of Chua’s thesis are in the foreign sphere. For instance, in claiming the US helped create ISIS by ignoring tribal conflict in Iraq, she underplays ideological motivations and radical Islamism. In claiming Venezuela’s predicament is caused by internal ethnic divisions between the lighter and darker skinned, she underplays the disastrous consequences of adopting socialist economic policies which drive poverty and division.

Nevertheless, Chua’s exploration of ferocious ethnic divides overseas supports her domestic argument that the US must avoid tribalism. A driver of tribalism that Chua takes aim at is identity politics. Chua discusses how in the 20th century the left adopted an individualist cosmopolitan idea of rights that transcend ethnic, racial and gender divides – as evidenced by the ‘veil of ignorance’ developed by philosopher John Rawls, and the United Nations’ universal human rights convention. The Republicans deliberately chose to overlook group attributes in favour of patriotism, and so Ronald Reagan came to quote Martin Luther King Jr.

The left, however, came to view the Reagan era’s studied indifference to group characteristics as enabling inequitable outcomes. It turned from inclusive universalistic rhetoric to divisive identity politics, which ignites tribal conflict. This new rhetoric pits groups against each other, increasing conflicts and driving unintended consequences. People are judged by their group membership, not their value as individuals, and the unity of a ‘super-group’ is lost.

In practice, the concept of identity politics has backfired. Feeling under attack, the American right has seized identity politics as well, adopting white nationalist, anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, and anti-immigrant rhetoric. The conservative narrative of individualism and inclusive patriotism has been lost.

‘This leaves the United States 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,’ Chua writes.

Australia faces many of the same opportunities and dangers as the United States. While Chua considers ‘super-group’ status to be a uniquely American phenomenon, Australia is also an immigrant nation with a united identity beyond racial, ethnic, or religious confines. We too, however, face a political establishment obsessed with identity politics, who seek to undermine Australian unity by disparaging national identity and history.

The key takeaway from Chua’s book is that we must protect inclusive group-transcending values or risk becoming irrevocably culturally and politically divided.

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