Humans are tribal. We need to belong to groups. We crave bonds and attachments, which is why we love clubs, teams, fraternities, family. Almost no one is a hermit. Even monks and friars belong to orders. But the tribal instinct is not just an instinct to belong. It is also an instinct to exclude.
Some groups are voluntary; some are not. Some tribes are sources of joy and salvation; some are the hideous product of hate mongering by opportunistic power seekers. But once people belong to a group, their identities can become oddly bound with it. They will seek to benefit their group mates even when they personally gain nothing. They will penalize outsiders, seemingly gratuitously. They will sacrifice, and even kill and die, for their groups.
In many parts of the world, including the regions of greatest national security interest to the United States, the group identities that matter most are ones that Americans are often barely aware of. They are not national, but ethnic, regional, religious, sectarian, or clan based.
In our foreign policy, for at least half a century, we have been spectacularly blind to the power of tribal politics. We tend to view the world in terms of territorial nation-states engaged in great ideological battles—Capitalism versus Communism, Democracy versus Authoritarianism, the “Free World” versus the “Axis of Evil.” Blinded by our own ideological prisms, we have repeatedly ignored more primal group identities, which for billions are the most powerful and meaningful, and which drive political upheaval all over the world. This blindness has been the Achilles’ heel of U.S. foreign policy.
Take the Vietnam War, arguably the greatest and most humiliating military defeat in the history of the United States. It’s by now well known that we underestimated the extent to which the Vietnamese people were fighting for national independence, as opposed to Cold War Marxism. But here’s something most Americans, experts and novices alike, don’t know, not even today. Inside Vietnam, a deeply resented 1 percent Chinese minority historically controlled as much as 70 to 80 percent of the country’s commercial wealth. Thus, a hugely disproportionate number of Vietnam’s “capitalists” were ethnic Chinese, despised by the Vietnamese, both northern and southern.
Because we completely missed the ethnic side of the conflict, we failed to see that virtually every procapitalist step we took in Vietnam was guaranteed to inflame popular resentment. If we had actively wanted to turn the Vietnamese people against us, we could hardly have come up with a better formula.
This is part of a consistent pattern. To give just one more fateful example: on the eve of the Iraq War, the Washington establishment was aware of a divide between Sunnis and Shias, but repeatedly minimized its significance. At the same time, we failed to understand the centrality of Iraq’s tribal structures and how they were key to where Iraqi loyalties would fall. As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged in 2017, “We didn’t probably understand fully the role of the tribes.” American policy in Iraq was based on the conviction that ethnic, tribal, and sectarian divisions would dissipate in the face of democracy and market-generated wealth. In President George W. Bush’s words, “freedom and democracy will always and everywhere have greater appeal than the slogans of hatred.” Instead, Iraq descended into a maelstrom of escalating conflict and violence from which it has still not recovered.
A handful of critics had warned of this danger. I was among them. In 2003, in my book World on Fire, I urged caution, warning that in Iraq “everything—even freedom and wealth—has ethnic and sectarian ramifications.” Because Iraq’s Shias formed a 60 percent majority long oppressed by Saddam Hussein’s reviled Sunni Baathist regime, I cautioned that democracy could actually catalyze historic enmities, with elections producing not a unified Iraq but rather a sectarian Shia government that excluded and retaliated
against the Sunnis. These circumstances would be ripe for the rise of “powerful fundamentalist movements” that “are intensely anti-American.” Unfortunately, this precise scenario unfolded.
Domestically as well, elites in the United States have either not cared about or been remarkably oblivious to the group identities that matter most to large segments of ordinary Americans, including people they are supposedly trying to help.
Occupy Wall Street, for example, was a movement intended to help the poor—but which did not actually include the poor. On the contrary, it was overwhelmingly driven and populated by the relatively privileged. It’s not just that working-class Americans did not participate in Occupy; many, if not most, of them intensely dislike and spurn activist movements. As a student from rural South Carolina put it, “I think protesting is almost a status symbol for elites. That’s why they always post pictures on Facebook, so all their friends know they’re protesting. When elites protest on behalf of us poor people, it’s not just that we see them as unhelpful; it seems they are turning us, many of whom have a great deal of pride, into the next ‘meme.’ We don’t like being used as a prop for someone else’s self-validation.”
For a blast of irony, contrast Occupy Wall Street with a movement that actually is enormously popular among America’s have-nots and have-lesses. The prosperity gospel is one of the fastest-growing movements in the United States. It teaches that being rich is godly and that God will make people rich if they pray (and tithe) correctly. The number of poor and working-class African and Hispanic Americans who belong to prosperity churches is growing exponentially. Three out of four Hispanic Christians in the United States believe that “God will grant financial success and good health to all believers who have enough faith.” A Mexican American student of mine—whose family members are now in danger of being deported by the Trump administration—recently wrote to me: “In my opinion, the Prosperity Gospel explains how much of my Hispanic family can be anti-Obama and pro-Trump, despite that being so obviously against their self-interest. It’s a coping mechanism for poor people who feel hopeless in this world. Just a few weeks ago, my mom sent me a video of one of her favorite pastors snapchatting from Trump’s inaugural ball. My mom was so excited to see Trump welcoming in men she considers to be ‘holy.’ For me, this is frustrating to no end.”
But the most important tribal identity missed by America’s elites was the powerful antiestablishment identity forming within the working class that helped elect Donald Trump. Right up until election night, U.S. elites—pundits, pollsters, major media outlets, economic analysts—on both sides of the political aisle had no idea what was coming.
Race has split America’s poor, and class has split America’s whites. Even today, the tribal politics behind President Trump’s election still baffles many. How could so many in America’s working class have been “conned” by Trump? How can lower-income Americans possibly fail to see that Trump is not one of them?
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 tribal instinct is all about identification, and Trump’s base identifies with him at a gut level: with the way he talks (locker room), dresses, shoots from the hip, gets caught making mistakes, and gets attacked over and over by the liberal media for not being politically correct, for not being feminist enough, for not reading enough books. His enemies, they feel, are their enemies. They even identify with his wealth, because that’s what many of them want, along with a beautiful wife and big buildings with their names on them. For many working-class Americans, being antiestablishment is not the same as being antirich.
Tribal politics demand group markers, and the difference between elites and nonelites is always partly aesthetic. America’s elites today, especially progressive ones, often don’t realize how judgmental they are. They disdain tacky things, and, not coincidentally, those tacky things—fake tans, big hair, pro wrestling, chrome bull testicles hanging from the back of a big truck—are usually associated with lower-Income Americans.
For many elites, so is patriotism—at least of the “USA!”-chanting, Budweiser-drinking, Make-America-Great-Again variety. American elites often like to think of themselves as the exact opposite of tribal, as “citizens of the world” who celebrate universal humanity and embrace global, cosmopolitan values. But what these elites don’t see is how tribal their cosmopolitanism is. For well-educated, well-traveled Americans, cosmopolitanism is its own highly exclusionary clan, with clear out-group members and bogeymen—in this case, the flag-waving bumpkins. When former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich declared in 2009, “I am not a citizen of the world,” he was instantly attacked. One writer in the Huffington Post called him “supremacist,” “regressive,” “elitist,” and “racist,” concluding, “Mr. Gingrich, if you are not a citizen of this world, then stay the eff out of it”— hardly the most inclusive of sentiments.
There is nothing more tribal than elite disdain for the provincial, the plebian, the patriotic. Without taking anything away from their important contributions across the globe, U.S. elites often seem to have more compassion for the world’s poor than America’s poor, perhaps because the former are easier to romanticize. Meanwhile, for their part, many ordinary Americans have come to view the elite as a distant minority controlling the levers of power from afar, ignorant about and uninterested in “real” Americans. America’s elites miscalled the 2016 election in part because they don’t understand—even look down on—what matters most to America’s nonelites.
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. In 2009, in a speech in the Grand Hall of Cairo University, President Barack Obama said, “[I] have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”
These stirring words—echoing similar declarations by presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as by many leading figures of the U.S. foreign policy establishment—express the fundamental hope that freedom will speak to people’s deepest yearnings. Unfortunately, people have other yearnings as well.
The great Enlightenment principles of modernity—liberalism, secularism, rationality, equality, free markets—do not provide the kind of tribal group identity that human beings crave and have always craved. They have strengthened individual rights and individual liberty, created unprecedented opportunity and prosperity, transformed human consciousness, but they speak to people as individuals and as members of the human race, whereas the tribal instinct occupies the realm in between. (In Hollywood movies, the only time Earth is united is when it is under attack by another species from another planet.) Especially in societies where people fear for their safety or some struggle just to survive, idealistic principles will often ring hollow—and in any case have a hard time competing with appeals to more primordial group passions. Universal brotherhood is incompatible with gross inequality.
We are at an unprecedented moment in America. For the first time in U.S. history, white Americans are faced with the prospect of becoming a minority in their “own country.” While many in our multicultural cities may well celebrate the “browning of America” as a welcome step away from “white supremacy,” it’s safe to say that large numbers of American whites are more anxious about this phenomenon, whether they admit it or not. Tellingly, a 2011 study showed that more than half of white Americans believe that “whites have replaced blacks as the ‘primary victims of discrimination.’ ” Meanwhile, the coming demographic shift has done little to allay minority concerns about discrimination. A recent survey found that 43 percent of black Americans are skeptical that America will ever make the changes necessary to give blacks equal rights. Most disconcertingly, hate crimes have increased 20 percent in the wake of the 2016 election.
When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. 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. Whites and blacks, Latinos and Asians, men and women, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, straight people and gay people, liberals and conservatives—all feel their groups are being attacked, bullied, persecuted, discriminated against. Of course, one group’s claims to feeling threatened and voiceless are often met by another group’s derision because it discounts their own feelings of persecution—but such is political tribalism.
This—combined with record levels of inequality—is why we now see identity politics on both sides of the political spectrum. On the left, “inclusivity” has long been a progressive watchword, but today’s antioppression movements are often proudly exclusionary. The stubborn persistence of racial inequality in the wake of Barack Obama’s supposedly “post racial” presidency has left many young progressives disillusioned with the narratives of racial progress that were popular among liberals just a few years ago. When a grand jury failed to indict a white cop who was videotaped choking a black man to death, black writer Brit Bennett captured this growing mistrust in an essay entitled, “I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People”:
We all want to believe in progress, in history that marches forward in a neat line, in transcended differences and growing acceptance, in how good the good white people have become.… I don’t think Darren Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo set out to kill black men. I’m sure the cops who arrested my father meant well. But what good are your good intentions if they kill us?
As a result, many on the left have turned against “inclusive,” universalist rhetoric (for example, All Lives Matter), viewing it as an attempt to erase the specificity of the experience and oppression of historically marginalized minorities.
The new exclusivity is partly epistemological, claiming that out-group members cannot share in the knowledge possessed by in‑group members (“You can’t understand X because you are white”; “You can’t understand Y because you’re not a woman”; “You can’t speak about Z because you’re not queer”). The idea of “cultural appropriation” insists, among other things, “These are our group’s symbols, traditions, patrimony, and out-group members have no right to them.” Not long ago, it was considered left wing and a sign of multicultural openness—a rejection of ethnocentrism—for a Caucasian person to wear a sari or a kimono, or to sport cornrows or dreadlocks. Today, any of these acts might be considered a “microaggression,” a transgression of group boundaries by members of a dominant group.
Meanwhile, with a disturbing rise in white nationalist, anti-Muslim, anti- Mexican, anti-immigrant rhetoric, identity politics has also seized the American Right; mainstream politicians speak of “taking back” the country and warn of a “war on whites.” All this is making a hash of core conservative values. For decades, the Right has claimed to be a bastion of individualism and color blindness. This is why the emergence of white identity politics is typically painted by conservatives as having been forced on them by the tactics of the Left. Just after the 2016 election, a former Never Trumper explained his change of heart in the Atlantic: “My college-age daughter constantly hears talk of white privilege and racial identity, of separate dorms for separate races (somewhere in heaven Martin Luther King Jr. is hanging his head and crying)… .I hate identity politics, [but] … [w]hen everything is about identitypolitics, is the left really surprised that on Tuesday millions of white Americans… voted as ‘white’? If you want identity politics, identity politics is what you will get.”
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.
Most European and all East Asian countries originated as, and continue to be, ethnic nations. In these countries, the population is overwhelmingly composed of a particular ethnic group, which typically supplies the country’s name as well as its national language and dominant culture. Thus China is politically and culturally dominated by ethnic Chinese, speaking Chinese; Germany by ethnic Germans, speaking German; Hungary by ethnic Hungarians, speaking Hungarian; and so on.
By contrast, America’s national identity is not defined by the identity of any one of the innumerable ethnic subgroups that make up the U.S. population. Instead we are a tribe of tribes, with citizenship equally open to anyone born on our soil, no matter what their ancestry. It would be odd to refer to “Irish French” or “Japanese Korean.” But in the United States, you can be Irish American, Japanese American, Egyptian American, or whatever American, and intensely patriotic at the same time.
Alone among the major powers, America is what I will call a super-group. A super-group is first of all a group. It is not universal; it does not include all humanity. It has a “We” and an “Everyone Else.” But a super-group is a distinctive kind of group: one in which membership is open to individuals from all different backgrounds—ethnic, religious, racial, cultural. Even more fundamentally, a super-group does not require its members to shed or suppress their subgroup identities. On the contrary, it allows those subgroup identities to thrive, even as individuals are bound together by a strong, overarching collective identity.
America was not a super-group for most of its history. On the contrary, the United States became one only through a long and painful struggle, involving a civil war and a civil rights revolution. But America’s continued existence as a super-group is under tremendous strain today.
America is beginning to display destructive political dynamics much more typical of developing and non-Western countries: ethnonationalist movements; backlash by elites against the masses; popular backlash against both “the establishment” and “outsider minorities” viewed as disproportionately powerful; and, above all, the transformation of democracy into an engine of zero-sum political tribalism.
Donald Trump may seem utterly unprecedented in the United States, but there’s a startling parallel from the developing world. Trump was neither the world’s first “tweeter‑in‑chief” nor the first head of state to have had a reality TV show. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez was. Like Trump, Chávez was elected to the shock and horror of elites, sweeping to victory in 1998 on an antiestablishment platform, attacking the mainstream media and a slew of “enemies of the people.” Like Trump, who catapulted himself to the White House 140 characters at a time, Chávez was a master at communicating directly to the populace, winning over millions of the country’s have-nots with unscripted rhetoric that struck elites as vulgar, outrageous, absurd, and often plainly false. Finally, like Trump, Chávez’s appeal had a racial dimension. But whereas Chávez’s base consisted primarily of the country’s long excluded darker-skinned masses, Trump’s base was white.
Interestingly, Washington completely miscalled Venezuela too. Seeing Chávez through the usual anti-Communist lens, U.S. foreign policy makers in 1998 were oblivious to the deep racial tensions in Venezuelan society and the intense, tribal, antielite resentment building up just below the surface. As a result, we repeatedly made bad foreign policy calls—like hailing a 2002 coup against Chávez as a “victory for democracy”— undermining our legitimacy in the region and our ability to combat today’s real attack on Venezuelan democracy.
If we want to get our foreign policy right—if we don’t want to be perpetually caught off guard, fighting unwinnable wars, and stuck having to choose between third-and fourth-best options—the United States has to come to grips with political tribalism abroad. And if we want to save our nation, we need to come to grips with its growing power at home.
Excerpted from Political Tribes by Amy Chua. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Amy Chua, 2018.