When Amy Chua wrote her most recent book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, she said she was instantly criticized by both liberals and conservatives. That’s because the book dishes out pointed criticisms of both sides of the aisle.
But she doesn’t just point out the follies of liberals and conservatives — in Political Tribes, Chua describes how tribal identities can affect political divides and how Americans often underestimate the importance of those tribes. In the book’s last two chapters, Chua tries to recapture “some form of a national identity that can resonate for all Americans.”
Chua thinks this kind of national introspection is necessary because identity politics has taken hold of American politics, locking it in a stalemate of stubborn ideologies that seem to be moving further apart. And in her view, it’s not the standard, expected partisanship.
“For the first time in our history, the United States is starting to display these destructive political dynamics that are more typically associated with developing and non-Western countries, like populism and blasts of ethnonationalism,” Chua said.
Before she wrote Political Tribes, Chua was more focused on the differences between the United States and those developing and non-Western countries. For 20 years, she taught a course on international business transactions, in which she emphasized that the United States’ social, political and ethnic dynamics were so different from those of developing countries, which led to critical misunderstandings and foreign policy blunders.
“At a certain point, I read a passage from my first book (World on Fire) that said Americans tend to romanticize democracy,” Chua said, “and democracy can sweep to power a politician with no political experience who, to the horror of elites, rides a wave of ethnically tinged populism to power.”
At that moment, Chua paused and looked out at the class. She said they were all thinking the same thing: That description sounded a lot like the current political climate of the United States.
This was a “lightbulb” moment for Chua. It caused her to turn her lens on the ways that the United States was similar to these nations and, to some degree, susceptible to the same social and cultural forces.
“Once you see the United States as part of a larger global pattern, I feel like it’s much easier to diagnose the problem,” Chua said.
The problem, she said, isn’t tribal identities themselves.
“Telling somebody to get rid of their tribal identities would be like telling somebody to stop liking their sports team,” Chua said. “You know, just think about that — stop liking the Buffalo Bills, or stop liking the Dallas Cowboys. I mean, good luck with that.”
Instead, Chua said the United States must acknowledge the many tribes within its borders and allow them to flourish under a larger national identity that can resonate with all Americans.
For Chua, the linchpin of that larger national identity is the set of principles that America was founded on, particularly the Constitution.
“I think it’s probably because I’m an outsider — my parents are immigrants that just love this country — but I tend to feel that a lot of Americans take some of these special and unique principles for granted,” Chua said. “We forget how unusual it is to have a constitution that actually has no established religion, that is on its face ethnically and religiously neutral.”
Chua acknowledged that the United States has failed to live up to those principles again and again, and it has not yet fully realized the ideals that it claims to uphold. But she’s an optimist — she closes Political Tribes with this excerpt from the Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again.”
“O, let America be America again — The land that never has been yet — And yet must be— the land where every man is free. … O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath — America will be!”