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Tribalism is wreaking havoc on American policy, both foreign and domestic, argues Amy Chua in her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Members have been reading and debating Chua’s argument for the Masthead Book Club. To wrap up the discussion, we brought in two scholars who have thought deeply about human tribes: Lawrence Rosen, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Princeton, and Miriam Juan Torres, the co-author of “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape.” (Chua was unable to join us.) Together, they explain why people are so drawn to the language of tribalism—and why it’s misleading.

The Problem With the Word Tribal

Lawrence Rosen and Miriam Juan-Torres answered member questions on our forum yesterday. The questions are paraphrased below. Rosen and Juan-Torres’s responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Is tribalism—the fierce loyalty that individuals feel to their party, religion, or ethnicity—destroying American politics?

Miriam Juan-Torres: Tribalism is certainly having a negative effect on American politics. Yet it is just one among many factors that are contributing to polarization and the deterioration of public debate. The way in which America is depicted as a nation divided between two warring (and tribal) factions negates a reality that is far more complex.

Tribalism, understood as “groupness” or “group affiliation,” is rooted in human psychology. Everyone, everywhere, has tribal instincts and the need to belong. But these instincts don’t operate in the same way for everyone. When people talk of tribalism or “us versus them,” they often think in binary terms—there are two groups, two tribes. But in our most recent study (“Hidden Tribes”), we found that Americans can actually be sorted in seven different segments which are distinct in their values, morals, and worldviews.

There are three segments that compose the right and left “wing segments” (33 percent of the American population); they are highly ideological and politically active. Each of the extremes holds the mirror image of each other: Each sees “the other side” as irrational, agitated, dogmatic, and angry. For them, the tribal behavior has intensified. Even though they are not even half of the population, their dynamics are dangerous as they wield a disproportionate influence in politics and public discourse.

The other four tribes, which we have named the “Exhausted Majority,” exhibit less dramatic tribal behaviors.

Larry Rosen: In The Federalist Papers, James Madison argued that factions would balance one another. That was, perhaps, both naive and hopeful. But certainly this is not the first time in American history that identity groups have formed and reformed around political agendas, and not the first time they have intensified differences.

The main problem with couching this phenomenon as “tribal” is that the term carries harmful assumptions in its train. For when scientists like E. O. Wilson, commentators like David Brooks, and law professors like Amy Chua claim Americans have a “tribal instinct” that pits people against one another, it runs the risk of this becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, quite aside from its effect of demonizing real tribes. So, yes, there are identity groupings that are deleterious and always have been, and, yes, there are aspects that are being stoked at the moment that are particular to these times. But the more commentators falsely ground this concept in questionable psychological tests and analogies to prehominid creatures, the more they contribute to misunderstanding the historical and social implications of humans’ sense of group identity.

Do tribal identities tend to emerge in reaction to a sudden influx of culturally distinct immigrants? Why and how?

Juan-Torres: The evidence seems to suggest that an influx of immigrants will not always result in backlash against them. Pace, volume, and culture matter. In our data sets, high perceptions of threat and of the world becoming a more dangerous place correlated with support for strict immigration policies (for instance, to build a border wall). Below a certain threshold, an influx of immigrants does not seem to strengthen a particular notion of the in-group. It is when immigration is perceived as posing a challenge to the “normative order” that the need to retreat to a narrower definition of that “us” seems to develop.

Rosen: There is no doubt that groups arise and take shape in response to other groups or in response to strains—whether of population or resources—that require some response. Democratic countries may have legal rules that ease this transition, but laws alone do not create attitudes. What scholars do know is that the greater the face-to-face relation to newcomers, the more likely animosity may be abated. And the more experience a culture has with newcomers, the more likely that they may develop crosscutting ties that ameliorate violence.

Chua writes that America is one of the few countries in the world that can call itself a “super-group,” which she defines as “a group in which membership is open to any individuals of any background but that at the same time binds its members together with a strong, overarching, group-transcending collective identity.” Do you agree that America is a super-group, defined by a strong national identity?

Juan-Torres: Whether America is or has ever been a super-group I suspect is a discussion that does not have a definitive answer. The notion of a super-group is a social construct that is difficult to apply to different times. What I find more interesting is the question of whether America can aspire to be one (or, on the contrary, whether as an aspiration it is utopian and unnecessary) and whether the country needs a set of shared values, or a vision or grand narrative.

It is true that there is no unanimity on what makes an American. Yet based on our data, Americans are united in believing that a commitment to freedom, equality, and pursuing the American dream are important to being an American, not being white or Christian (there are exceptions, of course). There can be, and there is, a debate about what those terms mean: What is freedom or equality? How do we guarantee them?

How do you distinguish a legitimate tribe from an illegitimate one? Is a valid tribe one that emerges totally organically and subconsciously?

Rosen: The idea that some tribes are legitimate and others illegitimate is, of course, a value judgment. Perhaps it would be more useful to think about how such groups form and interact with one another.

I am rather struck, for example, by a line in the Quran where Allah says, “We created and appointed you races and tribes that you may know one another.” That may seem odd, since our distorted use of the term “tribe” implies being pugnacious and exclusionary. But the point being made is that when people differ, efforts must be made to comprehend one another.

Perhaps, then, I am overly optimistic, but Americans might see the current group identity politics as also bringing out into the open orientations that at times can take precedence over differentiations. That may be why, in “Hidden Tribes,” more than three-quarters of Americans still place themselves somewhere in the middle, and are willing to listen to each other to a not inconsiderable extent.

Check out the full discussion with Rosen and Juan-Torres on our forums.

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