Can America Survive Tribalism?

Amy Chua is optimistic that the country can overcome its divisions—if only it remembers why it was founded in the first place.

A protester and counter-protester face off at a Trump rally.
Demonstrator Johnny Benitez faces off with a counter-protester during an America First rally in Laguna Beach, California, on August 20, 2017. (Sandy Huffaker / Reuters)

Since President Trump’s election, the term “tribalism” has become ubiquitous. Media outlets, including this one, used the word to explain the president’s victory. And reporters weren’t alone in their hypothesis that tribalism, and the mindset it implies, might help explain a swelling sentiment that contributed to his win. According to a forthcoming memoir by former Barack Obama aide Ben Rhodes, shortly after the election, Obama asked a group: “What if we were wrong? Maybe we pushed too far. Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”

Amy Chua, a Yale Law professor and the author of Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, insists that this attitude is nothing new in the American story—and that it’s not impossible to overcome, either.

At its most basic, tribalism describes the human instinct to want to belong to a group of people who are like you. For much of America’s history, Chua said during an event produced by The Atlantic on Thursday, huge portions of the population “didn’t feel the tribalism,” because the country was governed by an economically, politically, and culturally dominant group: whites. The multitude of groups that didn’t fall within the tribe of whiteness were smaller, and outside of circles of power. But today’s changing demographics—whites are projected to become a minority in the next couple of decades—are causing newfound anxieties, and fiercer divides, particularly among white Americans.

“We have to acknowledge that demographic change is really dislocating, and try to begin to have that conversation,” Chua said. She blamed “coastal elites” (identifying herself as one) for not being able to understand what gave rise to the president’s “Make America Great Again” motto, and also for “weaponizing” words in the form of identity politics. Berating from the left, she said, drives bigoted ideas underground, and “that’s where the real extremity is.”

Chua said that America’s founding—premised more on a shared set of ideals, and less on a shared ethnic or cultural identity—makes the country’s challenge particularly glaring and unique. At the same time, reinvigorating a collective “American idea” is the greatest remedy to the country’s growing ethnic, cultural, and economic divisions, she insists.

“Patriotism is not just about singing the anthem very loudly,” she said. “If you want a really unified country and to give meaning to this idea of a strong America, it has to be a country where the constitutional rights feel real and legitimate to all groups.” Of course, various minority groups have been denied those rights throughout America’s history; the same men who wrote that “all men are created equal” enslaved men, women, and children. This moment is “unprecedented,” Chua said, in that the historically hegemonic group is visibly losing its grip on economic and social power. The current moment is a test, then, of just how binding ideals can be.

That’s why it might take some “renegotiating” of what the American dream and national identity really are, Chua said. That’s not a simple task, but “generation after generation, there have been nativist, xenophobic voices. And every generation before us has overcome it.”

In Chua’s mind, all is not lost. She argues that moving away from more tribalistic impulses starts with embracing the idea that America is a “super-group.” A super-group, per Chua, allows subgroups—Japanese Americans, for example—to maintain distinct identities. At the same time, it bonds them through some sort of “connective tissue”: in America’s case, the ideals put forth by the Constitution.

Of course, there’s plenty of reason for cynicism; America’s history falls short again and again when it comes to upholding the ideals laid out in its founding documents. Still, Chua remains optimistic. “For all of our flawed problems and history,” she said, “we have the best apparatus” to overcome tribalism. “Our ideals have always exceeded the reality,” Chua added. “That’s the promise of America.”