Liberals tend to view history as one long progressive march: its arc bends towards greater freedom or greater equality, or at least it should. Much of Western intellectual thought is based around the notion that societies inevitably transitioned away from religion and tribalism (and other “irrational” orientations) toward something better. There are different steps along the path: reformation, followed by enlightenment, then secularization, and ending with liberal democracy.
In her new book Political Tribes, Yale law professor Amy Chua attempts to explain tribalism, and argues that this will help us understand not only other countries, but also our own. This is not tribalism in the narrow sense, but tribalism as an idea, what she calls the “group instinct.” It is similar to what the 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun called asabiyya, an Arabic word with no exact translation, in part because it conveys something stronger than mere social solidarity. It is this deeper element that Chua is most interested in, and she demonstrates how Americans’ obliviousness to its power contributed the disasters of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
As Chua writes: “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.”
Former presidents Barack Obama George Bush, despite their radically different outlooks, both struggled in their own ways to understand tribalism’s power – Bush in invading Iraq and Obama in trying to undo what Bush had wrought. Obama disparaged Arab “tribalism,” a catch-all word that, for him, seemed to capture uncontrolled passions of ideology, identity and religious fervor. As the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported, Obama was known to say to aides: “If only everyone could be like the Scandinavians, this would all be easy.”
Americans have struggled to empathize with, or even understand, tribalism, in part because of our own self-conception as transcending narrows divisions.
Chua calls America a “supergroup” – something, incidentally, no Scandinavian country is (or probably can be). A supergroup, notes Chua, “does not require its members to shed or suppress their subgroup identities. On the contrary, it allows these subgroup identities to thrive, even as individuals are bound together by a strong, overarching collective identity.”
She emphasizes the centrality of birthright citizenship to the American idea. Did you know that not a single European country has unrestricted birthright citizenship? As Americans, we often take it for granted that at least some of the world’s most advanced democracies share this. They don’t.
The basic lesson is clear enough: if we are naturally – even biologically – tribal, then it requires at least a dose of humility. None of us are exempt from the tribal instinct, and none of us necessarily should be. To instruct people that they can’t express certain sentiments that come naturally to them is a recipe for backlash.
Trump voters aren’t all evil, racist or deplorable. Racial, ethnic or religious identities may motivate voting behavior, but this doesn’t make a choice less legitimate or a vote less equal. There is a temptation to explain what, to many of us, still seems inexplicable: “If only they had the right information or listened to the right arguments, they would come to their senses.”
This, though, is the wrong conclusion. Trump supporters will not “learn their way out of their instincts.” All the common sense in the world will never overcome tribal behavior. The solutions are far more complex.