The first thing we should say about Amy Chua’s new book “Political Tribes,” is that she deserves great credit for highlighting the importance of group identity to modern politics. Nothing else can explain our current social dynamic, which is driven to a greater and greater degree by social identity, not policy issues.
The second thing we should say is that, as we suspected, Amy Chua clearly does not subscribe to social identity theory. We, like most who have heard of her have heard of her, heard about her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which generated headlines for calling out the effectiveness of Chinese parenting. Turns out Chua has written multiple books about groups and presumably has heard of social identity theory. But the group thinking she discusses is very biological and genetic (including a description of what parts of your brain light up when thinking about such-and-such), in keeping with evolutionary psychology.
At her best, Chua is able to explain the inexplicable contradictions of recent history with ease. Did you know that the US appeared to side with ethnic Chinese in Vietnam, who were resented for controlling much of the country’s economy? That goes a long ways in explaining how we found ourselves on the losing side of a civil war we characterized as communism vs. capitalism. What about Hugo Chavez of Venezuela? To hear American diplomats and media tell it, he was a socialist authoritarian. But as Chua capably explains, he was also a dark-skinned, curly-haired antidote to the “pigment-acracy” of Venezuela, which assigns beauty and economic power to those who reflect a light-haired, pale-skinned European image.
And Chua is better able than anyone we have read to explain the fun house mirrors of American identity politics. This is especially true when it comes to the left. She explores how the concept of intersectionality at first elevated discussions of underprivileged minorities in the United States, for example, highlighting how discussions of black rights or women’s rights both tend to leave out the importance of black women’s rights. But as identities continue to fracture, this has led to increasingly exclusionary positions. Now, according to the far left, you aren’t allowed to talk about issues unless you literally embody them. She explores the vitriol between white women organizing the successful Women’s March in 2017, and black women who felt they were once again assigned the backseat when white people became interested in activism.
Chua shows genuine sympathy for the white working-class and rightly calls out the way leftist writers describe them in terms that would simply be unacceptable if applied to any other group. One such writer literally uses the word “whelped” when describing working class white children.
Political Tribes falls a bit flat, however, when it tries to analyze the American right. Discussions of NASCAR and WWE seem superficial. Chua also seems to except the current breakdown of American identity without historical context. She quickly acknowledges the animosity between liberal whites and conservative whites, or coastal elite and a heartland working class, then moves on to a longer discussion of white people versus everyone else. Nowhere does she acknowledge that whiteness itself is a new concept, born after generations of inter-ethnic trife between European immigrants — the same sort of ethnic strife she details in other countries. In fact, she does little to bridge the gap between ethnic tribalism, which could be said to at least resemble actual tribal groups, and political tribalism, which does not.
Most disappointing is the lack of solutions to political tribalism offered in the book. We certainly can’t claim to know exactly what to do, but after reading about our vicious circles of identity and counter-identity, we were looking for hope. Chua tries to provide this with anecdotes of people reaching across the partisan divide. Then, in a bid for loft, begins quoting MLK, President Obama, and Langston Hughes. We were not convinced.
If nothing else, Political Tribes is an excellent crash course into group dynamics and their importance in shaping history. It just might not be a an uplifting course.