Q&A: Amy Chua on the rise of political tribalism in America

Foreign Affairs

Amy Chua is a professor at Yale Law School and the author of five books. In 2011, she became a household name after publishing her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir documenting her strict parenting style. Prior to SupChina’s fourth annual Women’s Conference, we spoke with Chua about political tribalism, her parenting memoir, and her career in law.

amy chua

Amy Chua is a professor at Yale Law School and the author of five books. In 2011, she became a household name after publishing her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir documenting her strict parenting style. The book was an instant bestseller, which has been translated into over 30 languages. In 2018, Chua published Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, in which she explores the power of tribalism and how it has become a growing threat in America.

Chua will speak at SupChina’s fourth annual Women’s Conference, which is slated to take place virtually on September 9 and 10. Buy your ticket here before they’re sold out!

Ahead of the conference, we spoke with Chua about political tribalism, her parenting memoir, and her career in law.

SupChina: In your most recent book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, you discuss the power of tribalism. Human beings are tribal by nature, and group identities are not inherently harmful; however tribalism has started to take over the political system, and this can have damaging effects. To what do you attribute the rise of political tribes in the U.S.?

Chua: Political tribalism has always existed to some extent in this country (many voices were just suppressed), but I think two factors explain what makes this particular moment different — that is, why the U.S. is so bitterly polarized today and why that polarization is generating the specific dynamics we’re seeing.

The first is massive demographic transformation. For 200 years, America was dominated economically, politically, and culturally by a white majority. When one group is so overwhelmingly dominant, it can persecute with impunity, but it can also afford to be more generous and inclusive, like the WASP elites of the 1960s who voluntarily opened up Ivy League colleges to more Jews, blacks, and other minorities, in part because it seemed like right thing to do.

Today, for the first time in U.S. history, whites are on the verge of losing their majority status. Already, non-Hispanic whites are a minority in Texas and California, America’s two most populous states, as well as in New Mexico, Hawaii, and Washington, D.C. Less than half of American children under the age of fifteen are white. According to projections from the Pew Foundation, whites will cease to be a majority in America by 2055.

The result is that in America today, every group feels threatened. Not just minorities, but whites feel threatened. Over half of white Americans believe that “whites have replaced blacks as the ‘primary victims of discrimination.’”  Today, it’s not just religious minorities like Jews and Muslims who feel threatened; Christians feel threatened, outraged by the “war on the Bible.” With President Trump in the White House, women feel threatened. With the #MeToo movement, men do. Straights and gays, Latinos and Asians, liberals and conservatives — all feel they are being attacked, bullied, discriminated against. And when groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more us-versus-them.  This — combined with record levels of inequality — is why we’re now seeing such intense identity politics on both sides of the political spectrum.

But there’s a second reason we’re seeing new political pathologies in the United States. This has to do with the phenomenon of “market-dominant minorities” — a term I coined in 2003 to refer to a minority group, perceived by the rest of the population as outsiders, who control vastly disproportionate amounts of a nation’s wealth. Such minorities are common in the developing world. They can be ethnic groups, like the tiny Chinese minority in Indonesia who make up just 3% of the population but control roughly 70% of the nation’s private economy, or they can be distinct in other ways, culturally or religiously, like the Sunni minority in Iraq that controlled the nation’s vast oil wealth under Saddam Hussein.

In countries with a market-dominant minority, democracy can be extremely destabilizing. Easily manipulated by power-seeking demagogues, resentful majorities who see themselves as the country’s rightful owners demand to have “their” country back. Ethnonationalism rears its head, and democracy becomes a vehicle not for peace and prosperity, but for escalating, often deadly political tribalism. This dynamic unfolded disastrously in Iraq in 2003 and was also at play in the former Yugoslavia, Zimbabwe, Venezuela.

For most of U.S. history, it seemed as though Americans were relatively immune to dynamics like these. Part of the reason is that we never had a market-dominant minority. On the contrary, for two hundred years, America was economically and politically dominated by the white majority — a politically stable, if often invidious, state of affairs.

But today, something has changed. Race has split America’s poor, and class has split America’s white majority. As a result, we may be seeing the emergence of America’s own version of a market-dominant minority: basically, the country’s cosmopolitan elites, most of whom are urban and live on America’s coasts. America’s cosmopolitan elites bear a striking resemblance to the market-dominant minorities of the developing world. Wealth in the United States is extraordinarily concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of people, who dominate key sectors of the economy, including Wall Street, the media, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Although these elites are not an ethnic or religious minority, they are culturally distinct, sharing similar cosmopolitan values. They are extremely insular, interacting and intermarrying primarily among themselves, attending the same elite schools, and are often viewed as arrogant and condescending by the rest of the country. It’s important to note that these cosmopolitan elites are not all white; indeed, from the point of view of working class whites, the Harvard-educated, elegantly dressed, professorial-sounding Barack Obama is the classic cosmopolitan elite. Most important, because these elites are viewed by many in America’s working class as “minority-loving” and pro-immigrant — caring about the poor in Africa more than the poor in the U.S. — they are seen as unconcerned with “real” Americans, indeed as threatening their way of life.

What happened in America in 2016 is exactly what I would have predicted for a developing country pursuing elections in the presence of a deeply resented market-dominant minority: the rise of a populist movement in which demagogic voices called on “real” Americans to “take back our country” — or in Donald Trump’s words, “Make America Great Again.”

Because of the two factors just discussed — radical demographic transformation and the emergence in the U.S. of our own idiosyncratic version of a market-dominant minority — America is starting to display, for the first time in its history, many destructive political dynamics typically associated with “developing” countries: ethnonationalist movements, an erosion of trust in institutions and in electoral outcomes, lurches toward authoritarianism, elite backlash against the less-educated working class — or “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton famously called them — and above all, the transformation of democracy into an engine of zero-sum political tribalism.

SupChina: We have reached a point where people on opposite sides of the political divide can barely talk to one another. Our allegiance to “political tribes” is leading to the breakdown of a national identity. How do we create spaces for discourse when people are not willing to listen? What needs to happen in order for the United States to rebuild its national identity?

Chua: There is no easy solution. One might have hoped that the pandemic would bring people together, but so far there’s little sign of that happening.  In terms of specific reforms, one possible proposal to bridge the chasm between America’s cosmopolitan elites and Trump’s blue-collar base would be a national service program where young Americans are encouraged or required to spend a year after high school not abroad, but in an unfamiliar part of America — for example a young New Yorker could do a stint in rural Appalachia. In this way young people of different backgrounds, who usually stay in their own echo chambers, would have an opportunity to interact and work with (not just “help”) people they would normally never cross paths. A silver lining of the pandemic is that it provides many opportunities of this kind; there is a tremendous need for help all over the country with contact tracing, sanitizing public places, delivering food, tutoring children, and so on, and young people are least susceptible to the dangers of COVID-19.

SupChina: What are the political implications of tribal identities in China? In what ways do political tribes differ in China compared to the U.S?

Chua: I haven’t written about China specifically, but I would say that the dynamic in China is very different from the U.S., because China is dominated economically, politically, and culturally by the ethnic Han Chinese, who make up over 90% of the population.  So that is far and away the dominant political tribe.

SupChina: Your well-known memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, was published nine years ago. This was a more personal piece than your other books, and from what I understand, you were not entirely expecting the controversy that it created. What was your driving motivation to write this book? For people who might be reading this book today, what do you hope they take away from it? What advice might you offer to younger women pursuing a career in law?

Chua: People don’t realize it, but I really wrote the book in a moment of total crisis, when my (very stubborn!) younger daughter Lulu rebelled at the age of thirteen. She was so angry I thought I might really lose her, so I completely changed my approach; I got less strict with her, gave her more choices, and did much more compromising. And I’m so glad I did! It’s hard to come up with one takeaway, but I would say: make sure you pay attention to your child’s personality, try to combine the best of East and West, and try to make sure there is fun and humor in the household! Laughter is the best release valve!

SupChina: What initially sparked your interest in studying law and becoming a professor? Were there particular experiences in your early life that informed your decisions regarding your career path? Do you have advice for younger women who want to pursue a career in law?

Chua: I only went to law school, because I couldn’t think of anything else to do — and knew I didn’t want to go to Medical School (like my parents were hoping). I became a professor completely by luck and serendipity, so I always tell younger women you can’t plan everything! Sometimes just go with the flow. I’m personally not a “natural” at law, but I’m still glad I pursued a career in law, because I actually think it is a very flexible degree. You can use it to practice law — but you can also use a legal degree to go into business, government, policymaking, teaching, public interest work, writing — almost anything!