In their 2014 book The Triple Package, Amy Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, argued (controversially) that certain racial or religious minorities in America—including Mormons, Jews, and East Asians—did better than other groups, largely due to a combination of a sense of superiority, a (motivating) insecurity, and a resilience in the face of adversity. In her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, Chua argues that identity politics and tribalism, and the way they feed off one another, are weakening America.
Unlike some analysts who see identity politics as a function of the left or the right, Chua—whose previous books include Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother—believes both sides have been infected. As she notes, “The Left believes that right-wing tribalism—bigotry, racism—is tearing the country apart. The Right believes that left-wing tribalism is tearing the country apart. They are both right.” Chua grounds her critique in foreign affairs, arguing that just as Americans, in her estimation, are blind to tribalism when meddling overseas, they are now blind to the tribalism that has helped bring us Donald Trump.
I recently spoke by phone with Chua, a professor at Yale Law School who studies ethnic conflict. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed her experiences with political correctness at Yale, whether she “tiptoes” around the sensitivities of Trump voters, and just how steep the cost of identity politics really is.
Isaac Chotiner: When did you realize your background in studying ethnic conflict could be used to examine American culture and politics?
Amy Chua: Actually, very late in the game. This book started off very differently. It’s actually funny. I had written two books on nationalism and ethnic conflict before the Tiger Mom thing came out, but there were all these nasty tweets about “Why does the Tiger Mother think she can be talking about nationalism?” I thought, this is it. People don’t even know that I’m a professor, that I have these areas of expertise in foreign policy. So, I decided about three years ago that I wasn’t going to write a popular book. I was just going to go back and explore some of these issues about our greatest foreign policy disasters abroad.
And it was only two months after Donald Trump got elected, when I was teaching this class that I’ve taught for 20 years called International Business Transactions, where I talk a lot about these political dynamics and group dynamics. And I’m making this point, which is that the reason we screw it up all the time is because we are not familiar with the political dynamics in other countries, because our dynamics are so different. I was saying, “Because in these countries, in these developing countries you often get populist movements spurred by a demagogic leader with no political experience who [rises] to power on a racially tinged platform, scapegoating minorities,” and I just stopped, and everybody looked at me and said, “You’re describing the United States today.”
It makes sense that we would have more difficulty understanding Vietnam or Iraq than America, but it seems that you’re saying people here, especially those you identify as elites, really have trouble understanding their own country.
Completely. People describe it as “two Americas,” but I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. The reason there’s so much turmoil right now is because there’s always been all of these group identities and tribalism underneath, but we never heard about them because for almost 200 years the country was dominated economically, politically, and culturally by a white majority. And that is a very stable outcome—often invidious—but it’s stable, and all these other smaller groups are just suppressed, and you don’t hear about them until it feels like, “Oh, there’s no tribalism here, only now are we getting all this tribalism and identity politics.” But it’s always been there, it was just that we’ve always had a dominant identity and a dominant tribalism that superimposed itself on the whole country.
So now with the browning of America and whites about to lose their majority status, we have a new situation for the first time in our history where every group in America feels threatened. A study shows that two-thirds of working class [white] Americans feel that whites are more discriminated against than minorities. And Christians feel threatened. And when groups feel threatened, that’s when they go insular and tribal.
You argue in the book that one of the things driving white Americans crazy, and driving their own identity politics, is liberal identity politics. But you are also saying that white identity politics has always existed. So which is it? Is this Trumpian white identity politics always present, or do you think that right now it’s largely a backlash against liberal identity politics?
When there’s all this talk about white supremacy and white racism, I think it just muddies the water, because another thing that’s happened in addition to the browning of America is that class and educational differences have really split the white majority. So, the white-on-white resentment, the white-on-white hate in this country, is as intense as any other tribal divide right now. It’s a misnomer, but the kind of coastal elite—they obviously also live in Chicago and in Atlanta, and they’re not elite in the sense that they’re not necessarily all wealthy, but they are educated, they’re all the people that you and I know. They view themselves as the Enlightenment, which is supposed to be anti-tribal, and these people, who also happen to largely dominate Silicon Valley and Hollywood and Wall Street and much of the Washington establishment—this group of whites are now viewed by a lot of people inside the middle of America as traitors. As in, “These aren’t real Americans. They love minorities. They love foreigners better. They only want to bring in immigrants. They like the poor of Africa better. They don’t care about real Americans.”
Wall Street gives more donations to Republicans than Democrats, and Wall Street has just embarked on a huge PR campaign for Donald Trump’s tax cuts—with the vast majority of the tax cuts not going to poor white people—
So why are these things not engendering resentment? And is it fair to talk about the financial elite as being Democrats and liberals?
I think there’s a lot of confusion. The elites are always like, “How could these working-class, blue-collar whites not see that Trump is not one of them?” He is culturally more similar to [them], or, at least, he has succeeded in portraying himself, the way he talks, the way he gets in trouble for everything he says. He’s always being called a racist. He goes to WWE wrestling games. He stuffs himself on McDonald’s, and the glitz and all this stuff.
Americans in the heartland, or the working-class Americans, actually don’t hate wealth. They hate this idea that the system is rigged. There are studies that show that a lot of the white working class actually resent professional elites more. These pointy-headed professors and journalists and CNN people and lawyers. Ironically—talk about tribalism—it’s the progressives, it’s the liberals, it’s all my students, it’s me, it’s the people you and I probably know who are criticizing capitalism, who support Bernie, who say, “We need to fight inequality.”
A lot of poorer Americans of all races love the American dream. So, everybody where I teach is accurately pointing out that the American dream is a sham in many ways. That it’s really not true that people have access to it, but in doing that, they actually really turn off [voters].
OK, but what is it that you think bothers these voters so much more about a college professor making some comment about immigrants or cultural appropriation, as compared to their social safety net being gutted and being given to Wall Street via a tax cut?
First of all, there is a racial dimension, and I’m so frustrated with this debate after the election. Was it racism or economic anxiety that drove Trump to the presidency? It’s such a waste of time for smart people to do it either/or. Obviously both factors played a role in this.
On the coast, every time Trump says something, and we’re like, “Oh, that’s so racist or sexist. That’s going to take him down. He’s dead.” But instead that just misunderstands tribalism. He has successfully messaged himself. A lot of people seek him as part of their tribe, their cultural tribe. So every time he gets called out for being racist or sexist, instead of turning on him, they just feel he’s being picked on because that’s happened to them so many times in their workplace, always being called out for being … And to be fair, the left’s got to let go of some of this vocabulary policing.
If these people don’t want to be called racist, they should start by not supporting a racist president.
I may agree with you with that. That’s a different point.
A lot of people feel like, “I can’t even talk anymore.” I teach at Yale, and I’m so up to date on the latest vocabulary, and all the gender terms, and it is very hard for somebody in the middle of the country that is not familiar. They’ll sometimes say some things that we will think sounds racist. It’s just not the way we know how to talk, and I think that is a slightly separate point from actually being racist, right?
Oh, of course. I didn’t mean to say that everyone who doesn’t talk in the correct, modern terminology is racist. If you talk to anybody over the age of 60, they will make mistakes, and I don’t think it’s helpful to paint everyone with a broad brush and say, “Everyone over 60 is a racist.” I’m just saying for the people who support Trump, if they’re tired of being called racist, one way to fix that would be to not support a racist.
No, you’re absolutely right. So, it goes back to my point. Working class Americans don’t hate wealth. We’ve never had a strong socialist party in this country. We’ve never had a strong working-class party. Part of that is racism. But it’s also the fact that we have this mystic, powerful idea, this belief [in] upper mobility and the American dream. And it’s almost like the left has chosen—again, correctly—to point out, you know what? That’s kind of a sham. But that’s not what a lot of people want to hear.
You mentioned earlier that a lot of white Americans believe discrimination against whites is as bad as discrimination against blacks. And in your book the way you phrase that is, “It may seem absurd to some.” And then you go on to say that a lot of whites feel that way. Do you think it’s absurd? Because I feel like one of the things that you’re doing when you talk about this is you’re being—I don’t want to say being politically correct—but you’re tiptoeing around this group instead of saying things that they don’t want to hear.
I’m not quite sure what you mean, but here’s straight out what I think—
Do you think it’s “absurd” for white Americans to think that they’re being as discriminated against as black Americans?
I’m not sure if this is answering your question, but what I actually believe is: I’ve talked to students who, very few, we don’t have hardly any of them at Yale Law School, but the one poor white guy whose parents are from some very, very poor place and he definitely feels that when he comes to a place like Yale Law School that everything he says is condemned and that the whole place is just pro-minority, pro-diversity, and he gets in trouble for everything. And that is a legitimate experience. I know why he feels that way.
So, to answer your question, it’s almost like, “At what level of abstraction are you asking me?” Is it absurd to say that in the scope of history where white people have fit in, in this country? Yes. It’s an absurd idea. Is it absurd if you actually take the numbers of people being shot randomly and all that kind of stuff? Yes. But is it absurd for an individual human being whose dad may have just died of a heart attack, who has no money, who’s on all these loans, who comes to lots of these Ivy League schools and every day is told that he is piece of trash, and that we need more diversity. I think that’s reasonable. I don’t think it’s absurd.
And I’m not trying to tiptoe around anything, actually. At Yale Law School, if you say, “I want to go help the opiate crisis in Appalachia,” instantly you could be accused of promoting structural racism. The idea is, “Look, African Americans and minorities, we’ve had addiction problems for so long, and you just put us in jail, and now that it’s white people, you make documentary films about it.” I get it. I’ve lived through this myself as a minority, and I have plenty of rage. But I also think that it says something ridiculous about America that because the opiate crisis is actually the same problem across the races, that you have to pick sides on everything.
There are plenty of ridiculous stories about stuff on college campuses. We don’t need to tiptoe around saying that. At the same time, we have to tiptoe around the way we talk about average Americans and white Americans who voted for Trump. It just seems like political correctness. I’m not sure I view people being offended that Colin Kaepernick knelt any differently than people being offended by the way some term is used at Yale.
Oh, completely, oh my God. I’m totally with you there. Oh my God. Look, I think there is a lot of ridiculous, just straight-out racism.
Here’s another way of putting it, Isaac: What is your goal? Do you want the Democrats to win next time? Do you want to convert any people? What question are we asking?
I think the role for politicians and writers is different. I don’t think it’s a good strategy for a Democratic presidential candidate or Senate candidate to go up and talk about how racist the whole country is. Because I think, one, it’s not politically effective. And two: I think politicians have to go and reach out to people, to reach out to all of their constituents. Maybe not David Duke, but basically yes.
But your analysis of why Trump has support and why people look up to him the way they don’t other rich people: I don’t entirely disagree objectively, but my attitude is principally not, “Well, the left needs to be better about identity politics,” but rather that we should criticize the people and institutions, like Fox News, exploiting identity politics to get people to vote for racists.
Oh my God, yeah. I could not agree with you more. I have a much more nuanced view about identity politics. You have to read it very carefully. I think intersectionality is one of the most important concepts, and as a Chinese person, I cannot tell you how much I understand identity politics.
Like, I have had some white, Caucasian guy correct my pronunciation of how I said a Chinese word or tell me how to make really authentic Kung Pao chicken.
And my view is: You don’t have a right to talk to me like that. So, I’m not just a straight-out criticizer of identity politics.
It goes back to my question: What’s your goal? You want me to point the blame. Fox News is way worse. Of course, to me that goes without saying. And maybe you’re right that in the book, I tried to balance … I feel like there are enough books …
In the book you say, “The Left believes that right-wing tribalism—bigotry, racism—is tearing the country apart. The Right believes that left-wing tribalism is tearing the country apart. They are both right.” I really don’t think kids on college campuses are tearing the country apart.
I don’t think it’s just kids.
Who is it then?
I always get this: “Are you equating racism with …” No, no, no, no. Is this contributing to the fracturing of the country? I think that there are still questions. I have lots of super-liberal, white-guy students who still voted for Hillary, but [for] who this check-your-white-privilege thing, there is a lot of resentment. … It’s an unbelievable moment to me that we now have really open white nationalist movements. This is terrifying. This is terrifying, and I think it’s important to diagnose how we got here. So, we could have polite disagreements about that, but it comes from a good place. Again, if you ask people at Yale Law School, I’m the progressive. I mentor minorities.
I wasn’t trying to imply that you weren’t.
It’s like, look at the history books. They need to be corrected because they pull from the point of view of the victors. We need to show that. … I support that project, but like with everything, I feel like there are a few smaller, very shrill voices on both ends, and that’s what’s magnified and people are afraid. If there’s one person that said, “This guy is racist.” Then everybody in the school … Nobody can say, “No, that person may not be.” Because then that person is racist too. And …
I totally agree that that stuff can be insufferable. I just don’t think it’s tearing the country apart.
If you include [in] tearing the country apart, the election of Trump, OK? Because I know. I was one of the few people who was not surprised by the election outcome, and that is because I talked to so many people secretly who said, “Don’t tell anybody, but my parents are voting …” And some of these are South Asian people. Some of them are Cuban people. So, based on my own mini-semi-empirical study of simply my own students, I could see that something was off, right? Because secretly, every other cab driver: “Don’t tell anybody, but actually, my two best friends are.” I think you’re interpreting me almost literally, which is like, “They’re equally to blame.” That wasn’t a scientific statement.
The last thing, and then I’ll let you go because I’ve kept you already over a half-hour, which I apologize for.
No, it’s fun.
Good, I’m glad to hear that. You write about Martin Luther King Jr. that he “had the ideals to capture the imagination and hearts of the public and led to real change.” You contrast him with current movements, such as Black Lives Matter, which you see as more divisive. I Googled the last year that Martin Luther King’s approval rating was taken by Gallup, which was 1966, two years before he died. His approval/disapproval was 32/63. I looked up Black Lives Matter, which you point out in the book that you think sometimes doesn’t speak for all people the way Martin Luther King did, capturing their ideals. From Black Lives Matter the most recent poll I found was 43/57, which would be …
It makes me think that maybe the divisive left that we see now was always divisive in some way.
Yeah, I’m actually a very big supporter … Just so that you understand, [I wrote] another book that was also controversial, The Triple Package. I think that groups have to have a sense of exceptionalism. And this is now personal and not what I wrote in this [new] book, but I think it’s very healthy to have a lot of pride, whether it’s Chinese pride or black pride or, I don’t know what it is, a sense of exceptionalism. And I absolutely think that the rhetoric of universalism and all life, all these supposedly neutral things, including what Martin Luther King was doing, because that was a different time, have actually just completely not led to [enough] progress. I completely understand why there’s Black Lives Matter and completely support it. It’s not working, guys.
And again, I, myself am very tribal, and I think we are all very tribal, and a lot of times, people who think that they are not tribal or say that they’re being universalistic are actually just defending a certain dominant tribe. I’m not quite sure whether I’m just going off on a weird tangent here, but it makes a lot of sense to me. Black Lives Matter kind of hits me in exactly the right spot when I transfer it to my own identity as a Chinese person. I just felt like, that I couldn’t speak. It’s not as important a thing, but all my life, I’ve felt like, “Why are these people, these liberals, white people, talking like they’re helping me?” I don’t want their help. And also, they don’t get me.
Is the BLM rhetoric divisive in a way that Martin Luther King and other aspects of the civil rights movement were not?
Here I’m with you. I’m making your point. I mean, who polarized it? The right did it more than anybody else. If you look at the rhetoric, you could probably blame Fox News as much in just the pictures that they show and … Well, when you say polarized … I guess maybe you’re right.
This is not exactly a criticism. This is a good discussion. I didn’t quite say this, but in some ways I think that what we’re experiencing is polarization and turmoil and all this stuff. It’s healthy. It is the result of the fact that finally long-oppressed groups and voices actually have a way to express themselves. When you ask me that, maybe it is more polarizing, but maybe things need to be more polarized.
But I am a big patriot at the end. I really do like my supergroup identity because my bread and butter has been studying countries like Libya where you have absolutely no national identity to hold the country together. So, I am critical. You’d probably be on the other side of this. I think there’s a huge difference in saying, “This county has amazing ideals embedded in the Constitution and we have shamefully and repeatedly failed to live up to them.” I’m on board with that. As opposed to saying that our values are white supremacy and genocide. Because if that’s what America always was, at its core, then it’s not even worth fighting for.
Is part of being a Tiger Mom forcing your kids to read your books?
No. No. No. Definitely not. Actually, my kids are really great editors for me. Also, weirdly protective of me. They always don’t want me to get in trouble. I’m a very schizophrenic person because at school, everybody knows I’m somebody that wants to be liked, like in my personal life. And yet I keep writing stuff that just makes everybody so mad at me all the time.
Well, you know, therapy could probably address that.