Political Tribes

By Gia

Like the no good Tide pod eating lazy millennial that I am, I get my news online and for the past few years, I’ve been hooked on Vox for my news and infotainment. Vox is an excellent organization that does deep dives and tries to explain the news in an honest, digestible, non-clickbait-y way. The founder and editor, Ezra Klein, has a weekly podcast where he does in depth interviews with political and cultural bigwigs as well as up and coming names to pay attention to. A few weeks ago he had Amy Chua on and she was talking about her book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. I was immediately hooked.


I think the country as a whole is still coming to terms with the 2016 election results. If you didn’t have an “Oh fuck” moment that election night, you weren’t paying attention. I think our notion of what the country was, who the people are, was tested. There was a lot more going on than we thought and at times, especially in the media, it seems that we are divided and moving farther apart on what we believe it means to be American.  


How deeply ingrained tribalism is:


Humans are a pack animal. We cannot survive without one another and are hard wired to seek out and maintain tribes to belong to. We are also hardwired to keep others out of our tribes. Belonging would feel cheaper some how if everyone got into the club.


These instincts kick in pretty early – infants only a few months old will show preference for people of their own family/ethnic group in photos and interactions.


A group of school kids that were divided into a group wearing blue t-shirts and red t-shirts were so biased to their own group assignments that they could remember favorable traits about their own team and negative traits of the outgroup much more easily.


People are wired to seek out groups. Groups have very strong social psychologies. These impact every aspect of our lives, especially politics.


After reading Chua’s book, I learned a few new definitions:



  • America is a supergroup.



What does that mean?


  • Super groups have open memberships regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, culture, class. There’s no need to shed your own identity to belong to larger group identity, but  the group still has collective overarching identity. I can be Indian and a woman and Sikh, and not like Star Wars but still be American.
  • America is even more special because we have birthright citizenship. Just being born here makes you American, even if you don’t speak English (though some may contest that).

Supergroups are extremely rare and almost never exist as countries. Think of places like France – you may live there, but unless you adopt a certain way of living (and perhaps even then) you’ll never be French. Have you ever heard of a Indian-French person? But Indian American sounds familiar. African-German? But African American is a thing. Most other groups are much more homogenous. America prides itself on diversity. (Mostly.)

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have tribal conflicts. They are just different.


  1. Market Dominant Minority


What does that mean?


  • A market dominant minority is a small group of people who are the minority in a country who have a disproportionate amount of wealth/control over the economy and social institutions. Think old white Christian men in America. The Chinese in Vietnam. The light skin European descendants in Venezuela. The Tajiks in Pashtun heavy Afghanistan.


  • She then lays out how Venezuela, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq were impacted by the general lack of awareness of how tribal identities work.

Russia and America were both unable to get a handle on Afghanistan. Neither group understood that communism vs. capitalism wasn’t nearly as important to the over thrown Pashtun people as the favoritism of the market dominant Tajiks that America appeared to be helping.


The Vietnamese rebels were outraged that America was aiding the Han Chinese market dominant minority in their country that also happened to be pro-capitalism. They weren’t all Vietnamese – there was not collective identity for America to unite, the tensions were something we severely mis-calculated to the detriment of their country and ours.


Venezuela’s racial politics really intrigued me. Chua discusses how the country is obsessed with beauty pageants and appearances. The majority of the country is poor indigenous dark skinned people, yet a light skinned contestant won pretty much every year. The small market dominant fair skinned elites had been oppressing and devaluing the larger population for so long. Then Hugo Chavez came along and America was appalled that the people could elect a seeming authoritarian. It was harder to see that the dark skinned Chavez was pro-poor people. He was catering to them in a way no one else had before.


When we examine old and recent political and historical events in the lense of tribalism, seemingly nonsensical events start to make sense.


Chua then breaks down that much of America’s internal struggles have a lot to do with tribalism as well. It just looks a bit different than more ethnically driven tensions. There’s definitely ethnic and racial tensions here. But it could be argued that educated liberal whites are pretty much a different ethnic group than less educated poor whites. Or religious and non-religious groups. They are far less likely to intermarry than people of different races.


Tribes in America are not necessarily drawn down ethnic lines. Every person has many different identities that they may choose to align themselves with.

Liberals may pride themselves on inclusion and open-mindedness, but there’s a certain disdain for those not quite as educated, as well travelled, and as well informed. And there seems to be a certain hair trigger sensitivity that creates a “boy who cried wolf” effect. If everything is offensive, then sooner or later, no one is going to care. I feel that is a little of what happened with Trump. There were groups of whites who had constantly felt attacked and blamed and also trampled by the economy and ignored by social programs that poor people of color had access too. Poor whites were not optimistic for prospects for their children like people of color were for theirs.


Trump’s race baiting along with Russian interference was enough to divide people on racial and tribal fault lines that had always lain in the U.S. foundation.


You would think this would be a class conflict. Why don’t the poor rebel against the rich and not against poor people of other races?


  • America has a prosperity gospel where “religious” figures and the rich have convinced the poor that it’s the other minority groups, not the rich, that are keeping them in poverty and pain. Entire groups of people have been trained to believe that being rich is a virtue. To hell with what Jesus actually preached about wealth and it’s vices.
  • Trump often race baits people while flaunting his own wealth and “accomplishments”. This keeps the poor segregated into racial groups rather than an entire class voting block and keeps the rich in power.
  • And there are even groups within groups. Think about the Bernie or busters – one could argue that they weren’t voting logically – they were dividing up the left’s voting block. But that’s just the thing – tribal mentality isn’t always rational. That group of people identified a certain way and refused to vote any other way than to compromise their group ideals.

I mean think about how competitive rival fan groups get during soccer matches. Think about how strong family bonds can be – people will kill and die for each other – for their groups. These are powerful primal bonds and we need to be aware of them when we navigate the future of politics and the nation as a whole.


I strongly recommend reading Chua’s book. Not just her book, but as many as you can on race and class and gender relations in this country and others. Almost every social problem you can think of usually is connected back to one of these primary issues. It is our duty to know them and do our best to be better in the future. Be conscious.



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