American politics is tribal. Are we ready to admit that?

Amy Chua at her apartment in New York City.

In the near entirety of recorded history, humans, animated by the will to survive, inclined toward family, tribe and clan. To establish a state, or something like it, was to ask subjects to transcend narrow loyalties for greater ones. The city-states of ancient Greece to the proto-state of prophet Muhammad and the first Muslims grappled with this tension.

As Plato records in The Republic, Socrates took such concerns to their logical extreme, advocating communal ownership of property, including women and children. In sharing women and children, says Socrates, the guardians “will not tear the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’.” If man naturally inclines toward family, then the solution was, in effect, to make the state into a kind of larger, all-encompassing family.

This was one solution. Another was for nations to have states: states would be one big tribe, bound together by language or ethnicity, or usually both. This required a sort of sorting: the French would have France, the Spanish Spain and (perhaps eventually) the Indians India. Ideally, these states would be governed democratically. But, short of outright ethnic cleansing, the sorting could never be complete.

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To the extent that societies have transcended tribalism, they have done so not by accepting history but by defying it. Liberalism – referring here to the ideological tradition emerging out of the Enlightenment rather than the American political classification – seems so dominant today that to think of plausible alternatives requires an overactive imagination. In the eyes of its increasingly spirited critics, liberalism is also insidious, at once everywhere and nowhere, and therefore especially difficult to dismantle. To fight your enemy is first to name it.

Liberals, meanwhile, 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, the so-called end of history.

In her new book Political Tribes, Yale law professor Amy Chua attempts to bring tribalism back and argues that doing so will help us understand not only other countries, but also increasingly 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….

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