Revenge of the tribes: How the American Empire could fall

Yale professor Amy Chua on the identity of nations, why hardened tribes end up in civil wars, and why you can't just replace dictators with democracy.

Amy Chua: I think a great example of group blindness in the United States is when Woodrow Wilson said in 1915—in a very famous speech—“There are no groups in America. America doesn’t consist of groups. And if you continue to think of yourself as belonging to a smaller group you’re not American.”

It’s astonishing that he could say this—these universalist tones at a time when Native Americans were largely still denied citizenship, Mexican Americans were still being lynched, Asian Americans were barred from owning land, and African Americans were being subjected to violence and degradation virtually every day. And yet he was saying we don’t have any groups here. So that’s an example of almost willful blindness to groups. And sometimes this kind of universalist rhetoric, “Oh we’re all just one people,” is a way of hiding a lot of inequality and smaller kinds of group oppression.

So if you look at a country like Libya they’re actually a little bit like the United States. That is, they are a wildly multi-ethnic nation. The problem is they don’t have a strong enough overarching national identity to hold it together.

And the goal is a group—or a country, in this case—that has, on the one hand, a very strong overarching national identity: “We’re Americans,” but—importantly—at the same time allows individual, subgroup, and tribal identities to flourish.

You should be a country where you can say, “I’m Irish American,” or, “I’m Libyan American,” and yet be intensely patriotic at the same time. So: “I’m Muslim American. I’m Chinese American. I’m Nigerian American.” So, at its best, in America, there should be a certain amount of porousness and fluidity across tribes.

It’s when tribalism gets really entrenched that things can get very dangerous.

Western democracies at their best—or just any democracies—are when people have crosscutting group identities. So it’s like okay, I’m a Democrat or I’m a Republican but I’m also Asian American or African American or straight or gay, wealthy or not wealthy. Just different ways of dividing yourself so that you don’t get entrenched in just two terrible tribes.

It’s sort of like, if I’m talking about sports I’m with you, but if I’m talking about food preferences I’m with you, and you could have different groups that neutralize each other.

One of the problems with what we’re seeing in America today is that it seems increasingly that certain tribes are hardening. In particular, you’ve got what is very misleadingly called the “coastal elites”. In a way, that’s misleading because coastal elites are not all coastal and they’re also not all elites in the sense of being wealthy. Often, in this term coastal elites is included professional elites or even students who have no money but they’re well-educated, they’re progressive, they are multicultural and cosmopolitan.

And we’re starting to see in America something that I’ve seen in other countries that is not good. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to get to the point where we look at people on the other side of the political spectrum and we see them not just as people that we disagree with but literally as our enemy, as immoral, “un-American” people.

Because once you get to that point you’re just not really one America anymore, and you start to get some of the problems that you historically have seen more in post-colonial developing countries.

So when you have one group that is just incredibly dominant—for example whites in the United States for almost 200 years—a group that is dominant economically, politically, and culturally. It can feel very stable, but it’s in an invidious way. That’s because there’s plenty of tribalism and other voices and other people and other groups, they just can’t speak. They can’t express themselves so you don’t hear from them. So when you have a very strong group that is politically and economically dominant you can get a lot of stability, but that’s often because other smaller groups are oppressed. 

So take China. China is a group with an incredibly strong overarching national identity. Over 90 percent of the population is Han Chinese. Then you have all these minorities—the Uyghurs, the Tibetans, and many, many other smaller groups or tribes—but they have no power economically or politically. They can’t say anything. Their identities are suppressed.

In countries where there’s one group just controlling everything politically and economically you can have all kinds of injustice and oppression, but it tends to be stable politically.

What happens in other situations is sometimes power gets split. So in many developing countries around the world, economic power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority. For example, the three percent Chinese in Indonesia. Although only three percent of the population, the Chinese in Indonesia control roughly 70 percent of the corporate sector—and that’s not an exaggeration—it's almost all of the country’s largest conglomerates.

Or take whites in South Africa. Roughly maybe 10 percent of the population for most of that country’s history under apartheid, that tiny white minority controlled everything—all of the wealth, all the diamonds and politics. So these are situations where you have minority controlling an economy. And what happens in this situation is if you then introduce democracy suddenly—majority rule—you’re not going to get peace and prosperity like Americans often expect democracy to bring.

Instead, you’re often going to get payback time where the long-resentful and suppressed majority will use their new political power to come after that dominant minority.

One recent example is Iraq. Iraq is a country where the Sunnis were actually about 10 to 15 percent of the population but they were economically dominant for many, many generations. Partly—Saddam Hussein himself was a Sunni, so he favored the Sunnis, and under Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship the Sunnis ran the oil wealth, they controlled the political power. Although a minority, the Sunnis were also dominant under the British because the British liked to play groups against each other. And the British favored the Sunni minority. And before that, under the Ottomans, the Sunnis were also dominant.

So you’ve got this tiny minority, the Sunnis, about 10 percent of the population, 10 to 15 percent. Suddenly the United States comes in, topples a terrible dictator and says, “Great, we’re going to put in democracy now,” expecting democracy in Iraq to bring freedom and prosperity.

That’s not what happened. The newly empowered Shi’ias, about 60 percent of the population, used their new political power to exact revenge on the Sunnis who had basically oppressed them for, really, hundreds of years.

So, in that case, democracy is not a vehicle for freedom and prosperity, but democracy can become an engine for ethnonationalism and tribalism.

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