Saturday, February 24, 2018

Readings on tribes and tribalism in America — #27: Amy Chua on “The Destructive Dynamics of Political Tribalism”

This may be the last post in this series. It has served to make the point, over and over, that, as polarization has deepened, more and more Americans have reverted to tribal forms of organization, belief, and behavior — often in dark malignant ways. When I began the series, few analysts were noticing and writing about tribalism. But now I sense that trend is shifting, for more and more analysts are noticing and writing, showing they understand the systematic nature of the tribal form. For example, see the excellent articles I’ve posted in recent months by David Brooks, Jonathan Haidt, and Andrew Sullivan, not to mention others.

So I’m changing direction — away from harping on the dark-sides, toward looking for readings that try to identify ways to ease our dark-side reversions and restore the bright-sides of the tribal form. So far, I’ve not seen much about remedies and solutions, and what I have seen is slim and slow — e.g., improve civic education. But I’m going to try to refocus anyway, under a new series title. All this dwelling on the dark side is a distressing downer. I’ll still attend to some dark writings about tribalism, but more briefly, and under the “Brief blurts …” series heading .

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A strong-point of Yale professor Amy Chua’s “The Destructive Dynamics of Political Tribalism” (Feb 2018) is that it starts by observing, rather than concluding later, that “America is in the grip of political tribalism.” And she is troubled that we’ve fixated on its symptoms when we should be trying to identify its “root causes.” Then, more than anyone else I’ve posted, she blames capitalism — specifically, the presence of a “market-dominant minority” — for creating the socioeconomic conditions that lead to political tribalism. According to her analysis, political democracy has foundered “in virtually every country where there has been a market-dominant minority” (she names Indonesia, Iraq, Zimbabwe, the former Yugoslavia, and Venezuela).

Today, she argues, America is at risk of succumbing to the same dynamic, with our “coastal elites” acting as that market-dominant minority. Thus, we should worry, not that America will go the way of the developed European nations where right-wing ethno-nationalism is taking hold, but rather that America will go the way of the underdeveloped and developing countries she mentioned where “resentment toward a market-dominant minority” led to demagogues taking power.

Here’s an excerpt from up-front that lays out her argument:
“By now we all understand that America is in the grip of political tribalism. We lament and condemn this phenomenon even as we voraciously engage in it. But by fixating on the symptoms, we remain blind to the root causes. America is being ravaged by predictable, destructive political dynamics that follow from the combination of democracy and a market-dominant minority.
“Most Americans assume that democracy and free markets go hand in hand, naturally working together to generate prosperity and freedom. For the United States, this has largely been true. But by their very nature, markets and democracy coexist in deep tension.
“Capitalism creates a small number of very wealthy people, while democracy potentially empowers a poor majority resentful of that wealth. In the wrong conditions, that tension can set in motion intensely destructive politics. All over the world, one circumstance in particular has invariably had this effect: the presence of a market-dominant minority — a minority group, perceived by the rest of the population as outsiders, who control vastly disproportionate amounts of a nation’s wealth.”
Her research, presented more fully in her new book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, leads to the following insight:
“Seeing coastal elites as a market-dominant minority is sobering. In my research, I’ve found no examples of countries successfully overcoming this problem. On the contrary, all over the world, when this dynamic takes hold of a nation’s politics, a result has been an erosion of trust in institutions and in electoral outcomes. Countries lurch toward authoritarianism, hate- mongering and an elite backlash against the popular side of democracy.”
She doesn’t offer much about remedies and solutions, but she sensibly observes that the “way out” will surely have to be “both economic and cultural”. In particular, “Restoring upward mobility should be viewed as an emergency.” Here’s her conclusion to this effect:
“ … If any way out exists, it will have to be both economic and cultural. Restoring upward mobility should be viewed as an emergency. Upward mobility is what made America different from developing countries that have disintegrated. Research shows that zero-sum political tribalism is worst under conditions of economic insecurity and lack of opportunity.
“But the emergence of coastal elites as an insular minority is also rooted squarely in the breakdown of national unity — in the fracturing of our country into two (or more) Americas in which people from one tribe see others not just as the political opposition, but as immoral, evil and un-American. America desperately needs leaders with the courage to break out of the tribalist cycle, but where are we going to find them?”
That final question is ever so daunting.

To read in whole, go here:

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