Political Tribes

Political Tribes

Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations

Amy Chua

Penguin Press, New York, 2018, 304 pages

Book Review published on: January 12, 2018

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations is an explanation and analysis of various cultures and subcultures, and how they see themselves and outsiders. The central thesis of this book is about tribal groups and how other cultures— especially that of the United States—underestimate the power of these tribes, and how the United States has yet to fully appreciate their ability to leverage their influence. Although author Amy Chua does not specifically define the word “tribe,” the reader will infer she uses it more as a descriptive adjective and less as a proper noun. She uses it to describe a collection of people brought together through identification to a cause so powerful that it becomes their driving force in terms of their normative values and behaviors—a cause that gives them the will to resist any and all outside pressures.

Early in Political Tribes, Chua describes how “American exceptionalism” has basically blinded us to other cultures. She describes this American exceptionalism as stemming from our birth as a Nation to creating a land based on the principles of democracy, where one must assimilate its values in order to be a member and not as an individual or as a subgroup. She goes on to further state that we—the United States—are in fact a collection of subgroups (tribes), yet we dismiss it because we presume being an “American” transcends all other identifications. She goes on to illustrate how this blindness has caused us to misread several other groups that we became involved with at the strategic level in countries such as Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Venezuela, as well as terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida.

She devotes a chapter to each of the aforementioned countries and cites each countries’ historical roots in its development of its tribal foundation. She then goes on to explain how the United States saw each country as a failing entity that could only be saved through the establishment of freedom and democracy. In each case, when the United States attempted to get involved through foreign policy, it wound up misjudging the populations’ reaction and soon found itself as an unwelcome outsider to the very people it was attempting to liberate.

After a look at how tribalism affected our foreign policy, Chua examines tribal subcultures within the United States. She identifies many tribes throughout the United States based on identities such as race, gender, economic status, political party affiliation, and others. More than just these obvious broad group headings, she further breaks them down within themselves and gives examples of how these groups have actually become political-tribal identities, which are actually creating more fractures within the “Americans first” fabric as recently seen during and after the 2016 presidential campaign. She opines this failure to understand tribes within the United States will continue to evolve into more separations until we can figure out a way to reach across the tribal-political chasms.

Chua is a professor at Yale Law School and has written extensively in the field of ethnic conflict and globalization, thereby, lending credibility to the book’s analysis and documentation. Political Tribes is well written and is cited accordingly. I would recommend this book to military and civilians of all grades, ages, and political parties. This would make a great book for high school and college social science curriculums as well.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. George Hodge, U.S. Army, Retired, Lansing, Kansas