Political Tribalism

July 24, 2018 § 2 Comments

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency.  This began the night of the election and shows no signs of abating.  The current issue of Foreign Affairs, the august publication dedicated to the impact of the world on the US and vice versa, is dedicated to unraveling this question from the point-of-view of foreign affairs and policy.

In the issue is an article from Amy Chua, John M. Duff, Jr., Professor of Law at Yale, adapted from her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations.  In it, Chua argues that tribalism explains not just messy American involvements in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but Trump.  In the case of those three messy wars, she notes that American policy makers failed to recognize questions of ethnic or national identity in those three countries, hence the quagmires.  Her argument is compelling and well argued.

But when it comes to Trump, it seems to me she is on much shakier ground.  She argues that tribalism is what led to white voters to elect him.  She notes that the white majority in the United States is shrinking and Trump capitalized on that.  So far, so good.  She goes on to discuss classism and the plight of the (white) poor in the country.  Again, so far, so good. But it’s when she gets into unpacking this argument, I begin to wonder about it.

She argues, as many others have, that due to the widening gulf between rich and poor, it is now harder for the poor to escape poverty and attain middle class standing.  I have yet to see compelling data on this (though it is entirely possible it exists).  But, allow me to be the historian here and point out that this so-called American Dream is more a dream than a reality.  The United States, like any other culture or nation, is based on inequality.  And it has been since the birth of the patriot movement in Boston in the early 1770s.  In those days, the élites of the city used the working classes to engage with the British, from the Boston Massacre to the outbreak of violence.  As with all other armies in history, the infantry of George Washington’s nascent Continental Army was from the lower reaches of society (for a very good analysis of the plight of the white poor in American history, you can do worse than Nancy Izenberg’s White Trash).

Inequality has always been the norm here, and it remains so today.  Sociologists and political analysts have been wringing their hands over the white working classes and the white poor who voted for Trump in various parts of the nation (together with continuing with the canard that Hillary Clinton did not visit key parts of the country where such folk live).  But the white working classes and the poor have been here for a long time.  I lived in Appalachia in Tennessee when Trump was elected.  My neighbours voted for him, as they voted for Republicans in 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000, and 1996 (it is possible they voted for their fellow Southerner Bill Clinton in 1992) and before that too.  The people where I lived were poor then, too, and they were poor when they helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, too.  And so on.

Chua argues, though, that tribalism is emerging amongst the white working classes and the poor.  But, my historian’s training tells me this is nothing new, either.  In fact, this was how the planter élite in the antebellum and Civil War South convinced the poor white farmers that ethnic/racial lines mattered more than class lines.  The historian Noel Ignatiev argued in 1997 in his ridiculous How the Irish Became White that had the Irish, the most downtrodden of the downtrodden white people in the antebellum United States pitched their lot with African Americans, then slavery would’ve ended a generation or two earlier.  There is no universe I can see where that would’ve happened.  The Irish were never going to cast their lot with African Americans in the United States, in the North, the black population was their closest economic rival.  In Canada, it was the French Canadians with whom the Irish shared the lowest rung of the ladder.  And the Irish and French Canadians did fight, literally.  But they also intermarried and socialized together.  But, of course, in the antebellum North, so did the Irish and free black populations, from both vicious racial attacks in Manhattan’s Five Points by the Irish, to intermarriage and socialization.

But the larger point is that the way in which capitalism is organized is to exploit differences and tribalism at base levels.  In other words, the second lowest group on a totem pole is never going to side with the group below it.  That’s not how it works.  And in the United States, as David Roediger argued, questions of whiteness were exploited by the capitalists and planter class to get the poor people to authenticate a form of shared whiteness.  Roediger made the argument that what sociologists called ‘ethnic brokers’ encouraged the white working classes (a large segment of which was Irish) to side with their (white) social betters against African Americans.

In other words, what Chua is identifying is not new.  Tribalism on the part of the white working classes was part and parcel of the American experience in the 19th century, and it was in the 20th, too.  And not just in the example of the Ku Klux Klan.  The Klan, of course, in all of its manifestations, may have been led by élites, but it was the poor and the working classes and farmers who engaged in the racist behaviour and violence (with some help, of course).  But the white working-, middle-, and poor classes during the Civil Rights Era were the resistance to the work of Dr. King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and others.

So, ultimately, Chua’s argument (at least in the Foreign Affairs August issue, I haven’t read her new book yet) falls on its face here.  Identifying an old standing behaviour and calling it new and exceptional to explain something surprising does not hold water.

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§ 2 Responses to Political Tribalism

  • I read “Group Identity is All” by Ms. Chua with a high level of skepticism. While tribalism is an old saw, there are many other factors that are exceptional to these times. The impact of technology in amplifying and connecting like-minded individuals, the dismal level of celebrity worship, the denigration and degradation of American civic education, the rise of professional conspiracy peddlers, and on and on. Any time someone tries to pin down a single reason for the state of American affairs, they are trying to tease too much out of their narrative.

    • Well, I guess that’s the thing. Monocausality doesn’t really exist. This is something I like to beat into the brains of my students: the world has always been complex and confusing, it has never been simple. And attempts to boil that complexity to a single explanation are pointless.

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