The Bitter Angels of Our Nature.

Author:Lee, Dwight R.
Position:Book review
 
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Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations

By Amy Chua

304 pp.; Penguin Press. 2018

The first six chapters of Yale law professor Amy Chua's new book Political Tribes focus on the failure of American foreign policy to consider political tribes when trying to spread political democracy and economic prosperity. This discussion, which makes up more than half of the book, will find support among most on the American political left and many on the right, especially the libertarian right.

Capitalism and democracy are mentioned in broad generic terms. Chua sees them as desirable complements, but she faults American foreign policy for considering them in terms of

ideological battles--Capitalism versus Communism, Democracy versus Authoritarianism, the "Free World" versus "the Axis of Evil"--[that blind us to] more primal group identities, which for billions are the most powerful and meaningful, and which drive political upheaval all over the world. To illustrate, she quotes President George W. Bush's comment that "freedom and democracy will always and everywhere have greater appeal than the slogans of hatred." Remaining bipartisan, she also quotes President Barack Obama's "unyielding belief"

that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your own mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere. Chua's fundamental argument is that the "great Enlightenment principals of ... liberalism, secularism, rationality, equality, free markets--do not provide the type of tribal group identity that human beings crave and have always craved."

After applying her views on the emotional appeal of tribal identities internationally, she focuses on the influence of tribalism in American politics in her last three chapters, including her epilogue. For example, without completely dismissing the influence of Occupy Wall Street, she sees it as a failure because it "attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for." Instead, "the participants of Occupy were not the hungry or exploited, but rather relatively privileged self-identified activists ... [and] Occupy offered a meaningful tribe to such people."

Among other interesting, and often frightening, implications of political tribalism in America that she considers, some of the most troubling deal with identity politics. For example, after quoting the New Yorker that the Woman's March of January 21, 2017 was '"so radiant with love and dissent, that' the 'coming together' of all marginalized groups 'seemed possible,'" she adds some realism by pointing out that "below the surface, however, political-tribe tensions plagued the march." She explains the tensions (and insults) the "radiant love" motivated between black and white women, as well as other provocations between other tribes, shouldn't be surprising given negative-sum competition motivated by identity politics.

The book focuses on politics rather than economics, but public choice economists will connect Chua's discussion to related insights. To me her book indicates why a sound economic argument that...

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