Amy Chua. CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni
Amy Chua. CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, with Amy Chua

Mar 7, 2018

"The United States today is starting to display destructive political dynamics much more typically associated with developing countries: ethno-nationalist movements, the erosion of trust in our institutions and electoral outcomes, and above all, the transformation of democracy into an engine of zero-sum political tribalism."

JOANNE MYERS: Good evening, everyone. I am Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you all for joining us as we welcome Yale Law School professor Amy Chua to this Public Affairs program.

Professor Chua may be known to many of you as the author of the best-selling book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, yet she honed her reputation as a noted expert in the fields of ethnic conflict and globalization. Her previous books, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability and Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall, address these issues, as does her recent book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Political Tribes is the focus of her discussion today, and it will be available for you to purchase during the reception at the end of the hour.

A specter is haunting the world. No longer nameless, tribal politics is now pervasive. Yet, here in the United States, as a country that was founded with an ideal of having a shared national identity, we thought we had escaped its worst impulses. However, following the shock results of the U.S. elections in 2016 and a few foreign policy mishaps such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has become increasingly apparent that we failed to take into account the power and the importance of tribal politics.

If there is a common theme to this malaise currently paralyzing our politics and influencing our foreign policy decisions, it is the idea that group identities matter and that any attempt to promote the common good on any front is quickly and effectively dismissed. Belonging to a group can be healthy, but when identity turns competing groups into enemies whose main purpose is not just to advance their own side but to provoke, condemn, and defeat the other, it becomes a mechanism that steals our identity as a nation and threatens our democracy.

In Political Tribes our guest takes her argument in two directions, one foreign and one domestic, to show that to ignore the role of tribalism in politics and society, whether within or outside the United States, is to do so at our own peril. Professor Chua urges us to begin a long overdue discussion on how to repair the deep divisions we have been witnessing in this fractious political climate. The purpose: to transcend identity politics and rediscover our national identity before it is too late.

To commence this timely and important conversation, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest this evening, Amy Chua. Thank you for joining us.

AMY CHUA: Thanks so much, and thank you all for coming this evening. It is a great pleasure and honor for me to be speaking here at the Carnegie Council, an institution whose mission and work I have admired for so long. So, many thanks for inviting me and organizing everything so perfectly.

Human beings, like our fellow primates, are tribal. We are hardwired to be that way. We literally need to belong to groups. We crave group membership, and once we connect to a group we want to cling to it and defend it and see our group as better in every way.

In one fascinating recent study that I describe—and there are tons of these—researchers took children between the ages of four and eight and split them randomly into two groups, red and blue, and assigned corresponding T-shirts. They then sat these kids at computer docks and showed them computer-edited pictures of lots of random children, half of them wearing red T-shirts, half of them wearing blue T-shirts. They asked for the kids' reactions to these pictures.

The results were astonishing. Even though these children knew nothing about the children in the images, absolutely nothing, they all said that they consistently liked the people wearing their color better, wanted to allocate more resources to people wearing those colors, and basically thought they were superior in every way. Almost more disturbingly, they displayed strong unconscious bias. They were told stories about these kids, and amazingly the children systematically tended to remember all the positive things about the children wearing their T-shirt and all the negative things about the people in the other T-shirt. These are kids between four and eight. The group instinct is very hardwired in us, and it is not only, unfortunately, an instinct to belong, it is also an instinct to exclude, if we do not try.

Once we connect to a group, our identities become oddly bound up with it. Sports is obviously the best example. Facts start not to matter.

Studies show that group membership is almost like a drug, believe it or not, the effect it has. We will seek to benefit our group members even when we personally gain nothing. We will take pleasure—it shows up in neurological tests—when out-group members fail and sometimes when they suffer. We will sacrifice and even kill and die for our groups.

In many parts of the world, including the regions of greatest national security interest to the United States, the group identities that matter most to the people on the ground are unfortunately ones that Americans are barely aware of, often just completely ignorant about. Often these identities are not national, which we are comfortable thinking about, but ethnic, religious, sectarian, regional, or clan-based.

In our foreign policy, as I show with several cases, for at least half a century we have been spectacularly blind to the importance of group identity. We tend to view the world in terms of these great ideological battles: communism versus capitalism, democracy versus authoritarianism, and most recently the free world against the axis of evil. Blinded by these ideological prisms, we have repeatedly ignored the more primal group identities, which for billions are the ones that are most powerful and important to them and which drive political upheaval all over the world. This blindness has led to some of our greatest foreign policy disasters in the last 50 years, I would probably say all of them.

Take Vietnam. We saw everything through a Cold War lens. We saw ourselves as fighting a great enemy—communism—and the idea was that if little Vietnam fell, the whole region of Southeast Asia would go communist. That was the domino theory. But because of these blinders we missed the extent to which the Vietnamese people were actually fighting for their independence after having been colonized for over a thousand years, first and importantly by the Chinese, really the big enemy, and then by the French.

In 1995 Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense during the Vietnam War, met his former counterpart, the foreign minister of Vietnam. It was these two former enemies coming together, and the former enemy said to Secretary McNamara: "You must never have read a history book. If you had, you would know that we weren't pawns of China. Don't you understand that we've been fighting China for a thousand years? We were fighting for our independence, and we would fight to the last man, and no amount of bombing, no amount of U.S. pressure could have stopped us."

Far from being Communist China's pawn, by 1979 Vietnam was at war with China. China was actually the biggest enemy, it is not even the United States for them. When you ask them, "Who is the great rival?" it is literally the behemoth to the north that sits like a giant genie on the tiny lamp. But because we thought it was all about communism, we missed that.

But we missed something almost more important, and this is something I bet many of you do not know. If you have watched the recent films, you probably understand this part about nationalism. There was an additional ethnic dimension internal to the country which doomed us from the beginning in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, and that is that like all the countries of Southeast Asia—Indonesia, the Philippines, where my own family is from—Vietnam had inside a "market-dominant minority." This is a term that I coined in 2003, and it refers to an ethnic minority that controls a vastly disproportionate amount of a nation's wealth.

For example, the 3 percent Chinese in Indonesia today control about 70 percent of the private economy. It is very uncomfortable for Americans to deal with this type of group. We are much more comfortable with groups that are both economically and politically oppressed. We understand how to react ethically to that. But a group that is very economically strong but politically vulnerable? Much more complicated.

So in Vietnam on the eve of our invasion, a deeply resented 1 percent Chinese minority, known as the Hoa, historically controlled as much as 70-80 percent of the economy. They had been favored by the French, who did their divide-and-conquer thing. In other words, just think about it: We are coming in saying, "We're going to bring in capitalism," and yet what we missed was that a hugely disproportionate number of the capitalists in Vietnam were not even the Vietnamese people. They were part of this hated outsider minority, despised by the Vietnamese, both Northern and Southern alike.

The Chinese minority—tiny numbers, 1 percent—were not just rich. They were viewed as the smug, exploitative, insular outsider group. They lived amongst themselves in a little place outside Saigon, they intermarried only with themselves, spoke their own language, went to their own schools, and openly seemed to not care about the Vietnamese people. Most of them dodged the draft and did not even fight in the war.

Because we missed this ethnic side of the angle—and part of it is racism: There are quotes where the same foreign minister said, "We were all just gooks to you." People just could not tell the difference—virtually every pro-capitalist step we took in Vietnam further inflamed popular resentment against us.

America's wartime policies directly benefited this little entrepreneurial group, who were the middlemen in the country. The United States needed supplies, provisioning, networks, it was all the Chinese, not to mention the brothels and the black market, which the Chinese also ran. Moreover, the regime that we installed was seen as incredibly corrupt and illegitimate, and again, in cahoots with these corrupt Chinese businessmen. If we had actively wanted to turn the Vietnamese people against us, we could hardly have come up with a better formula.

I am old enough to remember in the late 1970s there were "boat people," we heard of them as Vietnamese boat people. Many of them arrived in California, where I was. Unbelievably, for example, in 1978, 80 percent of the Vietnamese boat people were actually ethnic Chinese.

I have actually talked to students about this. They will say they are Vietnamese, and I will ask them, and they will say, "No, no, I am Vietnamese."

I will say, "Go ask your parents or your grandparents."

They will come back: "You know, I can't believe it."

The reason they did not admit it is because there were these ethnic-cleansing programs. So people did not want to admit it, they just said they were Vietnamese.

Our blindness to group identity also fatally undermined our military intervention in Afghanistan. After 9/11 we intervened. This time we did not have a Cold War lens, now we had a big anti-Islamist lens. We saw the Taliban as just a bunch of cave-dwelling fundamentalists harboring Osama bin Laden, and once again we missed the ethnic and tribal identities that are all-important in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's national anthem mentions 14 different ethnic groups. The largest three are the Pashtuns, the Uzbeks, and the Tajiks. The crucial point here—I will try to condense this, but I explain it in the book—is that the Taliban is not just a religious fundamentalist movement, it is also an ethnic movement.

Afghanistan was founded and ruled for basically hundreds of years by this biggest group, the Pashtuns. A lot of people think of the Pashtuns as the same thing as Afghans, they just use these terms interchangeably. But we did not know anything about this. When we intervened, the Pashtuns, long so dominant, had started to lose their historical dominance for a variety of reasons: the Cold War, and they were very threatened by the Uzbeks and the Tajiks.

We missed this. And when we intervened and we impressively toppled the Taliban—at least temporarily, they came right back—we did so by allying ourselves with something called the Northern Alliance that unfortunately was really viewed as being mainly populated with the Uzbeks and the Tajiks, the main rivals of the Pashtuns. So we were seen as allying ourselves with these threatening rival groups, and then the government that we set up was again seen as favoring these other groups and marginalizing the Pashtuns. This turned enormous numbers of ordinary Pashtun Afghan citizens against us.

As oppressive as the Taliban is, many Pashtuns would prefer to have them in power than having their rival ethnic groups that they view as persecuting them. Seventeen years after we intervened the Taliban is still around, our troops are still mired there, and almost none of our key objectives have been met.

In Iraq, very quickly, we obviously missed the depth of the division between the Sunnis and Shia and the Kurds. We missed the central importance of the tribal loyalties in that country. I just did an amazing event with General David Petraeus last night, and he said this was really the biggest lesson. It was not about increasing troops, it was realizing how important these tribal networks were. People would do what their tribal leaders said.

Most important, we missed something more specific—and coming back to the original term—we missed the fact that Iraq had its own version of a market-dominant minority. On the eve of the U.S. intervention, Iraq's roughly 15 percent Sunni minority dominated the country economically, politically, and militarily. They had been dominant actually for a long time under the Ottomans and then under the British, who again loved to do the divide-and-rule, favoring and ruling through a minority, and finally under Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni and who favored not just the Sunni but his own tribe's people. The 60 percent Shia majority represented most of the country's poor, many of them living in slums outside of cities like Baghdad.

I actually predicted what would happen in Iraq in the afterword for World on Fire, my book, in 2003, and not just like, "Oh, I don't think it will go well," but very specifically. What I said is: "If you look at these demographics, it is a pattern I've seen over and over. When you have this really resented minority that has been in control for a long time and you suddenly bring in democracy"—America tends to romanticize democracy, democracy is going to melt away these group identities and bring everybody together. I said that in these conditions when you suddenly empower this resentful majority, it can actually catalyze group conflict, and that is exactly what happened.

You saw the rise of demagogues on both sides. The Shias voted for the Shias, the Sunnis for the Sunnis, Kurds for the Kurds, and when the Sunnis realized that at only 15 percent democracy was not going to be good for them, they just resisted. They started the insurgency. They did not want democracy. And it is from there that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) arose. ISIS is really a Sunni movement directed not just at wiping out the West, but also infidel Shias.

Once again, because of our failure to see the central importance of these group, sectarian, and tribal identities, we, despite having unrivaled military power and despite spending over $1 trillion, and suffering thousands and thousands of casualties, we failed. We did not end up producing a model of free-market democracy for the Middle East. Instead, democracy led to civil war and eventually to ISIS.

When it comes to what to do, there is a serious ethical issue here. We have to be careful. I used to have a whole chapter on this because I am fascinated, but the British in their colonial heyday were actually just the opposite of us. They were so group conscious. I found these old colonial handbooks from India, and they knew everything about India's castes and what religions and what they wore and what they ate. It was so well-documented. They were intensely aware of those group differences.

But—and here is the cautionary note—what did they do with that knowledge? They used that knowledge to divide, subordinate, and deliberately pit groups against each other for their own benefit. And many people believe that Britain's group-conscious policies actually hardened, and in some cases actually created, many of these group identities that are still leading to time bombs today. So there are clear dangers here.

Nevertheless, in a nutshell I think the answer is pretty straightforward. I think that if we want our foreign policy to be effective—and who does not want our foreign policy to be effective?—if we want to stop pursuing losing strategies and then finding ourselves having to come up with fifth and sixth-best solutions after things are already in chaos, we need to be more knowledgeable about the group identities that matter most to the people that we are supposedly trying to help.

In the book I do explain one striking example of the United States being so successful when it finally paid attention to these group differences, and it is actually in the 2007 surge. General Petraeus, General McMaster, they realized that it has been four years, it is just more and more beheadings, the whole place is taken over, and they switched. It was not just an increase in troops, but it was literally lessons in the difference in what the tribes did, the difference between Shia and Sunni, bringing in people who spoke the language, and they saw dramatic successes.

I am happy to say more in Q&A, but I want to turn now to the United States. I want to start with an anecdote. When I started writing this book three years ago it was originally going to be just a foreign policy book. But last February, just a month after Donald Trump was inaugurated, I was teaching a class that I have taught for 20 years, International Business Transactions, 80 students. I was doing the same schtick that I have done for 20 years saying, "The reason we messed up our foreign policy is because other countries, developing countries, have such different group dynamics that we are so unfamiliar with, so we keep getting it wrong." I am literally reading a passage from my own book, talking about how democracy in these countries can give rise to demagogues with no political experience who sweep to power on a wave of racially tinged populism, and I stopped.

All 80 eyes are staring at me, thinking the same thing, which one student articulated, which is: "Sounds like you're describing the United States." I scrambled. The book is really much more interesting to me now because I had to change my own view.

The essential point of the book—and it is really stark; it is only when I saw the progression that I realized this—is that the United States today is starting to display destructive political dynamics much more typically associated with developing countries: ethno-nationalist movements, the erosion of trust in our institutions and electoral outcomes, and above all, the transformation of democracy into an engine of zero-sum political tribalism. Why? In part, it is because of the massive demographic transformation that we have been seeing, with whites on the verge of losing their majority status for the first time in U.S. history. For basically 200 years, whites were just comfortably dominant in every way—economically, politically, culturally. So it felt like we had no tribalism and that democracy always worked because there was a very dominant tribe.

Today, however, something is different. Now every group feels threatened. It is not just minorities, African Americans, who feel threatened, whites feel threatened. A study I cite in my book shows that 67 percent of working-class whites believe that there is more discrimination against whites than against minorities. It is not just Jews and Muslims who feel threatened, Christians feel threatened. You can hear this in their rhetoric. Women feel threatened with Donald Trump in the White House. With the #MeToo movement men also feel threatened. Straights and gays both feel threatened, Latinos, Asians.

The thing is that when groups feel threatened, that is when they become more insular and defensive, and they close ranks and become more tribal. And that is why we are starting to see open identity politics on both sides of the political spectrum. So that is a piece of it.

But there is something else. There is another reason that we are starting to see these developing country-style dynamics. It used to be a big difference between the United States and the developing countries I studied that we did not have a market-dominant minority. We always had a dominant majority, economically, politically, everything. And politically speaking, this was actually a very stable if invidious outcome. The minorities just stayed abreast.

But today something has changed, and all this rhetoric about white supremacy I think analytically confuses things. What has happened is that class, or really educational difference, has split America's white majority. Roughly speaking, the whites on the coast or in cities, not necessarily wealthy but just more educated, professional, pretty much everyone in this room, that divide and the working class, rural, Southern whites now are so different that they are practically like different ethnic groups.

I have an article on ethnicity. There is like a 15-page footnote defining what ethnicity is. One of the hallmarks is intermarriage, and there is actually so little intermarriage between these two groups of whites now. We are much more likely to see here things like my own family: my kids are half Chinese, half Jewish. It is the most common thing. My neighbors are half Muslim, half Korean. But, because there is such a cultural difference, when do you see a blue-collar person from the middle of America with somebody from here? Very rare.

What has happened is that because of these changes we are starting to see the emergence in America of our own version of a market-dominant minority, and it is these coastal elites. Again, this is a misleading term, they are not all coastal and they are not all elites in the sense of being wealthy. But with some important caveats it is really striking how much coastal elites resemble market-dominant minorities.

It is a fact that wealth in this country is extraordinarily concentrated on the coasts: Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Washington Establishment. Although America's coastal elites are obviously not a single ethnic minority, they are not a religious minority, they are extremely insular. They eat similarly, they dress similarly, they have similar values, usually cosmopolitan, and they view themselves as very tolerant.

We even have our own language. I teach on a college campus. All the terms, we know how to be sensitive, to speak a certain way. And they dominate key sectors of the economy.

From the point of view of many people in the middle of the country—and this is the kind of dangerous thing—who actually have not usually interacted with minorities or Muslims, it is very concentrated in these cities, coastal elites are viewed as minority-loving, immigrant-loving, caring more about the poor in Africa than about "real" Americans. So you get this dynamic that is very parallel to other countries.

What happened in America in November 2016 is actually exactly what I would have predicted for a developing country pursuing elections in the presence of a resented minority seen as arrogant and all-powerful: the rise of a populist movement in which demagogic voices called on "real Americans" to take back "their country." "Make America Great Again," actually President Trump has used those terms, "We need to take back our country from China and Mexico."

Seeing that Trumpism is part of a global pattern and not just related to Europe's right-wing nationalist parties but actually a lot like these developing countries, raises a lot of interesting ethical issues. First of all, with respect to our foreign policy, I think it highlights the fact that we just need to stop thinking that democracy is a panacea for everything. Democracy often brings results that we do not like. So we need to think, What exactly should we be promoting, and what is democracy?

My own view is that we export a form of democracy that is not even what we have, just kind of overnight majority rule: Milosevic was elected, Hitler was elected.

Also—and I will end with this—seeing the coastal elites as possibly our own tribe or viewed as a market-dominant minority is also sobering. In my research I have actually found no country that has ever successfully overcome this problem. That is, all over the world when this dynamic takes hold of a nation's politics, the result is it lurches toward authoritarianism, a lot of hate-mongering, and then—here's the thing—an elite backlash against the popular side of democracy.

I think if you think about it—we can talk about it during Q&A—an elite backlash against the popular side could be trying to disenfranchise and gerrymander so a lot of poor African Americans cannot vote. We can see some of that.

But also, what is new in our discourse is that many super-liberal elites are now talking about maybe we should have knowledge requirements for voting, because they are thinking maybe—and The New Yorker recently quoted a book by Jason Brennan, a Libertarian political philosopher at Georgetown, who wrote that, "Excluding the bottom 80 percent of white workers from voting might be just what poor blacks need."

We all know where those feelings are coming from, but that is not the way forward. This is a strand of thinking that has been very common in Latin American countries. Very worried about democracy. If any answer exists, it will have to be both economic and cultural. Restoring upward mobility should be viewed as an emergency.

Part of what is contributing to all this zero-sum feeling is that it used to be the case that somebody from a working-class family in the middle of the country could just do public education, rise, go to the coast, come back, there would be this fluidity. Now it is too expensive to live on the coast. Education has transformed to this weird thing: you have to pay for tutors. It is almost impossible to get into these top universities. Those avenues have been closed off.

But it is also going to be cultural. We are starting to see the breakdown of national unity. We are starting to see the fracturing of our country into two or possibly more Americas in which we view people who voted for the other side not just as people we disagree with, but as immoral, evil, as enemies. We need to break out of this.

I will say that my own answer to this is that we all need to remember what made America special in the first place. Alone among the major powers of the world, including England and France, America is what I call a "supergroup." There are two requirements to this: first, a supergroup has to have a very strong, overarching national identity—American. But—and this is where I differ from Mark Lilla and a lot of the people straight against identity politics—the second requirement of a supergroup is that we are a country that allows individual subgroup identities to flourish so that you can say, "I can be a Croatian American, a Libyan American, a Chinese American," and yet intensely patriotic at the same time.

I am more optimistic because this is baked into our Constitution. I have studied comparative systems for 20 years. Other countries, major democracies, really have a much more ethnic component to them. They have an established religion. We have never lived up to our ideals, but our identity as embedded in the Constitution is ethnically and religiously neutral, and it does not belong to any particular subgroup.

I think my time is about up. I have lots more to say, but I think I will just open it up to questions and take it from there.


QUESTION: My name is Charles Liebling.

Among the developing ethnically split countries, you seem to mention, I think, that there are not any really good models of countries that have figured it out. Are there any who have done it relatively well? And is the Singapore model a successful model, or is it a model at all?

AMY CHUA: Great. Singapore, as you know, is the classic case of a country with what we might call a "beneficent dictator." He was an authoritarian, Lee Kuan Yew, but he really was not corrupt, everything was top-down, and there was a lot of social engineering. He was very proud when he said, even though they have Malays, Chinese, and Indians, "We have no ethnic conflict," because even within buildings there would be quotas; this many people live here, this percent Chinese, this percent Indian. Just as an American, it feels very sterile to me, not vibrant.

My only answer about whether authoritarianism or a beneficent dictator is something we should think about is that I think democracy, like most people, is the best institution simply because you can never guarantee that the dictator will stay beneficent. There is just no check on that. Democracy, no matter how much we hate the leader, as long as our democratic institutions are robust, and that is something we need to police, can be voted out. Bad policies can be voted out.

For me, to your first question, again, I am an optimist. I was just saying that in developing countries with this market-dominant minority there are really not very many successful examples of a well-functioning democracy.

What you tend to see instead is actually the powerful minority—let's say the Chinese in the Philippines or the Chinese in maybe Burma—are so powerful with their money that they go into cahoots with the indigenous majority leader, and you get a kind of crony capitalist situation that is very stable, actually. Wall Street tends to love this because it is not a democracy. Markets are free and flourishing. There was a lot of foreign investment under General Suharto, under Marcos in the Philippines, and—again, raising ethical questions—from my analysis, as you will see in the book, I think we have deluded ourselves. We look at a place like that, we say, "That's a good democracy." But if you actually look at what is going on, the poor people are not really exercising the power of their numbers.

I think our role, we can do it better if we are more cognizant of these identities on the ground, but it takes a lot more thought. Our intervention in Libya, President Obama was so honest. We toppled Qaddafi very quickly, incredibly successful, and then we left. It is now pretty much a failed state. President Obama said, "Now it will be for the people of Libya to come together."

The people of Libya are 140 different tribes, and it just disintegrated to civil war and now is practically a failed state, and President Obama said, "The degree of tribal division in Libya was much deeper than our analysts expected," very honest. And he also said that not preparing for the day after in Libya was the worst mistake of his presidency.

So I think there is learning. I think people are recognizing this and trying to do better.

QUESTION: Thank you for that presentation. My name is Tarik Fathallah.

My question is about what you explained as an us-versus-them mentality, very intrinsic in the tribal intergroup dynamic. Now that we can agree that we have this going on currently in the United States, two questions: The first one is, if we establish that there is a resentment between the central part of America versus the coastal, economically, politically, and perhaps culturally at this point, then how do you explain that they picked someone from New York who was born on a bed of cash and went to an Ivy League school?

The second question is, given the centrifugal and centripetal of the dynamics pushing us to the opposite sides of the spectrum, is there a threshold where we cross over to the outlier side that there is no return?

AMY CHUA: I actually think the answer to your first question is our own blindness to the group identities that matter most to people on the ground. I discuss this idea of "billionaire populism." It is not a mystery to me at all. I understand the idea: "What is wrong with these working-class whites in the middle of the country? Are they stupid? Can they not see that he is a billionaire?"

The other alternative is: "Is it that they are just so racist that it doesn't matter that they would take that hit?"

Those statements may describe some people who voted for Trump, but I think they also reflect some of the condescension that got Donald Trump elected in the first place. I think that Donald Trump has very successfully and not entirely falsely presented himself as the same member of their cultural tribe. It really is true in the way he speaks, the way he dresses, the way he wants to watch [professional] wrestling, which repels most of us, and the flag-waving NASCAR . . . "Oh, my god, we're cosmopolitans, that is so intolerant." Even the way he gorges himself on McDonald's while we are all eating vegan and recycling. Every time something comes out of his mouth that is racist and sexist and misogynist, scandal after scandal, all of us were like: "This is it. Now he's out."

Nothing happens. Why? Because even that is actually relatable for a lot of these people constantly being called out in their workplace: "Oh, you're racist, oh, you're"—and again, this tribal instinct. Once you connect with a tribe, you just want to defend your tribal member, and he is like their tribal champion. It is almost like: "He may be awful, but he's our awful. We know he's a blowhard. You should see that." That is why I think you see a lot of the approval ratings staying pretty—at least among his base.

A different question is what will happen with women. I think that is interesting.

QUESTION: Karl Meyer.

My wife and I are broadly sympathetic with what you are arguing. I want you to apply your own analysis to the case of Iraq and Syria. Where do we come out in Syria? In Iraq you have the particular dilemma that one of the first things that Bremer did as the surrogate there was to dissolve the army, which was chiefly Sunni. But if he had not done that, he would have set up a government that had to depend for the military on the very group that was being displaced. I do not know how you would come out on that.

AMY CHUA: I have a whole chapter on Iraq. I think it is very clarifying. Again, this de-Baathification thing, this is something we do a lot. We did it in Afghanistan, too. It is this idea—we have the Nazi model in mind. So it is like: "Okay, we're coming in. These are the bad guys, so we take them out." The problem is that the Sunnis were also all the doctors, the school teachers, they ran everything.

Second, as in Afghanistan too with the Pashtuns, there were some terrible Baathist killers, but others were just joining their tribe, it is the only way to get a job. I don't think that is a tough one. I do not know what the perfect solution is, but I think we did the worst thing. In fact, there are some studies I cite that the leading commanders of ISIS were actually many of the top military officers in the Iraq army, and they literally were fired and just had no way to feed their families, and the only thing they knew how to do is fight. And they had access to weapons.

I almost feel like we couldn't have done it incorrectly. It was a great honor for me actually to speak with General Petraeus. I have no special connection to him. I was terrified. I am very critical of these efforts.

He really has very much the same view, that going forward the idea of living with the communities, instead of what we did. We were holed up, the U.S. military, in these zones, no interaction. If you actually start to interact with these people as human beings, you can get a lot more done.

Syria, I do not want to say too much about because I am actually not a big expert on the latest thing. Syria does have, I think, an equivalent of a market-dominant minority, but it is complicated. Honestly, I do not want to pronounce about Syria right now because I do not know exactly—to me, we are at the point of a tenth-best solution. My book is more, "Can we for once try to get it right the first time?" At this point with Syria, so many things happening, I just do not feel qualified to say what is the next right step.

But I do feel pretty confident when you start looking—for me, it is very much like just the numbers, just pay simple attention: Libya, 140 tribes, and also regional divides, west, east, and south under the Italians. If you just do a little bit of history, you can see where the schisms are. It is not rocket science. It is almost like ninth-grade history. And I think we can do better with even just a little more amount of detail.

Let me just say one thing positive. I have a little section on why we are so blind. I think part of it is rooted in what is best about America and part in what is worst about America. But part of the reason we do not pay attention to the Sunnis and Syria is because we have had an extraordinary success story of assimilation in this country. The idea is: "Look, if Poles and Hungarians and Germans and Italians could all become Americans within one generation, why can't Sunnis and Shias and Kurds?" We just need to have some elections, and people will form crosscutting—and it just does not happen that way.

I think part of it is—I actually did a lot of investigation on why our approach is so different from the British. The other piece I do think is racism, a term I hate because I think it is overused. In Iraq one of the things that General Petraeus and General McMaster, who is now in the administration, did is said, "Stop using"—there were certain derogatory terms that the soldiers would use to apply to all Arabs. What General McMaster said is, "Every time you use one of these terms to apply, you are basically just giving points over to the enemy."

QUESTION: Hi. Ron Berenbeim.

I just want to make a minor point on your comment on diet, and then I will ask my question, which is do not focus too much on diet. It is important to remember that Hitler was a vegetarian.

I agree with virtually everything you have said, and I found it just a terrific presentation, but one thing I would like to mention about the United States is that we have been here before, perhaps not to this extreme, but we have a history of what I guess you might call, for lack of a better term, sectarianism. We had the slave states, we had the free states. We had the populists, farm versus city, and then during the Roosevelt administration we had Father Coughlin's broadcasts, and we had Lindbergh. So we have been here before.

But what is common with these previous incidents or episodes and what is particular to Trump is what Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style in American politics." All these people think of themselves as victims. They do not think of themselves as getting out there and fighting for themselves.

One thing that I found fascinating actually about the recent shooting episode was that when these kids got up there and were on television, they were real victims. Some of them had been killed, they had been injured, and so on, as opposed to people who were victims because they had to take SAT tests and so on.

It is this paranoid style in the United States which is unique. It is the style rather than the substance of the individual groups and the identity and description of them.

AMY CHUA: Thank you. I agree. There are lots of things that we have seen before. We have had nativist movements with every new wave of immigrants. With every wave we have overcome it. The rhetoric is very similar: "These people can't assimilate." I am an optimist there.

We have not had actually that many populist presidents who made it all the way. Other differences are that we have not had the situation where whites are on the verge of losing their majority status, which I think interacts in some ways to the paranoid thing that I would just view as feeling threatened.

Actually, the one time that we had something like this, when whites were about to lose their majority status, we did not rise to the occasion. It was in the Southern states, about seven of them, after the Emancipation Proclamation, when African Americans were suddenly enfranchised and whites suddenly found themselves a market-dominant minority terrified of the prospect of democracy. What they did was Jim Crow, that is, they just blocked it.

We have to do better. What I try to do in the book, I think even in what we are saying at dinner parties—I am from the most liberal campus there is—we are tribal, too. I think it is important to realize that it is actually pleasurable to demonize the other side. Sure, there is right and wrong. If there is a Nazi or something terrible, you have to stand up.

But I think when you start to think that 70 million people are Nazis or you just want to ask yourself: "Am I being tribal? Are we stereotyping?" It is so funny. The response to my book called Political Tribes has been political tribalism. I keep getting emails wanting me to really point the finger more at the other side.

I really have not pulled any punches with either side. I am critical. I think the progressives did not imagine that this identity-mongering and victim-worshiping and maybe crying wolf on too many things that are not that important would not only swamp the college campuses but also help get Donald Trump elected.

On the right, I think a lot of conservative people went along with all this conspiracy-theory-peddling and rage-mongering and thinking, Oh, this is probably going to just stay in the Rush Limbaugh zone, not realizing that it would fuel this powerful movement.

I think we all need to elevate ourselves and try to see the other side more as fellow Americans as opposed to just this enemy we need to get rid of.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Berenbeim]: Let me just say one last word before I sit down: Switzerland.

AMY CHUA: Yes. Switzerland, right. But not a developing country.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

Thank you for your brilliant analysis and presentation. One further factor that is very upsetting is the lack of personnel in the State Department. Many of us here are graduates of the Columbia School of International Public Affairs and other very sophisticated schools, where every effort is made to analyze what is going on among these political tribes.

But there is a positive side that you have not had a chance to discuss, and that is our immigrant tradition. Last week I went to a session at Baruch on entrepreneurship, and I looked around, and it appeared that 90 percent were not white and may or may not have been born in the United States. So this was the American dream, that the immigrants come in and may not have anything, and yet because they have such a drive, they can succeed. And there are schools, educational programs—some do not cost anything—that encourage. Tell us more about the positive side of the American dream.

AMY CHUA: I am such a fan of immigration. I am the daughter of two immigrants. I have written two books about how immigration is the lifeblood of this country.

But instead of saying that, since you put it so eloquently, maybe I will say something more provocative. As somebody who just is a huge fan of immigration, I think here is something that progressives should improve on. It is very dislocating to have such demographic change, to have a country that you are used to one way, and I do not think you necessarily have to be a racist to feel anxious about what kind of rules should we have, how do we police our borders, who gets to come in.

It is almost like we are in a game of "gotcha." I think people should be allowed to express their anxiety about immigration or terrorism. On a college campus, I would never refer to terrorism from the Middle East. That would be instant Islamophobia.

But people feel this way. If you do not allow people to express it—and maybe they are wrong, we can debate it and show them the numbers, the points that you make—if we say you cannot say that because if you raise a question about immigration, you are a xenophobe, you are a racist, it is just going to go underground. I have seen it with my own eyes, and underground is where it is really ugly, where you really do have terrible, the worst of America.

As to what to do going forward, I think maybe we should start to be a little, again—not this gotcha on both sides. It is almost like these competing tribes just waiting to land one on the other side. But thank you.

QUESTION: Hi. Kate Fletcher.

I was just curious about your interpretation of the interaction between globalization and the rise of ethno-nationalism in the West because it seems like we are seeing an increased amount of ethno-nationalism in Western democracies, and I wonder to what extent that might be a reaction to globalization.

QUESTION: Sondra Stein.

In this country, I am asking your opinion, but it seems to me that besides everything you are saying there are powerful forces of very powerful financial interests, and a lot of this I think is manipulated, and the divisions are being manipulated, from voter suppression to gerrymandering. I do not remember the group, but it has been organized quite a long time, so it is not willy-nilly, and you can see from what they are actually doing in Congress is increasing the income disparity. I think it is good to look at that as well fueling this, it works to their interest to fuel these divisions.

QUESTION: Mine is related to some of the observations which have to do with the robustness or not of our institutions. We have billionaires—I have nothing against billionaires—running many of these institutions for which they are absolutely not qualified, the State Department lacking personnel, our judges, our legal system. To what extent do you have optimism when you really look at our institutions and how they are or are not functioning, including Congress?

AMY CHUA: Okay. Great. For the first, comment, absolutely. I think globalization, and I am thinking more specifically about the inflow of immigrants, I think what you are seeing in a lot of the European countries is parallel to what we are seeing, like a fear of their country being taken over, and that is usually when ethno-nationalism arises. Ethno-nationalism literally is "This is our country" kind of movements. Maybe I will address that deeper afterward. I know that I have a short time here.

The second question, yes. Again, I write about billionaire populism. Yes, it is this ironic situation where we have all these working-class people putting into office—this is the richest cabinet in modern history, and the policies they are passing are openly favoring the wealthiest: the tax cuts, the opening up—yes, there is a lot to be concerned about. I guess I just view myself—you should see me at dinner parties. I am trying to diagnose how we got here because I do think there is a lot of confusion.

This is going to be the response to the last question, too. Maybe this is, again, provocative. I think we like to romanticize democracy. We are very uncomfortable when democracy produces a result we do not like. That is why you see a lot of language about "We're in the grip of authoritarianism." I am very proud of my Yale Law students. We are bringing lawsuits. Of course, we have to stand up for the rule of law, constantly looking out for institutions.

But what I want to say is that even though Hillary won the popular vote, even if the Russians did this, Donald Trump is a product of democracy. He is. And it becomes much clearer when you see these other examples that I lay out.

We are so disgusted. Even in The New York Times they use very careful language because he has strongman leanings. He likes strongmen like Xi and Putin. So we get mixed up, like we are in the grip of—I think we need to address things analytically.

If you look at what Donald Trump has actually been able to push through, so far our institutions have been pretty sturdy. We have done a lot of lawsuits. There have been a lot of thing he has not been able to—many of his most drastic things have not happened. In fact, we do not even know if he means it when he says he wants to do it.

I know what you mean, but some of this has been political. He has appointed many, many conservative judges, and that is going to be worrisome for progressives, but let's be clear: when it is the Democrats' turn, that is what they do.

Some of those characters are terrible and you see the press—which, by the way, is very robust. He constantly wants to attack the press, and we have to stand up for that. But just look at cable news. I do not think anybody is being shut down. In fact, I think they are contributing to this tribalism. I do not see a whole lot of squashing of Fox and MSNBC.

Again, I think in a way that is what the book is trying to do, is to by broadening the lens and situating us and comparing us to countries like Venezuela and Afghanistan, saying, "Look, let's diagnose the pathologies correctly so that we can respond."

By the way, I think in 2018 and 2020 we are going to do better. I think there were some mistakes made even in the messaging on the rich-person point. Progressives on campuses—and I support this—part of their mission is to expose the American dream as a sham, that is to say: "You know what? We keep saying there is an American dream, but actually for most of our history these people couldn't access it. Even today people don't really have it."

But if you look, the people who are most in favor of socialism, Bernie, redistribution, structural reform, they tend to be well-educated people. The work shows that being anti-establishment in America is not the same thing as being anti-rich. Just look at popular culture: Keeping Up with the Kardashians, The Apprentice, American Idol, Shark Tank. This may sound trivial, but people still want hope. More than any other country, we have this strange belief—defying facts—that people can rise. I cite these Pew studies. Contrary to the reality—and we have worse upper mobility than many European countries, but our belief in it collectively is dramatically higher than any other country.

So I think there should be some messaging changes, too, from progressives. I say at one point that in a way Donald Trump is doing a better job channeling the hope of this American dream with his billionaire/celebrity thing than people who just get up and talk about structural racism and massive reform. It is not as hopeful. It is almost like people want to win the lottery.

And I think that was it.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you so much.

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