Each new President brings with him an undertow of books analyzing “the moment” we are living in. In Reagan’s America, businessmen were deified, the biggest book of the 80s was Lee Iacocca’s autobiography, and yes, Trump’s Art of the Deal, sold in the millions. As the hangover from the Reagan years lingered, writers mused on the death of American competitiveness in the face of Japanese economic supremacy. A cottage industry of conspiracy theorists made their bones (not to mention their riches) attacking the Clintons and George W. Bush’s years were defined by our response to the 9/11 attack and Iraq War. Much was written about a post-racial America under Obama, but now, authors are flocking to cement the new narrative brought on by Donald Trump’s election - the magic word? Tribalism. To this growing list of books is Amy Chua’s Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. It is a thin effort that rarely rises above a freshman-level survey course before falling apart all together in a predictable lament about “our divided nation.”
Chua’s thesis is simple - America is exceptional, a “super group” as she calls us, largely because of our heterogenous roots, a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures that have blended into one. It distinguishes us from almost every other nation on the planet but also creates a massive blind spot in believing others want our way of life. Chua spends most of the first half of her book examining how our myopia played out in failed foreign adventures in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela (the last appears to have been shoe horned in for no other reason than Chua had written on the topic years ago - nothing like shameless self-promotion). And here, her thesis is fleshed out to the extent an idea can be when generous margins are used and analysis does not go much deeper than a few inches below the surface.
We backed all the wrong people in Afghanistan, failed to appreciate the Shia/Sunni enmity in Iraq, and books of far greater substance mused on our misadventure in Vietnam. It is not exactly atom-splitting writing, but to the uninformed, I suppose it is a useful primer; however, when the topic shifts from foreign to domestic, the “both sides are to blame” trope rears its head with the attendant anecdotal evidence and couched assertions with amorphous qualifiers like “many” and “some” to make limp points defensible.
Consider the oft-fetishized demand (which Chua echoes) for seeking common ground among our national leaders. These laments are written as if attempts have not been made when in fact they have been - often - at least by one party, with null results. To take one example, after winning a landslide victory in 2008 and faced with an economy in free fall, President Obama could have pushed through a bill using only Democratic votes, but instead, he tried to get Republicans to work with him on a stimulus bill. On the one hand, he larded it up with tax cuts to entice Republicans, but on the other, kept the total under an artificial amount ($1 trillion) so as not to spook supposed conservatives. In the midst of a massive economic crisis, this effort was met with near total opposition from the GOP - no Republican House members and only three Republican Senators voted for it. To take another, when Obama tried to reform the health care system, he did not attempt to convert our system into a single payer system, no, instead, he took an idea hatched in the halls of the arch-conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation. He tried to get Republicans to parlay, and in fact, more than 100 Republican amendments made it into the Affordable Care Act, but no votes were given. Indeed, Republicans have spent the eight years since the bill’s passage attempting to repeal it, undermine it, and delegitimate it in the eyes of the public.
Of course, if you point this out, you simply prove Chua’s point about political division; however, the real sin, to me at least, is the failure of those with the platform to write about these issues to honestly engage in examining root causes and yes, pointing the finger of blame. When the economy collapsed under George W. Bush in 2008, it was Democrats who stood up and provided the needed votes to pass a massive bank bailout. Bush also got Democratic votes to authorize military action in Iraq, hell, he even got Democratic votes (at least more than a few) for his massive tax cut in 2001. Senate Republicans would not even let Obama fill the job of Public Printer of the United States (yes, that’s a thing) for months. Reason? Because they could. And of course, do not even get me started on Merrick Garland.
History continues to repeat itself. Donald Trump received three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, and yet he rammed through a massive tax cut without the pretense of bipartisanship. Media reaction? Shoulder shrug. Which is why I blanche at the idea that a Van Jones asking a white working class voter to help him “understand” (an example Chua cites for the kind of outreach we need) makes any difference. It does not. As astute commentators have observed, the Republican party has drifted rightward, moving the center to what was once considered “the right” a generation ago, while members of the media demand that Democrats continue chasing compromise. It is a fallacy that writers like Chua refuse to acknowledge.
Another “tribe” Chua fails to discuss is the largest one in America - that group of people who don’t even bother voting. Presidential elections tend to be high water marks for voting in our country, yet barely half of all eligible voters bother to do so. To be sure, some states do better than others, but turnout in mid-term elections is usually below 40 percent and many state and local elections struggle to attract even a quarter of the electorate. Examining this phenomenon and why it persists would have been a far more valuable use of Chua’s time, but instead, there is pollyannish coda to her book citing the musical Hamilton and the fact it starred a multi-cultural cast of actors as a sign of our country’s future.
Regardless, the flaws extend further - on a myriad of topics, from raising taxes on the rich to enacting sensible gun reform, large majorities of the nation are in agreement, it is the politicians who are the stumbling blocks. In other words, the tribes are not nearly as at odds as books like this suggest, rather, it is elected officials - and largely Republican officials (and their donors) - who are a tribe apart. As the multibillionaire Warren Buffett has observed, the war that has been waged in America over the past 40 years, the tribe, if you will, that has routed the enemy is the wealthiest Americans, who have hoovered up more of our collective wealth than at any time in our nation’s history while simultaneously pitting everyone else against each other for the crumbs they have left behind. Had THAT book been written, and not some paint-by-numbers ramble about how red states and blue states talk past one another, it might have been worth reading.
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