15 min read

Taking Sides Is Good

Challenging Amy Chua’s warnings about tribalism
Taking Sides Is Good

Law professor Amy Chua, who popularized the concept of the “tiger mom,” has a new book out that takes aim at the downsides of political tribalism. But what if tribalism is the point of politics?

Surely, political conflict can be unpleasant to witness day after day and year after year — especially for a lot of professors and media elites who closely follow political debates. But we shouldn’t forget that “tribalism” is the result of real disagreements about the future of our country and our world. When the stakes are high, we often need to embrace tribalism, and expand who is included in our tribe, to win.

Further, we can’t let discomfort with the combative nature of politics distract us from just how far gone the right in America has become and how desperately we need to work together to support disadvantaged people across class and race lines. The American left is rising up after years of decline precisely because it recognizes the need to build and grow its political tribe and build and grow its power.

Politics Is About Choosing Sides

Chua’s thesis rests on the idea that American democracy should overcome tribalism and that leaders have to be able to work across ideological divides to succeed. Summarizing her argument in the Guardian, Chua points to Martin Luther King Jr.’s most universal rhetoric as an example of how the old left used to bring people together before it embraced “identity politics”:

In his most famous speech, Dr Martin Luther King Jr proclaimed: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
King’s ideals — the ideals of the American Left that captured the imagination and hearts of the public and led to real change — transcended group divides and called for an America in which skin color didn’t matter.

But Chua leaves out the very next sentences in King’s speech, which contrast those ideals and highlight how black people, in particular, are not enjoying those benefits or rights:

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.

Chua, like some conservative politicians, conveniently points to the universal statements in King’s speeches while overlooking the hard work of the civil rights movement, which strategically built powerful alliances even as it alienated others. The truth is that most Americans opposed the March on Washington at the time.

Americans have a long history of retroactively supporting just political causes.

And shortly before he died in 1968, two-thirds of Americans didn’t approve of King.

King and his allies in the civil rights movement didn’t win because they offered a glossy portrayal of unity that made everyone feel okay and did well in opinion polls. They won because they were persistent and because they had a moral case for equality. They used nonviolent resistance to force politicians to choose between propping up their Southern allies, who denied black people their rights, and enforcing the Constitution, something the federal government had failed to do since Reconstruction.

Civil rights activists knew they were forcing people to choose sides. That was the point of nonviolent resistance: to expose their oppressors for the tyrants they were. And as Jonathan Smucker and other activist scholars have pointed out, they were deliberate in drawing more and more people to their side by working through churches and students groups to win over passive allies as active participants in their movement. Indeed, tapping into those other tribal identities — religious and generational—was critical to expanding their base of power.

The lesson of Dr. King’s success is not that conflict is bad or that tribalism can be overcome by rhetoric. It is that political victory is based on actively working with people to build power and, yes, choose sides.

There is still room for cooperation and working across extreme divides in our politics, as there always will be. But that can often wait until the final stretches of negotiating a specific piece of legislation or hammering out a budget. Trans-partsian alliances can also work around the edges of contentious issues. But they can’t be a substitute for actual political debates.

Further, we shouldn’t mistake politics for only being the purview of people who are already involved in politics, who have entrenched themselves in a particular, party, cause or movement. Instead, the left, in particular, can build a politics that draws more people in who would otherwise be isolated or ignored. That makes one’s tribe more expansive and more powerful when it’s time to go to the negotiating table.

Conservative Criticism of Identity Politics Should Not Be Taken at Face Value

In explaining her thesis, Chua also fails to recognize how conservatives disingenuously dismiss claims about discrimination. In doing so, she assumes that the left is somehow alienating conservatives, when really it’s conservative political leaders who are exploiting cartoon versions of liberal arguments to whip up (and grow) their base. Liberals have virtually no control over this process, but Chua routinely misses this point, failing to identify who is promulgating and promoting these myths, particularly about liberal antipathy toward white people.

For instance, in an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein, Chua frames the #TakeAKnee protest not as an example of black athletes protesting police brutality and systemic racism, but as an example of “the heartland” and “normal Americans” being alienated by an an attack on the flag and the troops. But that alienation is not some dormant sentiment among white people. It was a systematic effort by the Trump administration, Republican politicians, and right-wing media to discredit the athletes and enforce their version of right-wing political correctness, in which the symbols of American dominance can never be juxtaposed with criticism of American policies.

Just as King, standing before the Lincoln Memorial, appealed to our nation’s high ideals while contrasting them with the realties of anti-black discrimination, the athletes silently protested our still-incomplete Reconstruction. But instead of recognizing the universality of their message, right-wing reactionaries smeared them.

Even when athletes explained their reasoning at length, and even when troops expressed their support for the protest, these right-wing smears persisted. That’s because there’s nothing civil rights activists or anyone on the left can do to calm down right-wing politicians or right-wing media, who must constantly attack the left and all forms of protest to keep their base whipped up.

Indeed, long into the protests, one Fox News commenter professed that she simply didn’t know why the athletes were protesting. This is the ultimate retreat in the face of an argument one simply doesn’t wish to have.

Explaining her anti-tribalism thesis in the Guardian, Chua also sympathetically cites a blog comment from the American Conservative:

I’m a white guy. I’m a well-educated intellectual who enjoys small arthouse movies, coffeehouses and classic blues. If you didn’t know any better, you’d probably mistake me for a lefty urban hipster.
And yet. I find some of the alt-right stuff exerts a pull even on me. Even though I’m smart and informed enough to see through it. It’s seductive because I am not a person with any power or privilege, and yet I am constantly bombarded with messages telling me that I’m a cancer, I’m a problem, everything is my fault…

But Chua fails to examine who is telling the writer everything is his fault as a white man. Is it really leftists? Or is it the cartoon version of leftist arguments portrayed in conservative media?

She also fails to see the writer’s point for what it probably is: a right-winger who is flirting with alt-right rhetoric but doesn’t want to look like a monster by actually accepting it. Indeed, Stormfront and Breitbart have both been caught in a game of laundering hard-right views into new venues by pretending to treat them with sympathetic detachment. For instance, despite quoting this anonymous commenter at length as a warning about alienating people with tribalism, Chua leaves out another telling part of his comment:

It baffles me that more people on the left can’t understand this, can’t see how they’re just feeding, feeding, feeding the growth of this stuff. They have no problem understanding, and even making excuses for, say, the seductive pull of angry black radicalism for disaffected black men. They’re totally cool with straightforwardly racist stuff like La Raza.

Ah, the left are the real racists…that old trope! To be clear, the writer doesn’t define “angry black radicalism.” And he blithely dismisses La Raza, a civil rights group, as “straightforwardly racist.” So is this comment really a thoughtful bemoaning of identity-based politics from a reasonable conservative? Or is it just someone who understands how to make their own dismissal of other people’s civil rights sound reasonable to centrists, who also enjoy punching left?

Similarly, Chua and other writers who work at universities as professors often get hung up on campus debates but don’t understand how the right wing exploits campus activism as a stand-in for anything left of center.

During the Klein interview, Chua cited a student who complained about online debates over culturally appropriating ethnic food, such as nachos. Klein responded helpfully by noting that isn’t really political. He’s right. There is no legislation to ban cultural appropriation of nachos. But he also says it’s a talking point that right-wing media like Fox News use as a stand-in for all of liberalism. Chua didn’t follow through on that point, though, arguing instead that all cable news is bad. In this sense, Chua fails to recognize the grift conservative media runs on its audience: urging them to mistake Twitter debates about stuff like appropriating nachos for the actual policy platforms of civil rights groups, the Democratic Party, or the insurgent left. Blaming cable news mistake the format for the substance of the argument and it also falsely equates cables networks like MSNBC and CNN with Fox News, a standard issue version of both-siderism.

In fact, one of my favorite conservative tropes is a Fox News host debating a college student. Some of these students do well (hey, Parkland activists!), but most are not prepared for a heated television interview. The hosts of these programs use the students as a prop, admonishing them for the benefit of their average viewer, who is a ripe 68-years-old.

Indeed, Chua tellingly and credulously cites another right-wing commenter, this time someone weighing in via the Atlantic about how they finally came home to Trump:

Just after the 2016 election, a former Never Trumper explained his change of heart in the Atlantic: “My college-age daughter constantly hears talk of white privilege and racial identity, of separate dorms for separate races (somewhere in heaven Martin Luther King Jr is hanging his head and crying)…I hate identity politics, [but] when everything is about identity politics, is the left really surprised that on Tuesday millions of white Americans…voted as ‘white’? If you want identity politics, identity politics is what you will get.”

Again, this is just a conservative’s excuse for voting for Trump. Most Republicans ultimately latched onto something, anything, be it anti-Clintonism or getting mad about college students, to justify their vote. The important thing in this analysis is not the face-value of his comment, but understanding that Fox News and other right-wing media gave him something to latch onto so he could stick with his tribal identity as a conservative Republican despite Trump being embarrassing. That’s not the left’s fault. It’s his fault for believing in a cartoon version of leftism and then hiding behind his perceptions of his daughter’s lived experience. And it’s right-wing media’s fault for giving him that excuse.

The idea that liberals can reach a guy like this through the power of reduced tribalism is highly questionable, at best, because his views are a product of his own tribalism. And such an analysis is based on the assumption that liberals have to win committed conservatives, such as the people who are motivated enough to leave comments on blogs, over to their side for victory. They don’t. Instead, they can win over a far greater number of people who already agree with them but don’t feel motivated to participate in politics, including, for instance, the millions of voters who turned out for Obama in 2008 but didn’t vote in 2012 or 2016.

Further, the very idea that identity politics itself is a problem misses how right-wing media abuses even the most well-intentioned arguments around racial justice and equity. For instance, here’s a smattering of how Fox News Channel reports on Black Lives Matter:

Sounds menacing! But how many Fox News anchors have read the Black Lives Matter policy platform? How many times have they interviewed leading black leftist scholars and writers like Cornel West or Briahna Joy Gray?

Yet Chua buys into this right-wing mythmaking, writing:

At its core, the problem is simple but fundamental. While black Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Jewish Americans, and many others are allowed — indeed, encouraged — to feel solidarity and take pride in their racial or ethnic identity, white Americans have for the last several decades been told they must never, ever do so.
People want to see their own tribe as exceptional, as something to be deeply proud of; that’s what the tribal instinct is all about. For decades now, nonwhites in the United States have been encouraged to indulge their tribal instincts in just this way, but, at least publicly, American whites have not.

But who is telling white Americans they can’t be proud of their heritage? Is it a lefty professor somewhere? A student protestor? Someone who gave a speech at an awards ceremony? Chua doesn’t fully account for who is telling them that. And she doesn’t account for the fact that right-wing media constantly lies to its audiences about what civil rights activists actually want.

The truth is that the idea that white people should feel guilty about their existence is a right-wing myth. How do I know? Here’s Cory Booker, a black senator from Newark, New Jersey, getting ready to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

Or take a look at Chuck Schumer waving Italian flags at the Columbus Day parade.

Photo: Getty Images/AM New York

Liberal senators seem okay with white heritage, at least for assimilated immigrant groups that we consider “white.” It took the Irish and Italians a while, to be fair. And this celebration of white identity doesn’t include the Confederate flag and symbols of white supremacy. That’s a distinction right-wing media papers over, even as they ignore how much our first black president enjoys a good Guinness.

Photo: White House archives

Finally, in the Klein interview, Chua says that “normal Americans” are alienated by things like speeches at the Golden Globes and feel like their own speech is being policed. Again, where are they getting that idea? Hollywood has no power to police people’s speech. But right-wing pundits constantly attack Hollywood and the entertainment industry as if it does, even as they elevate their own small cadre of right-wing stars to prominent stages.

Scott Baio at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Clint Eastwood admonishing an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

In bemoaning tribalism at its most general level, Chua misses the scam the right runs on its base: smearing left-leaning political activism no matter what the left or actual Democratic politicians actually do or say.

Taking Sides Is Good

All that said, Chua does point to a real problem on the American left: how to build solidarity across race and class lines. In the Klein interview, she notes that tribalism is innate to human nature. I believe this is true. She cites a study in which children were given different-color shirts, for instance, and the kids assumed that everyone who wore the same-color shirt were better than those who wore a different color. But Chua is mistaken in citing this as evidence of a problem. It’s a solution.

To understand why, we have to go back to the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia in 1921, where 10,000 striking miners fought to unionize their coalfields. They were the original “rednecks,” a term derived from the red bandanas they wore around their necks. But the strikers would defy your expectation of what a West Virginia coal miner looks like.

As one board member of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum reminds us, the bandanas were a symbol that unified the workers across ethnic and racial lines:

The thing that gets me, I guess, and what makes me want to do this, and tell other people about this, is that all these immigrants from all these different countries, they didn’t speak the same language. They did not have the same culture. And they were fighting each other and divided. But when they tied on these bandanas and marched, they became a brotherhood. And one of the things I love about the union is that the union was one of the early ones that said equal pay for blacks and whites. It’s pretty special.

Union organizers and political organizers everywhere will tell you about similar experiences: how fighting for a common cause allows us to build alliances across identity-based lines even as we mutually appreciate each other’s heritage. Does it solve everyone’s problems and lead us to a world of identity-free racial harmony? Of course not. But that’s never been the goal. The goal is justice. And joining causes and fighting for our communities together is unifying, even as we also come to identify ourselves in opposition to the tribe or coalition of tribes trying to stop us.

Indeed, the striking teachers in West Virginia are wearing the same red bandanas today.

And state legislators like Richard Ojeda are making the historical connection to the miners explicit.

The path forward to racial and other forms of identity-based solidarity is through fighting for civil rights, including the right to organize, and through fighting against class inequality, including West Virginia giving fossil fuel companies corrupt tax breaks while forcing teachers to pay more for healthcare. We can recognize the benefits we all enjoy from better policy, even as we also recognize our country’s history of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination as an attempt by the rich and powerful to divide us against ourselves.

Along the same lines, Parkland students are meeting with black students from Chicago who deal with different forms of gun violence exacerbated by the same dynamics: a powerful gun lobby, which has pushed extreme views of the Second Amendment, including views that give a disturbed high school student access to an AR-15 and views that prevent cities like Chicago from setting their own gun policies.

Finally, Rev. Dr. Barber, who led the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina to stop Republicans legislators from suppressing black voters, is leading a Poor People’s Campaign, following in Dr. King’s footsteps to unite people across class and racial lines. He explains how rich right-wing politicians use their versions of tribalism to divide us. He calls it “the trick.”

Civil rights leaders have understood for years that the Republican Party is seeking out victory with a white-dominated political coalition. It’s had plenty of chances to choose another path. It hasn’t. Democrats and liberals and leftists are forming a multiracial coalition instead and, increasingly, one formed around fighting against concentrated power of big banks, for-profit healthcare companies, and monopoly corporations that depress wages, buy off politicians, and prevent workers from organizing.

Unionizing, fighting for better wages and healthcare, fighting for safer communities, fighting against the insanely corrupting power of corporate money in government: These are things an overwhelming majority of Americans agree on. They are the left’s path back to power, not appeasing the disingenuous arguments spouted by right-wing blog commenters and Fox News. And not listening to centrists who ask the left to compromise its values for the sake of unity but rarely, if ever, ask the right to do the same.

Ultimately, Chua’s analysis assumes there is a reasonable right with which the left can and should compromise to avoid tribalism. To be fair, there is a reasonable right. But the problem is that it is no longer in power. It might one day win back power on its own terms within its own movement. We’ll see how Republican primary fights go this year and through 2020. But a strategy of preemptive compromise from the left with reasonable conservatives who are out of power in their own party doesn’t make sense: it places the responsibility for fixing conservative politics on liberals instead of the people who are actually participating in conservative politics. At the same time, pre-emptive compromise alienates resurgent activists, from the center-left to committed progressives, who want to see their political leaders fighting for democracy and economic justice.

Instead of appeasing the other tribe, successful left politics will involve making our tribe bigger so it can win and keep winning. Because politics isn’t about compromise. It’s about power. And like Dr. King, we shouldn’t be afraid to build power and win.

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