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Debating the concept of political tribalism with Amy Chua: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes and Amy Chua wrestle over the ambiguous use of political tribalism as a political critique.

There seems to be a lot of talk about this idea of political tribalism lately. Critiques that groups are increasingly insular not just around politics but about race or religion or any number of identity markers, and that this isolation makes it impossible to have meaningful conversations about the big issues facing our country. We’ve witnessed groups rallying around their side in ways that can be ugly, discounting the thoughts of the "other" on the mere status of being other — but is that true of all of political tribalism? Is it a dangerous group in-thinking or can it look like positive, meaningful group organizing?

Chris Hayes is torn about the ambiguous use of political tribalism as a critique of certain types of politics, so he brought in Amy Chua to work them out. Amy Chua has been studying prejudice for 20 years and has a new book out called “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations." In this episode, Chris Hayes and Amy Chua wrestle over these questions and discuss whether political tribalism is even inherently a bad thing to begin with.

CHRIS HAYES: For your perspective, we've got this fundamental thing about human beings and then we've got the way that we constitute our politics and the danger is that, if our politics grow too tribal, they grow excessively tribal, then we lose the common com wheel, we'll lose this sort of way of talking. And we start doing this thing that you said, if Trump wants to talk to Kim Jong-un, then it's necessarily bad even though I personally think like, "Yeah, go talk to Kim Jong-un, but it's like we all have that. It's like, if Trump says it, then it must be a bad idea kind of impulse.

AMY CHUA: But I think it's not just a random thing. I try to explain why at this particular moment we are in maybe more ... I mean, okay, there was the Civil War, then these difficult moments. But that we are seeing tribalism taken over our political system in a way that we haven't seen in many generations.

CHRIS HAYES: Welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me, your host Chris Hayes.

Have you noticed there's been a lot of talk recently about political tribalism? It's a term, I guess it's a term that's existed for awhile. People talk about tribalism but it's gotten really intense recently, entered into common usage and you see it invoked all the time. And I have some really, really intensely, aggressively mixed feelings about it. Well first, there are American Indians, indigenous native peoples who don't like the term because there's ... The adjective tribal has to do with folks that come from those communities and so to talk about it in a negative way, seems to take away from an adjective that is about a very specific set of lived experiences. So there's that issue.

But to me, the reason I feel torn about this term is that I'm both really sympathetic to a critique of political tribalism and also think it's used really imprecisely to paper over some really important differences in how people approach politics and what they fight about. So on one side, I get that people do rally around their side in ways that can be ugly. And shut down the way people think about things. And it can make conversations in politics impossible to have where people don't extend good faith, they don't extend any charitable readings of people on the other side and we can't have any discussions about big issues the country faces. I get all that, that's true, I see it happen. I see that part of me kick into gear sometimes. I see it in viewers all the time. I see it in my Twitter at replies. I saw it during the Democratic primary particularly, where people which just in one of two camps and they interpreted everything we did and the show did through those camps and had a hard time listening across the divide.

At the same time, there's also the fact that people will use that term to critique kinds of politics that I think are really important. People mobilize as a group to fight for something, you can call that I guess, political tribalism. You can say, well, they're fighting for their group. They only care about their group of people with their complaints or you can call it, you know, politics. You can call it organizing, you can call it active struggle. And it's kind of in the eye of the beholder which of those two any given diagnosis of quote political tribalism is.

Which brings me to Amy Chua, Amy Chua is a really interesting writer and thinker, law professor at Yale who's got a new book out called, "Political Tribes," which is about well, political tribalism. She's someone who first entered my radar screen years ago when she wrote this really fascinating book called "World On Fire," which was about the ways in which globalization often incited or exacerbated ethnic tensions and racial tensions within countries. And she's also the one who wrote, you probably know this book, she wrote this book called "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," which was a ginormous mega bestseller, I think it's been a year on the bestseller list. It sold millions of copies, it was about kind of, her mom driving her very hard and how hard she drove her kids. A celebration of something I think people come to see as a bad thing which is obsessively achievement orientated parenting, it's called that.

So that's Amy Chua, she's got this new book called "Political Tribes" and it kind of takes a side in that debate I was talking about. The ambiguity I have about this term in tribalism. But the thrust of the critique is that U.S. politics have fallen into this tribalist trap. And we're sinking into it and it's breaking our politics and we need to get out of it. So I wanted to talk to her because I don't know if I buy it. But I don't not buy it. I have complicated, complicated feelings about it. And I thought, here's someone who I really respect, who's really smart, who's thought about this, who's thought about it in a lot of different, really interesting and fraught context and who's written a book about it. And in some ways this question about what's tribalism, what's sort of dangerous bad in group thinking, what's good group organizing. That's kind of the center of all of our politics right now and so I wanted to have a conversation and kind of work it out with her a bit about this topic, which is what exactly do we mean when we talk about political tribes.

CHRIS HAYES: I think I'm both attracted to and repulsed by the concept of tribalism.

AMY CHUA: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS HAYES: At one point, it feels really seductively explanatory because it does feel like a lot of American politics is essentially some kind of in-group, out-group combat by other means. And then at the same time, I feel like the concept is really problematic for a lot of reasons. I guess, let me start with what do you mean by tribes?

AMY CHUA: Well, there are lots of different ways that I use tribes. I mean, there are actual tribes like the Pashtun Afghan tribes. I actually am using it just in the sense of very strong group identification. The kind of group identification where your identity is so bound up with it that you will basically defend the group and cling to the group no matter what and you start to see everything through that group's lens.

CHRIS HAYES: So the way that we think about it in geopolitics or in history is like, linguistic, ethnic and religious cultural groups.

AMY CHUA: Yeah, well, I actually am using the term much more broadly. Because we're all very tribal, humans are very tribal. If you look at sports, that is a great example of tribalism. I mean now you can say that is cultural. And in fact, it's interesting because sports teams are often tied to hometowns or cities, so there is, you can kind of link it back to ethnicity in interesting way. The way I look at it is yes, most tribes that I study, that I've studied for 20 years are often ethnic or sectarian or religious. And so I'm exploring in this book the idea of almost like a more modern kind of tribe, which is a not ethnically based necessarily political tribe. But there are ethnic elements in the tribalism that we're seeing in the United States.

CHRIS HAYES: So that's where it gets ... So let's talk about sports, 'cause sports are a great example. I always have this encounter where I'll be like, "Oh man, political Twitter is the worst." But then I'll have any occasion to hop over onto sports Twitter and it's like, "Oh my God, what a nightmare. You guys are arguing over who the best team is?" It's like all of the same modes of argument, of interaction of ... All of sudden they're there but there's no actual substantive moral content.

AMY CHUA: Well, just think about it. Think about how, I don't know what your favorite sports team is, in my family it's the Yankees. It just doesn't matter, right? Whatever the call is. It's not just that you always think that the referee or the umpire said the wrong thing when it goes against your team, it's also this feeling that you start to feel like that your team's members are actually better people. And then you'll have like rivals and you'll see a picture on the other side, and they're like, the way they look, they're like morally not as good. And it's absurd because then you trade players and they come on your team. It's that level of almost like instinctive and it's actually irrational. It affects people's logical powers.

CHRIS HAYES: Is there anything good about it, I guess, is my question.

AMY CHUA: Definitely. It ties in to sort of identity politics. So there's so much simplistic us versus them, I'm not somebody that's against identity politics straight out. So I'm a very tribal person. I wrote the tiger mother book-

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, that book is tribal AF.

AMY CHUA: Yes and I'm the daughter of ethnic Chinese immigrants. My parents taught me to have enormous pride and that kind of pride in my ancestry was a kind of armor, psychological armor for me in a country where I experienced a lot of discrimination. I not only get tribalism, I see a lot of its strengths and advantages. You can describe a movement like Black Lives Matter as in the same way. It's kind of a solidarity, a connection you feel.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, here, let me stop you right there. Because what ends up happening is ... I want to approach this in a way where I talk about the critique I don't like, okay?


CHRIS HAYES: So here's what I don't like, I don't like ... It always feels to me that what ends up happening is when someone comes in and says, these are tribal politics there.


CHRIS HAYES: That they have tacitly elevated themselves to some place where like they're in the view from nowhere.

AMY CHUA: Okay, sure.

CHRIS HAYES: They're like floating above it and all you messy little humans are just fighting out tribal style.

AMY CHUA: Oh yeah. I mean that's actually the main point that I'm making in my book actually. Which is that I don't think anybody is above tribalism. In fact, the pool of people that I think you and I are probably in, Chris, that really liberal multi-cultural progressive people, we like to think of ourselves as anti-tribal. Because if anything, we're probably cosmopolitan, tolerant, we want to see human beings as just human beings. One of my provocative lines in the book is that we're very tribal. We're very judgmental and it's actually very hard to get into this tribe because to have this kind of cosmopolitan-

CHRIS HAYES: Oh yeah, totally.

AMY CHUA: You probably have traveled all kinds of places, I'm sure you did something like climb the Himalayas and ... You go to schools, you meet people of lots of different ethnicities and religions. And a lot people in America don't have that opportunity.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh no, I totally agree. That part of the book I totally agree with. There is in-group cohesion that's intense and powerful with barriers to entry, with in-group solidarity, among the kind of like, liberal open-minded, American, cosmopolitan, educated, affluent class.

AMY CHUA: Yes. So here's a thing, if you want to know the simplest way for me to explain my position, and here you and I may differ, I love America. I think America is an exceptional country-

CHRIS HAYES: Wait, are you saying I don't love America?

AMY CHUA: Well, no you do, but I have a line in my book where I say, America has been both exceptionally racist and exceptionally diverse in a very unique way. So I think this idea of America as a super group, as you know is a term I introduce. I think that we are pretty uniquely, at least among the major powers of the world, what I call a tribe of tribes. And that is, we both have a very strong overarching collective identity, which we can come back to, is being shaken right now for good reason I think and some bad. So we have a very strong overarching collective identity, the kind of super tribe identity, but beneath that we allow all of kinds of other sub-group identities, tribes, tribal identities if you want, to flourish.

AMY CHUA: This ties into intersectionality. I think that's a good thing, that somebody can be, 'Oh, I'm Irish-American, I'm Libyan-American, I'm Mormon-American." And still be very patriotic at the same time, those two things. So that's the best way, when you say is it good or bad. I think that the danger to America right now is, if we devolve to a situation where we are only about our individual sub-tribes and we lose that thing that connects us as Americans. And that is not to be romanticized. I mean, we're going through a correct moment of turmoil right now, in figuring out how to define that collective identity. I think that's a healthy thing. But I think we need it.

AMY CHUA: As somebody that studied countries that have literally fallen apart, like Libya and Syria and Iraq. I feel like a lot of elites and a lot of progressives and a lot of conservatives in this country, don't realize that they're playing with fire. They're just like, so angry, rightfully for good reasons, that they are just getting more. And here's the negative aspect of tribalism, they're just in their little individual tribes becoming more and more exclusionary of other tribes and just losing any sense of having anything in common with people, for example who either, are of a different race, or voted on the other political side or other divides.

CHRIS HAYES: So to complicate this picture, one of the things that I think my reticence is about the term, tribal or tribalism, right?

AMY CHUA: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS HAYES: Is that it seems to sort of posit, there's these groups that are sort of all walking around in similar plane, right? But we know, you would obviously say this, you talk about it in the book and you talk about it in your first book, which is fantastic, called "World On Fire", which is published in 2003. There's hierarchies of dominance.

AMY CHUA: Absolutely.

CHRIS HAYES: Here's a great example and why I think this sort of, when we think about in terms of tribes, we can be let astray. You could look at the politics of the militarily occupied South of 1870 as tribal. And they were, in the sense that all the black people voted for the Republican party-

AMY CHUA: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS HAYES: And basically all the white people or all the white southerners voted for the Democratic party.


CHRIS HAYES: And there were tribal politics. But if you viewed it as tribal politics, you're just like, well there's this one group over here and there's one group over there, like you're missing the picture, right?

AMY CHUA: Oh yeah, I totally disagree with you. I agree with about what you said, which is I think it's getting a little bit tired, this kind of both siderism, I don't think that's helpful at all. So here's where I agree with you, of course, they are not morally equivalent.


AMY CHUA: Of course the massive white supremacist, horrible Nazi-inflicted, big tribe, was morally worse.


AMY CHUA: But I don't agree with you that it's not helpful to think of it in terms of tribes, I think it's a form of denial. I see it in my own students, it's like you can be part of a tribe that you're very, very proud of. In fact, I just had this discussion with a lot of my Native American students. They're like, we are objecting to the use of tribalism in a negative sense to the American polity because we love, we're very proud of our tribes. So there, I sort of got you, Chris because they want to say that this is my tribe. I belong to the Choctaw or you know. I think tribalism it goes-

AMY CHUA: The Choctaw, or you know. So I think tribalism, it goes back to a kind of loyalty, but I think it actually explains a lot of things. So, right now, if you were to ask about American politics right now, and I see it all the time, including on your show, which is one of my favorites. Right?

CHRIS HAYES: You have good taste.

AMY CHUA: Yeah, but, I mean it's like right now, I don't think ... If something comes out of the White House, the instinctive reaction for progressives is to just, it's bad. It's wrong.


AMY CHUA: Whatever happened in Korea, whatever policy about Iran. And it doesn't really matter if five years ago, it was your party that actually advocated it. It doesn't really matter if just three weeks ago, somebody said that. And that, I really do not think is good for the country. I do not think we can even have a normal conversation. We lose credibility.

CHRIS HAYES: Alright. So I want to respond in two ways to that, right? So, one, let's take that first part which is, what I'm hearing from you, and this is interesting right. What I'm hearing from you is you're saying, "Look, this is a category about how people interact." And you are still sort of, bringing this baggage about it is a judgment, right? So, that if you say like, newly freed slaves in the South are acting in tribal fashion, that's majorative, right? What you're saying is like, no it's just a descriptive fact about human beings collectively acting in a sort of group identity.

AMY CHUA: Yeah, and it's proven. I mean, most of this book actually just shows these actually rather frightening, but I think not controversial studies, that human being have to belong to a group. We're like other primates. And then there are all these fascinating things that show how we ... Oh, I love this one, that once we connect with a group, and that's why I like the word tribe, too, because it's not any group. And I tried to explain this. Certain groups have more grip like-

CHRIS HAYES: Accountant for instance doesn't really work, that's tribe.

AMY CHUA: The American Dental Association. You might be a member of that group, but you're not gonna kill and die for it. But with the kinds of groups that I'm interested in, and it used to not be political, Chris, that's my point. But, ethnic, or whatever, village, the studies show that once you connect with a tribe in a certain way, then you actually start to interpret facts and studies and statistics to fit your tribe's world view. And this is one of the most scary things. My colleague Dan Kahn does a lot of studies like this, because these studies also show that the smarter you are, that is, the better you are at math and numeracy, the better you are at manipulating facts-


AMY CHUA: ... to fit your ... And that's something we need to deal with if we're gonna make any kind of progress.

CHRIS HAYES: There's a great data point on this, which is that conservatives and republicans with higher education degrees, are more skeptical of climate change.

AMY CHUA: Oh my gosh. Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: Precisely because of that. Right? Because, the more educated you are, the more resources you can devote to the process of reverse engineering your views, right?

AMY CHUA: Right.

CHRIS HAYES: And, I don't want to say this is just a thing conservatives do. I do this, you do this, we all do this. And that brings that sort of, second point right? So, from your perspective we've got this fundamental thing about human beings, and then we've got the way that we constitute our politics, and the danger is that we, if our politics grow too tribal, they grow excessively tribal, then we lose the common, common wheel, we'll lose the way of talking, and we start doing this thing, that you said. If Trump wants to talk to Kim Jong Un, then it's necessarily bad, even though I personally think like, "Yeah, go talk to Kim Jong Un." That's my belief, and it's a thing that I patrol for a lot, on the show?

AMY CHUA: You do.


AMY CHUA: You do a really good job.

CHRIS HAYES: No, but it's like, we all have that. If Trump says it, then it must be a bad idea, kind of impulse.

AMY CHUA: But, I think that's not just a random thing. I try to explain why, at this particular moment, we are in maybe more ... Okay, there was this civil war, then these difficult moments, but that we are seeing tribalism taking over our political system in a way that we haven't seen in many generations. It's really for two ... These are documentable. If you look at views on immigration, just even seven years ago, 10 years ago, Democrats and Republicans had a lot more over lap. A lot of people in the middle, actually a lot of Democrats and Republicans, same view, and if you look at it today, way more extreme. The Republicans are way more anti-any form of immigration, legal or illegal. And Democrats are way more extreme.


AMY CHUA: Now, I'm not saying that one could be better or worse, I'm a very pro-immigrant person.


AMY CHUA: I'm simply saying that it's not just me randomly using this catchy term tribalism. And the other thing, it does come back to race. As you know, for the first time in our history at the national level, whites are on the verge of losing their majority status in 20 years. I think this, it's no coincidence that our politics are getting more tribal.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, so there's two things happening here. So we've got these tribes, and we've got these in-groups, and these identities that we move through and have. Right? So what you're putting your finger on there, and it's something that a lot of people are doing work on, which is that increasingly, our political ideological or even partisan divisions, are the over-arching ones that are dominating and controlling, and that other sort of, ethnic religious identities are all sorting in this way. So, it used to be that you would have very religious white Christians who were Democrats and Republicans, right? But increasingly, it's, no, you're a Republican, if you're a very religious white Christian.

AMY CHUA: Exactly. So, it's a little bit more complicated because, within, let's just take broadly progressives are broadly conservatives. There are all kinds of other hardening, smaller subgroup divisions that I also write about. I think it's an interesting development. And I completely understand why. This is not even a critique. But we are at a moment where very few people are left standing defending, kind of group transcending identities. On the left, I teach on a very liberal campus and I support this, I understand why.

AMY CHUA: It's really different than the Civil Rights era, where even 30 years ago, even when President Obama was president, where there was a lot of idealistic, let's transcend skin color. Right now, on college campuses and among progressive generally, group blindness is the ultimate sin. If you ... It's really ... And it's epistemological, it's very different. It's you're not a woman, you can't speak for me, you can't understand. The barriers are harder, it's less porous, even the whole idea cultural appropriation. When I was just like 30 years ago, all the hip multi-cultural people in Berkley, where I grew up. They wanted to wear corn rows and where a sari and be doing serving. And now, all of these things would now be cultural appropriation.

CHRIS HAYES: I've got to come down on the side of the critique there.

AMY CHUA: Well, depends what. I mean, it depends what.

CHRIS HAYES: That's true. Although the white people walking around Berkley in corn rows were kind of whack.

AMY CHUA: That I agree with you. But how about food? How about food?

CHRIS HAYES: Right, I get-

AMY CHUA: To possess certain foods, it's like ... I think it's-

CHRIS HAYES: No, I remember it. I get these controversies. But here's the thing though, I just feel like the lens here, that lens of a campus, I guess I'm not convinced that the same thing is happening everywhere else.

AMY CHUA: Oh, I am. I think you're right, it's an exaggerated, and concentrated form. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: I was at Brown.

AMY CHUA: But, it's a while ago, it's different.

CHRIS HAYES: No, no, but I'm saying it was the same thing. In some ways. We had massive controversy around exactly these sort of things about who can speak, and who can't speak. About identity.


CHRIS HAYES: There were really nasty intense fights about this same terrain back then.

AMY CHUA: I loved Yale. And I actually am the Affinity Group Supporter. I have Balsa, the box kids brought over to my house, then I have Asian students, then I have the outlaws.


AMY CHUA: Okay, I've tried a couple times to say, "Let's do a joint thing and have a debate." Or something like that. The conservative students and the Asians or whatever, it's not working. It's very ... And it's post-election. And I understand that people are still very angry. I tried to do this in my class, and I think it was a big success, but after wards, Chris, it was so hot, people were like, "We need to open the windows."

CHRIS HAYES: Okay, but here's the thing.

AMY CHUA: It was hard.

CHRIS HAYES: But this is getting to bedrock. Because, I just feel, there's something I want to argue with you here.


CHRIS HAYES: And it's two things. Because I hear what you're saying, in another conversation, faced with another person could make your argument, right? But I'm gonna stay on my side for a second, which is this, there's two issues I have with that general framework. One is it always feels slightly a-historical to me I the sense that every time that I've ever dived into a particular political moment, or even a movement, it's crazily factional as hell, and crazily polarized as hell, and crazily like identity obsessed as hell. If you read a biography of Fiorello La Guardia and they're fighting over how many Greeks they put in the freaking tax commission board.

AMY CHUA: So, you know Chris, I don't think we actually disagree. Again, I might be describing this in a critical way, but part of it is, just this is the healthy result of the massive demographic changes that we're seeing.


AMY CHUA: So, totally agree that America's always been just as tribal, it's just that we, for most of our history, had one massive tribe. Of course, there were divisions with that, but basically whites, economically, politically, culturally, militarily dominant. And all these other small tribes just squashed. What I mean-

CHRIS HAYES: Your argument in the book is that that provides a kind of stability.

AMY CHUA: It does. And it's a very invidious kind of stability. I wonder what you think about this. We have lots of retreats now, which I support. Asian students go off to their retreat. We put them up at a nice hotel, Balsa students go off to Maine and do something cool, the Federal society ... Now, I like that. I understand it's a form of solidarity that I wish I had had when I was feeling lonely, only Chinese kid in Indiana. So, I support that. But, I still have this kind of romantic idea that I feel like sometimes I really worry that I don't think we're getting the best conversations. I think that we are starting to caricature and have cartoon figures of the other side, now with Asian Americans, and Affirmative Action, and then I know Balsa has this view, and there are a lot of increasing, zero sum competition where people are on opposite sides.


AMY CHUA: And I feel like they are difficult. These are difficult, I don't even know my own view. But we need to talk about them as opposed to just kind of, "Oh, come on, you poor whites. You dare say that you're actually anywhere close to as oppressed as we were?" I think there's actually a right answer to that, yes. But I don't think it should be sealed off. People angry. I think it's better to talk about that, that's all I mean.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, there's a discourse problem, which I agree. And I'm someone that likes conversations. I like to talk to different people with different views. But I guess I just wonder, what's the version of the thing that isn't this?

AMY CHUA: Well, okay, let me give you a good example. Okay, immigration. Something that I'm sure we're on the same page. My second book was all about how immigration is the key to everything great about America. Obviously, you kind of know where I come out on this. This use of the word racist is appropriate in many, many contexts. I get uncomfortable because I've been studying prejudice for 20 years, when it's applied to very large numbers, say 60 million people.


AMY CHUA: So, immigration, if you remember the studies that I side with Paul Bloom, they show that newborns are not born racist. That's the good news. But as of three months, Asian babies prefer Asian faces, white babies prefer white faces, Ethiopian babies prefer Ethiopian faces, for obviously reasons. You can imagine why, the mother looks like them.


AMY CHUA: I think right now, with the immigration debate, when you say it's almost like you're saying, "How can things possibly get better?" I think they can be better, and I think tribalism comes into this. It makes sense to me that, right now, in the spheres that you and I occupy, anybody that's just not really pro-immigration, just generally, is a racist xenophobe, Islamophobe. I think there's something deeply wrong with this discussion, because imagine if China learned that in 20 years it was gonna transition to majority white. Or the county of Nigeria.

CHRIS HAYES: We're just not even on Chinese, they'd flip the frick out.

AMY CHUA: Exactly. But I'm just trying to move us away from the United States. Okay, let's say Nigeria discovered that in 20 years, it was going to become white. You know what, I think a majority of the people there would be anxious. Is that racist? Maybe? They're like, "Wait, this is not the country that we knew." They're resistant to that. And I feel that we can do better with this conversation. We need to have some conversations about limits and what, and roles. Otherwise, we're at this travesty where we are now, about the ... We are at a frightful, terrifying situation where we're losing what America's gonna be. Again, I don't know, this is me maybe being different than you. Where as you're pushing me on this term tribalism, I actually think it's a better frame. Because I don't think we're doing very well with the categories that we have right now.


AMY CHUA: Which is white supremacist versus all the really good people.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Yeah. I think that I agree with. So that example a really interesting one. As you have written about it, as you know, China's like a super racist place. Apple were essentially the power of the state is wielded to insure Hun Chinese dominance, and there's this sort of punitive multi-culturalism that is tokenism.

AMY CHUA: It's not real. Yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: So, in all cases, there's both difference, which is like, "Oh, you're different." But the there's the machinery of dominance.


CHRIS HAYES: And the machinery of dominance, there's this question of which are you gonna kind of foreground, or what are you gonna think about?


CHRIS HAYES: And the way that I think about these is, in the context of the machinery of dominance, more than like-

AMY CHUA: Got it. But here's what I think. I think that you are baring something in there. You think that the world, specifically America, would be better to be not an all white. You welcome the idea that we're gonna be multi-cultural and be different skin colors. And you see that and look at me. Of course, I'm with you. My kids are like half Jewish, half ... Whatever. All my students-

CHRIS HAYES: Let me just say, that's tribal for me. I grew up in New York City.


CHRIS HAYES: That's part of my identity. I'm a New Yorker, and New Yorkers are people who are cosmopolitan and grown up around other-

AMY CHUA: So you beat me to it. In a way you could have-


AMY CHUA: No, but that's a great point. But my idea is, okay, so let's say you think that's a better tribal outlook. How do we get there for America? How do we get there? I don't think that right now, the way that your side, our side, is doing it, is the best way. Just take a human ... Okay, you're very sensitive. If somebody were to call you and say Chris, you're a racist, you're a racist. What you said this night was racist. I know how you'd respond. You'd listen, you'd be very, very open, and then you would ... But you know what, that's because of who you are, how you were raised, plus you're really famous and you have a show.


AMY CHUA: If you're somebody that's in the middle, just somebody that is in the middle of the country and says, "You know what, you are racist bigot." How do you think they're gonna respond? Do you think they're gonna be like, "Oh my God, you're right."

CHRIS HAYES: No, totally.

AMY CHUA: Join the other-

AMY CHUA: How do you they're going to respond? Do you think they're going to be like, oh my god, you're right?

CHRIS HAYES: No, totally.

AMY CHUA: Let me join the other political side. I don't think we're making-


AMY CHUA: ... I don't think we're advancing ourselves to your tribe's vision, the way we're discussing things right now.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, but that is ... I would totally agree with that, right? So the idea of you're racist as a-

AMY CHUA: The winner.

CHRIS HAYES: ... conversational part is not, it's often not super effective. I do think there's like a really useful-

AMY CHUA: Me, too.

CHRIS HAYES: Role that shame and taboos plays, and-

AMY CHUA: Absolutely and for certain things, many things, many things, and for many people, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, there's this sense, and this a critique I think that you have and I've said to others, the boundaries that keep creeping outward, right? And particularly the application as for white supremacy. Let me totally agree with you on that, right? But I also feel like there's a little bit of a sliding happening there, which is like, that's a question of how to talk to people, right? About what the facts of the matter are.


CHRIS HAYES: That's fine those are two different discussions but it's like, for instance, the Confederate Flag, which is a great example of this. Yeah, people get their back up about the Confederate Flag, and I get that. I can have some empathy to that, they feel a tribal affiliation to it. It's a flag of slavery and treason that should be burned forever more.

AMY CHUA: I think we agree on that one. I think we're good on that one. I think if you-

CHRIS HAYES: But, that's like a big one.

AMY CHUA: ... It's a huge one, but it's also, how big? How big? The studies that I'd like best in my book are the ones that show that if you pull people out of their tribal context, right? Say, don't talk about politics but talk about dogs, or food, or something. My favorite example is the integration of the US military in the 50s. It was as bad a moment as today. People were like, no, we can't integrate it. It's going to be ... and it was 90% public opinion against integrating the military. Well, they did it, and afterwards they found that the integrated troops were as effective or more effective than the all-white ones. And then they conducted all these surveys and studies and what they found is, I think, the most beautiful message, right? Which is that people said, now, this isn't just black and white, although that was part of it. Italian-Americans had never met Swedish-Americans...

AMY CHUA: ...And the accents. But people were like, if you are in this dangerous situation, you miss home, you feel terrible, your lives are in ... you're putting your lives in somebody else's hand. It really doesn't matter what accent they have or what the color of their skin is. So I, maybe, I'm a ... idealist that way. I feel like people, that this is really what American can be. So yes, the Confederate Flag, that's an easy one, but how about somebody that's in the middle of Iowa, who is a 50-year-old mother of six, who's adopted a couple of African orphans? I've actually talked you know... They voted for Trump. What do you do with that, right? You could say, "Oh, the fact that you could vote for a racist means that you..." First admit that you're a little bit more racist.

AMY CHUA: That's what a lot of people want to do is like, “I'm willing to be open,” but first admit that you did something really terrible doing that. We can have a debate about that. I just don't think that that's necessarily the most... I think the Confederate Flag is almost too easy an example, and if you were to show proof to me that 65 million people actually feel that way, then I would probably start to come over to your side, but I don't think that.

CHRIS HAYES: To me, part of what the issue is we don't actually have collective activities, right? It's like the conversation's one thing. You talk to the Iowa mom or whatever, but it's also just we don't do stuff with each other.

AMY CHUA: Totally.

CHRIS HAYES: Which, to me, feels like a bigger-

AMY CHUA: It is, and-

CHRIS HAYES: ... a bigger problem.

AMY CHUA: Right, and so maybe that's ... that's where I end the book. I really think that this lack of upward mobility and a lack of geographical mobility, again, these are documentable. This is not just you know-

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, now, those-

AMY CHUA: Yeah. And it used to be that somebody in the middle of the country could even have been your parents or something. You start with no money and then you go to public school, public college, and you can make it to one of the coasts, and you could go back and forth, and you could rise and fall. Right now it's so rigid. I mean, nobody can afford to live in New York City or Silicon Valley anymore.

AMY CHUA: And if you think about all the people that you hang out with and the values that they have, maybe we're saying the same thing, that I think that if there were more exposure, and there are studies. I want to be clear, there are studies that show that just straight out exposure is not enough. Okay? You can put a lot of people in-

CHRIS HAYES: In fact, it often backfires.

AMY CHUA: It often backfires. But even more important studies show that if you go one step further and just maybe it's what you were saying, communal interaction, real human interaction for a relative sustained time. People are good. They're better. I mean, they're... It's like what happened in your neighborhood in New York, can happen elsewhere in the country, but right now there are these, almost like structural barriers, preventing that from happening.

CHRIS HAYES: That relates to a really important point, too, about this kind of, I think, sort of blinkered economic anxiety versus bigotry, racial animus thing about the 2016 election, which, of course is kind of the subtext for all of this, right?


CHRIS HAYES: Like everyone's trying to figure out blah, blah. The thing to think about is okay, this is a true thing about human beings in any society, right? Like, travelism, factionalism, groups fighting each other, dominance hierarchies, different environments exacerbate or reduce the heat, right?


CHRIS HAYES: You talk about it in the Iraq chapter, and there's a whole part of the book that's sort of about U.S. foreign policy. There's a way that people will dismiss some fight that's happening in Iraq as tribal, like the Sunnis and the Shia they've hated each other for thousands of years. Well yeah, but if you came to the U.S. and took away the United States government, guess what people would start doing to each other in the streets, right?

AMY CHUA: Yeah. Our institutions are so important.

CHRIS HAYES: That's exactly right, right? The point there is that, better institutions that provide better governments and better outcomes for a bunch of people, is gonna lower the temperature of the conflict.

AMY CHUA: I really, really agree with you, but here's where in a rare case of me being more pessimistic than you, I think it goes back to what you said. That we keep forgetting how invidiously stable the situation was in this country of having a white majority so hegemonic for so long. Those institutions are being tested right now, and it's easy just to point the finger and say, “Oh my god.” But another thing we could say is that we romanticize some of our institutions and democracy.

AMY CHUA: The fact is that for most of our country's history, we actually didn't let lots of and lots of people vote. So we went abroad and told everybody to democratize and have elections as fast as possible, and in a sense we're getting a taste of our own medicine right now. We're seeing what happens when you have elections under certain conditions, and then when you see the rise of demagogues and which way people will go. But right now I think one thing that I'm seeing among my Progressive friends is something that I've seen in Latin American countries, which is after the Trump election, many of my Progressive friends are so horrified by this outcome that you're seeing what I describe as an elite backlash against the popular side of democracy.

AMY CHUA: It's never described that way, in fact what people are saying is, “I'm fighting authoritarianism," but I wanna call people out on that. An elite backlash... So on the Conservative side it's easy to call out, that's a piece of cake. It's like the white elites who don't what the minority majority places, we're gonna do voter suppression, we don't want that. But on the left, I think we have to be careful. It's usually cocktails, dinner parties, after the third drink somebody says... You know something has just happened, where something's come out of the White House and people are still supporting it, and its ghastly.

AMY CHUA: And people start talking about, maybe we should have knowledge requirements for voting, or maybe we should have IQ requirements. This is stiff that the Latin American elites have been talking about for a hundred years. Americans have been so romantic about it, partly 'cause we don't realize that we excluded all these poor people. But when they talked about democracy in a lot of countries, from Bolivia to Venezuela, they were talking about democracy with a lot of minority protections, a lot of property protections, a lot of rule of law protections, which I favor completely. But at some point, democracy's got to include a popular side to it, otherwise you would just have crony capitalism.

CHRIS HAYES: There is, there is. I will 100% agree with you that there is a vain of thinking among certain folks post-election that is dangerously anti-democratic and dangerously contemptuous of fellow citizens, right? But, if these idiots could deliver us into this, I think it's important to segregate that as kind of a leader opinion from people who are like, "Well my mom was just deported." You get that I'm not gonna question anything about that, but yeah you're right.

CHRIS HAYES: I think, look, one of the problems to me about the kind of current way that the country operates is that, in a weird way, when you think about these political tribes, one of those tribes which is broadly center left, has outsize cultural power and control. Again, I'm not saying these people are leftists, or even liberals, but if you say, “How many Trump voters are there in every Top 20 TV show showrunner's office? How many Trump voters are there in every...” just go across the hysteria, very few. I just think that's probably an empirical truth.

AMY CHUA: It's the truth, I've shown it, yeah.

CHRIS HAYES: So there's this huge cultural control on the hands of one tribe, and then the other tribe, right? Conservatives, whatever, they feel persecuted 'cause they're like, “Well I look out and there's all this control.” But they have unrivaled political control at the moment, right? Total control of the government, control of 30 state houses. So each side I think on that divide looks at the other's power and says, “You have all the power and I'm-"

AMY CHUA: And it's actually a pretty frightening situation if you look at what's happened across the world in other contexts. Because when get this kind of a situation, I haven't really found a happy ending. And that's why I kind of wrote the book, because I think that we don't have to be that way. It's like construction, it's a construction. And this is why I go back to your first question, I think the tribalism thing is actually identifying something important because we are aggregating a lot of people on the other side that are not exactly all in one tribe. They do it to us even more. You should see-

CHRIS HAYES: Right of course, across the divide they all look the same, but if you're in the group good God.

AMY CHUA: Oh my gosh.

CHRIS HAYES: Political and factional disputes, the amount of fighting that goes on on very narrow grounds, right? And this is true you're a member of the Evangelical Church, there's this wing that wants this kind of thing-

AMY CHUA: Right, but I mean if you hear how FOX News describes Progressives it's a complete caricature. You only have to know that the 60 million people who are described like that are not all like that, there are a million different stories. But I think it's the same thing on the other side.

AMY CHUA: So you asked such a good question at the beginning, because I know that I'm mixed about this too. I think that tribalism has its dangers. I think that it can also be very, very powerful, and it's also unavoidable in some ways. But I think it has to be managed, and I think that our institutions are the...

AMY CHUA: People often ask me, “Are there any models you've studied? Are there countries that can help us get out of this political tribalism?” And I hate to sound so raw right here, but we are the model. I think we have the best formula and apparatus, we're just, we're either messing it up, or it's under attack from truly dangerous elements, that's happening too. So we have to stand up for the rule of law. But I think we have to get back to this, these basic apparatus things, and I think that tribalism really is undermining that on both sides, I really do.

CHRIS HAYES: Look, no one has ever, I mean, the thing I always think is, a truly and genuinely multiracial, multiethnic democracy functioning free of ethnic and racial hierarchy has not been built yet.

AMY CHUA: Never. It's-

CHRIS HAYES: But that's the thing we're trying to build …

AMY CHUA: Exactly, exactly. I think the most inspiring thing I find is when you hear immigrants who love this country. It's really interesting, again I have a student I quoted extensively in my book, but his parents a poor Mexican-American immigrants. They love the Constitution, they love these principles, they cannot believe it. Or people who've just come from Nepal, or something.

CHRIS HAYES: To me, if you keep in mind that we're trying to build a thing no one's built before, and it's really hard to do-

AMY CHUA: You see that I end on Langston Hughes' poem, which is the most beautiful poem. It's really about, “America will be.” America was never America to me, are you kidding? This idea, but he's the one that says, “But there's one thing I know, America will be.” So it captures it perfectly.

CHRIS HAYES: Alright, Amy, she was a professor of Law at Yale. She is author of the new book “Political Tribes,” and her first book, which I read and loved when it first came out, called “World on Fire,” which has some of these themes as well.

CHRIS HAYES: Amy it was great to have you on.

AMY CHUA: Thanks for having me.

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