Wikimedia Commons

Amy Chua, the bestselling author of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and a professor at Yale Law School, spoke at Davenport College on Wednesday about her new book, “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations,” drawing a crowd of around 150 students and faculty members.

“I started writing this book three years ago, and, to tell you the truth, I wrote it because I was sick of only being known as the tiger mom,” Chua joked as she opened the talk, prompting applause and laughter from the audience.

In her book, Chua argues that the United States has been spectacularly blind to the importance of group identities, especially the ones that matter most. Chua said these identities are often ethnic, religious, sectarian and clan-based, as opposed to national.

Instead, Chua said during the talk, the U.S. has tended to see the world in terms of great ideological conflicts — capitalism versus communism, democracy versus authoritarianism. This blindness, she continued, obscures the ethnic dimensions of conflicts and contributes to foreign policy failures, such as the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq.

Chua used the term “market-dominant minority” — which she coined in her 2003 book, “World on Fire” — to explain the complexities of how ethnic tensions play out. For her, this term refers to an outsider ethnic group that controls a vastly disproportionate amount of a nation’s wealth. Economic dominance is a necessary condition for a market-dominant minority, Chua explained, but the group may or may not be politically advantaged.

“[The term] was very controversial,” she said, “Some Americans are more comfortable talking about both economically and politically oppressed minorities than economically wealthy but politically vulnerable ones.”

At the time of the Vietnam War, ethnic Chinese known as the Hoa controlled around 80 percent of Vietnam’s trade, despite being a minority population. Chua explained that any pro-capitalist measures implemented by American forces served to increase resentment toward Hoa communities and further isolate them from the majority of the population.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Chua said, Sunni Muslims, who made up just 15 percent of the population, historically dominated the country, first under the Ottoman empire, a Sunni power, then under the British and finally under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Chua argues that under these circumstances, attempts by foreign powers to impose democracy tend to stir up dangerous conflict between a poor, long-oppressed majority population — often fueled by populist demagogues — and the minority population in power.

“Americans like to think elections are the answer to everything,” she said. “And I think we’ve gotten a taste of our own medicine recently, but democracy could become an engine of ethno-nationalism. We have to be much more knowledgeable about the group identities important to people we are trying to help.”

Although she initially focused on U.S. foreign policy in her book, Chua said she soon realized that her analysis could also be applied to domestic politics.

According to Chua, there are two main reasons that the U.S. has displayed destructive tribal tendencies more typical of developing countries. First, she said, the country is undergoing a massive demographic change in which, for the first time in history, white Americans are on the verge of losing their majority. As a result, both majority and minority groups feel threatened — albeit for different reasons — and there is a tendency toward explicit identity politics on both sides of the political aisle, Chua added.

Second, she said, the white majority has become increasingly stratified along class lines. While the U.S. has historically never had a market-dominant minority, Chua argued that such a group, consisting of “coastal elites” who tend to be highly educated professionals, is on the rise.

While the “coastal elite” group is not ethnic in nature, Chua added, it tends to be insular and has become increasingly dominant in political and economic spheres. As a result, she continued, there is populist backlash in which a disenchanted majority group mobilizes to take back what it considers “our country.”

In an interview after the talk, Kyle Deakins ’18, an attendee, said that Chua’s ideas on the divide between coastal elites and the rest of the country is highly pertinent to the current political climate.

“I think she is at the cutting edge of ideas that will define the next few years,” he said.

Sonia Helen Pascale ’18, another attendee, said she was particularly struck by Chua’s comments on the danger of failing to empathize with the other side, a tendency Chua said she has seen on both sides of the political spectrum.

“Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations” was published on Feb. 20.

Le Vi Pham | levi.pham@yale.edu