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For a while now, it’s been clear that America is in the grip of political tribalism, and the Covid-19 crisis only confirms this. Perceptions and reactions to the pandemic, including views about who’s to blame and when lockdown orders should be eased, have been almost completely determined by pro- or anti-Trumpism.1 Basic facts—like how many people have died from the virus or whether a certain medicine does or doesn’t work—can be almost impossible to figure out, so infected are America’s news media with partisan polarization.
But to solve any problem, we first need to correctly diagnose it. And by fixating on the symptoms, we miss the root causes of the problem. In this essay, I will do my best to clarify those root causes: to explain why the U.S. is so bitterly polarized today, and why that polarization generates the specific dynamics we’re seeing—dynamics not unique to America but unfolding in many parts of the world.
The Group Instinct
Let me start by saying that humans, like other primates, are tribal animals. We need to belong to groups—we’re hard-wired that way. Once we connect with a group, we tend to cling to it and see our group as better in every way. In a recent study, children between the ages of four and eight were randomly assigned to a red or blue group and asked to put on T-shirts of the corresponding color. They were then shown edited computer images of other children—half of whom were wearing red T-shirts, the other half blue—and asked about their reactions to these children. Even though they knew absolutely nothing about the children in the photos, the subjects consistently reported that they liked children of their group better, allocated more hypothetical resources to them, and displayed strong subconscious preferences for them. In addition, when told stories about the children in the photos, the boys and girls exhibited systematic memory distortion, tending to remember positive actions of in-group members and negative actions of out-group members.
So humans aren’t just a little tribal. We’re very tribal. Once we belong to a group, our identities can become oddly bound up with it, even on a chemical level. We will seek to benefit our group mates even when we personally gain nothing, and take pleasure when out-group members suffer. Recent studies at the Harvard Intergroup Neuroscience Lab show that under certain circumstances our brains’ “reward centers” (dopamine receptors) will activate when we see members of an out-group failing or facing misfortune. Other studies have found that group bonding increases oxytocin levels, which spurs “a greater tendency to demonize and de-humanize the out-group” and “anesthetizes” the empathy one might otherwise feel for a suffering person.
Tribalism is not necessarily a bad thing. Take sports, which are extremely tribal, but can be fun and even unifying. Family can be very tribal too, with positive effects. The problem is when tribalism takes over a political system. That’s when things get dysfunctional, because suddenly facts, arguments, and policy don’t matter. Instead, people just stick to their tribe no matter what and try to take down the other side. This explains why, despite Donald Trump’s repeated blunders and outrageous comments, his support among his base remains remarkably stable. It also explains why the United States is in such gridlock and why Americans on opposing sides can barely speak to each other. In the United States today, we’re at the point where many see those who voted for the other side not just as people they disagree with, but as immoral, evil, un-American—and it’s a dangerous state of affairs to feel that way about half the country. At same time, we’re seeing a fracturing within groups—both on the Left and Right—with ever-dividing, smaller and smaller identity-groups pitting themselves against each other.
Why is this happening now in America? Two factors are critical.
The “Browning of America”
The first is massive demographic transformation. For 200 years, America was dominated economically, politically, and culturally by a white majority. When one group is so overwhelmingly dominant, it can persecute with impunity, but it can also afford to be more generous and inclusive, like the WASP elites of the 1960s who voluntarily opened up Ivy League colleges to more Jews, blacks, and other minorities, in part because it seemed like right thing to do.
Today, for first time in U.S. history, whites are on the verge of losing their majority status.
Already, non-Hispanic whites are a minority in Texas and California, America’s two most populous states, as well as in New Mexico, Hawaii, and Washington, D.C. Less than half of American children under the age of fifteen are white.2 According to projections from the Pew Foundation, whites will cease to be a majority in America by 2055.
The result is that in America today, every group feels threatened. Not just minorities, but whites feel threatened. Over half of white Americans believe that “whites have replaced blacks as the ‘primary victims of discrimination.’” Today, it’s not just religious minorities like Jews and Muslims who feel threatened; Christians feel threatened, outraged by the “war on the Bible.” With President Trump in the White House, women feel threatened. With the #MeToo movement, men do. Straights and gays, Latinos and Asians, liberals and conservatives—all feel they are being attacked, bullied, discriminated against. And when groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more us-versus-them. This—combined with record levels of inequality—is why we’re now seeing such intense identity politics on both sides of the political spectrum.
On the right, openly white nationalist movements now brazenly hold rallies and conferences in a way that would have been shocking just five years ago. A central theme of the far right that the white race is in danger of extinction, about to be drowned by a rising tide of non-white people who, the bizarre argument goes, are being controlled and manipulated by Jews. But even on the mainstream right, there’s a growing fear, sometimes not spoken, sometimes not even conscious, that whites (especially white males) will lose their place in America. Ironically, white identity politics has gotten a tremendous boost from the Left, whose relentless berating and shaming has probably done more damage than good. One Trump voter claimed, “Maybe I’m just so sick of being called a bigot that my anger at the authoritarian left has pushed me to support this seriously flawed man.”
Meanwhile, on the Left, there’s been a sharp shift away from inclusivity as a watchword to a much more exclusionary approach. This is particularly dramatic on college campus, where, compared to even five years ago, there is starkly more self-segregation by race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc. In part, this new exclusivity is epistemological: the idea is that out-group members cannot share in the knowledge of in-group members because they have not experienced their particular form of oppression. White students, for example, are told they cannot understand students of another race, and should never speak for them or about them. The result is a hardening of group lines and a new policing of group boundaries. At Yale Law School, where I teach, it used to be common for conservative and liberal students to form friendships and socialize; today, it’s practically unheard-of. Not long ago, it was considered a sign of multicultural openness for a Caucasian person to wear a sari or kimono. Today, such “cultural appropriation” would be considered a “racist” transgression to be called out on social media. This is a stunning change in the progressive movement. Both the civil rights movement of the 1960s/70s, and the international human rights movement the 1990s and early 2000s framed their vision in universalist terms; their goal was to transcend, not highlight, group differences.
So, because of massive demographic changes, no group in America today feels comfortable. Every group—whites, blacks, Muslims, Christians—all feel attacked, persecuted, pitted against other groups for jobs, spoils, university spots, and the right to define the nation’s identity. These identity group conflicts, moreover, track party lines, with Republicans about 90 percent white and most of the country’s ethnic and religious diversity concentrated in the Democratic party.3
Cosmopolitan Elites versus the Trump Tribe
But there’s a second reason we’re seeing new political pathologies in the United States. This has to do with the phenomenon of “market-dominant minorities”—a term I coined in 2003 to refer to a minority group, perceived by the rest of the population as outsiders, who control vastly disproportionate amounts of a nation’s wealth. Such minorities are common in the developing world. They can be ethnic groups, like the tiny Chinese minority in Indonesia who make up just 3 percent of the population but control roughly 70 percent of the nation’s private economy, or they can be distinct in other ways, culturally or religiously, like the Sunni minority in Iraq that controlled the nation’s vast oil wealth under Saddam Hussein.
In countries with a market-dominant minority, democracy can be extremely destabilizing. Easily manipulated by power-seeking demagogues, resentful majorities who see themselves as the country’s rightful owners demand to have “their” country back. Ethnonationalism rears its head, and democracy becomes a vehicle not for peace and prosperity, but for escalating, often deadly political tribalism. This dynamic unfolded disastrously in Iraq in 2003 and was also at play in the former Yugoslavia, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and virtually every country where there’s been a market-dominant minority.
For most of U.S. history, it seemed as though Americans were relatively immune to dynamics like these. Part of the reason is that we never had a market-dominant minority. On the contrary, for two hundred years, America was economically and politically dominated by the white majority—a politically stable, if often invidious, state of affairs.
But today, something has changed. Race has split America’s poor, and class has split America’s white majority. The former has been true for a while; because of America’s long legacy of slavery and racism, many working class whites identify more with wealthy whites than with blacks or Hispanics of comparable economic status. The latter is a more recent development; today there is so little interaction and intermarriage between urban coastal whites and rural working class whites (President Trump’s base) that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would call an ethnic divide. It is now much more common for a white person who attended Harvard, Yale, or Columbia University to marry someone from India, Korea, or Nigeria of the same educational background than for them to marry a poor white person from rural America. As a result, we may be seeing the emergence of America’s own version of a market-dominant minority: basically, the country’s cosmopolitan elites, most of whom are urban and live on America’s coasts.
America’s cosmopolitan elites bear a striking resemblance to the market-dominant minorities of the developing world. Wealth in the United States is extraordinarily concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of people, who dominate key sectors of the economy, including Wall Street, the media, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Although these elites are not an ethnic or religious minority, they are culturally distinct, sharing similar cosmopolitan values. They are extremely insular, interacting and intermarrying primarily among themselves, attending the same elite schools, and are often viewed as arrogant and condescending by the rest of the country. It’s important to note that these cosmopolitan elites are not all white; indeed, from the point of view of working class whites, the Harvard-educated, elegantly dressed, professorial-sounding Barack Obama is the classic cosmopolitan elite. Most important, because these elites are viewed by many in America’s working class as “minority-loving” and pro-immigrant—caring about the poor in Africa more than the poor in the U.S.—they are seen as unconcerned with “real” Americans, indeed as threatening their way of life.
What happened in America in 2016 is exactly what I would have predicted for a developing country pursuing elections in the presence of a deeply resented market-dominant minority: the rise of a populist movement in which demagogic voices called on “real” Americans to “take back our country”—or in Donald Trump’s words, “Make America Great Again.”
Trumpism is part of a global pattern, but Europe’s right-wing nationalist movements aren’t the only or even most apt comparison. American politics today has as much in common with the developing world as it does with Europe. Time and again, vote-seeking demagogues with few political credentials have swept to power in developing countries by tapping into deep-seated resentment against a market-dominant minority. Mr. Trump was neither the world’s first “tweeter-in-chief” nor the first head of state to star on a reality TV show. That would be Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who swept to victory attacking the cosmopolitan elite that historically controlled the country’s politics and staggering oil wealth. Like Trump, Chávez won over millions of the country’s have-nots with his anti-establishment platform, his denunciation of the mainstream media, and his unscripted rhetoric that struck elites as vulgar, outrageous and often plainly false.
Because of the two factors discussed—radical demographic transformation and the emergence in the U.S. of our own idiosyncratic version of a market-dominant minority—America is starting to display, for the first time in its history, many destructive political dynamics typically associated with “developing” countries: ethnonationalist movements, an erosion of trust in institutions and in electoral outcomes, lurches toward authoritarianism, elite backlash against the less-educated working class—or “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton famously called them—and above all, the transformation of democracy into an engine of zero-sum political tribalism.
Stemming the Tribal Tide
As if things weren’t bad enough, enter the coronavirus, which has given America’s divided politics a ghastly new face. Somehow even the horrifying death tolls, the nightmarish images of body bags, overwhelmed hospitals, and freezer morgues have been infected with partisan polarization—another virus for which there is as yet no treatment or vaccine.
Political tribalism is worst under conditions of economic insecurity and lack of opportunity, and the pandemic has wreaked havoc along class lines. U.S. unemployment recently hit 20 percent, with 26 million out of work and low-wage workers, disproportionately black or Hispanic, hit especially hard. America’s professionals continue to work remotely from home—or their country houses by the ocean—while working-class people are either being laid off or forced to jeopardize their health. At the same time, the coronavirus death toll falls much harder on minorities. Although African Americans are only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for roughly 70 percent of all Covid-19 fatalities in Chicago, Detroit, and Louisiana.4 5
Tribalism catalyzed by inequality, demographic change, and fear of foreigners is not only an American problem. Variants of intolerant tribal populism are erupting all across Europe, eroding support for supranational entities such as the European Union and threatening the liberal international order. Brexit, for example, was a populist backlash against elites in London and Brussels perceived by many as controlling the United Kingdom from afar and being out of touch with “real” Britons, the “true owners” of the land, many of whom see immigrants as a threat. Like Trump, far right leaders from France’s Marine Le Pen to Italy’s Matteo Salvini to Hungary’s Viktor Orban have purported to give voice to a marginalized working class, advocating economic nationalism, opposing immigration, and deliberately using “crude and belligerent language,” a symbol of their rejection of elite sensibilities.
There will be no easy solution in any of these countries. One might have hoped that the pandemic would bring people together, but so far there’s little sign of that happening. In terms of specific reforms, the United States might learn from countries like Switzerland that have mandatory national service programs. One possible proposal to bridge the chasm between America’s cosmopolitan elites and Trump’s blue-collar base would be a program where young Americans are encouraged or required to spend a year after high school not abroad, but in an unfamiliar part of America—for example a young New Yorker could do a stint in rural Appalachia. In this way young people of different backgrounds, who usually stay in their own echo chambers, would have an opportunity to interact and work with (not just “help”) people they would normally never cross paths. A silver lining of the pandemic is that it provides many opportunities of this kind; there is a tremendous need for help all over the country with contact tracing, sanitizing public places, delivering food, tutoring children, and so on, and young people are least susceptible to the dangers of Covid-19.
But the fact is once tribalism takes hold of a nation’s political system, it’s hard to get rid of. Whether in the U.S. or Europe, if there’s to be a solution, it will have to take into account not just economics and politics, but ethnicity and national identity. There will have to be difficult conversations about immigration. Cosmopolitan elites could do their part by acknowledging that they themselves are part of a highly judgmental tribe—one that’s not easy for most people to get into—and are often more tolerant of differences in principle than in practice. Unity will not come by default, but rather only with work, courageous leadership, and collective will.
See Democrats Far More Likely than Republicans to View Covid-19 as Major Threat to Health of Americans, Pew Res. Ctr. (Mar. 17, 2020), https://www.people-press.org/2020/03/18/u-s-public-sees-multiple-threats-from-the-coronavirus-and-concerns-are-growing/pp_2020-03-18_coronavirus_0-06. ↩
Ezra Klein, Why We’re Polarized (2020), p. 37; ↩