Political tribalism worsening in USA, less so in NZ

Donald Trump has had a polarising effect on US politics – and in some respects that’s a deliberate tactic. How bad is the political divide in the US?

We have some of it here in New Zealand, especially in social media like Twitter, Facebook and on some political blogs, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad across the population.

Yale professor Amy Chua says (in NZ Listener) Political tribalism is getting worse in the US

Chua is one of the most-talked-about writers in the disunited states of America.

Speaking from her home in New Haven, Connecticut, where her day job is as a professor at Yale Law School, she reels off the list of countries that have been sites of US debacles abroad: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela. It’s a grim roll call, but maybe, from such abject lows, there is nowhere to go but up.

Tribalism, she says, is now so pronounced in the US that, no matter what someone says, their opponents will argue the opposite of a position that, just a few years ago, they would have supported.

Actually when Trump is involved we see a bit of that here on Your NZ.

“I worry because, if you look back five or 10 years, there was more overlap, things were more settled and in fact the people who now oppose Trump were even proposing some similar things.”

If Hillary Clinton had become President, or it had been former President Barack Obama who had helped bring the US and South Korea to the cusp of a possible peace breakthrough with North Korea, “I think the press coverage would be very different”.

I’m not sure about that. Clinton wasn’t a petulant provocative bully like Trump, but she was also quite polarising, and there are still signs of tribal views on her (including here). But the problems haven’t just started with trump.

In it’s forays abroad, the US has been, and remains, spectacularly naive, Chua believes. There are compelling examples in her book: after a US-led coalition toppled Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011, President Obama declared that, “one thing is clear … the future of Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people … it will be Libyans who build their new nation”. But, writes Chua, the term “Libyans” covers peoples of about 140 different tribes and, far from coming together to build their new nation, “the country began a slow descent into fragmentation and eventually a bloody civil war”. By 2016, a US general had labelled it a failed state.

Obama later said that “failing to plan for the day after” in Libya was probably the worst mistake of his presidency. But Chua says the case is one in a string of examples of America’s failure to understand and heed the destructive potential of the group instinct in other countries.

George W Bush’s rush into Iraq based on false claims of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ has turned into a mess across much of the Middle East – Iraq still has problems, Afghanistan looks as unfixable as ever, Iran tensions continue, the Israel-Palestine problem seems as intractable as ever, and there are civil wars raging in Syria and Yemen.

“In countries like these, it can be a catastrophic mistake to imagine that through democratic elections, people will suddenly rally around a national identity and overcome their pre-existing ethnic, religious, sectarian and tribal divides.

“On the contrary, in sharply divided societies, democracy often galvanises group conflict; political movements and parties coalesce around these more-primal identities. America has made this mistake over and over again.”

The US is not exactly a model democracy either – to the contrary it has major ongoing problems.

Trump’s victory discombobulated progressives, but Chua says it is time to abandon the expectation that the police will kick down the door of the White House and take the President away in handcuffs. So, Russia may have tried to meddle in the election, and Clinton won the popular vote. But a huge number of people voted for Trump.

Chua thinks that America’s cosmopolitan elites, Republican and Democrat, are horrified by a President who does not sound or act like they do. They have no idea what the rest of America thinks.

Urban, liberal, educated, mostly white Americans in coastal cities – San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC and New York – have very little understanding of the lives of working-class, less-privileged, white Americans in the rest of the country, Chua says.

“These two groups intermarry so rarely now that the difference between them is more like an ethnic divide. It’s more likely that a white person from Manhattan or Washington DC would marry a Nigerian American or a South Asian American from a comparable educational background – someone you met in law school, for example – than marry someone from Appalachia or Kentucky.”

The United States is a large and diverse country – in ways the equivalent of multiple countries.

New Zealand is much smaller – less populated than individual US cities and states – so has less regional division. There is a bit of an Auckland versus the rest divide but there is a lot of movement and interaction between the largest city and the rest of the country.

But we do have some immigration tensions, albeit milder than the US.

It is equally hard to talk about immigration in a country with 11 million illegal immigrants without being accused of being racist or xenophobic. “But it’s a fact that every nation should be able to control its borders and decide who should get in, how many, from where and what the rules are.

“It shouldn’t be incendiary and racist to suggest that maybe there’s a problem with illegal immigration. But if you were to say that on a Yale Law School campus, you would be instantly ostracised as being some conservative racist.”

But it can be incendiary and racist to imply whole groups immigrants as bad, as criminals, as negative job takers, like Trump does.

This mass denigration happens to an extent here too, as Labour found out with their Chinese sounding names debacle. And Winston Peters has long played that sort of derisory divisory card.

White Americans are heading towards becoming a minority, and a new pressure is arising, Chua says. Many people are wondering if America’s two-party political system can cope with society as it is, still operating a political system designed for a different era.

The US system of democracy keeps deteriorating, with no sign of it being modernised.

A change to MMP late last century helped change things for the better in New Zealand, but with a failure to adapt our system there are risks we are heading towards a virtual two party situation as smaller parties drop off the political landscape.

Chua on democracy:

“Americans tend to think of democracy as a unifying force. But under certain conditions, including inequality that tracks racial, ethnic or sectarian divides, democracy can actually ignite group conflict.”

Especially when you have a fire starter for president.

One of the positives with having Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister here is she is very different to Trump. We just have to hope that Winston hands back power to her after her maternity break, and in the meantime in her absence someone else in Labour steps up and rallies the rabble into a cohesive government.

If Ardern really wanted to be make a mark as a progressive leader she would tweak our MMP by dropping the failing threshold. That would stem the decline of MMP, and prevent us sinking into two party tribalism.

But there seems to be no chance of democratic reform in the US. The Trump storm is just a more extreme event in a gradually failing democracy.  As the continue on this course tribalism keeps deteriorating.


  1. Gerrit

     /  June 29, 2018

    Is it solely up to Ardern to “tweak” mmp? Surely is is not down to the prime minister discretion only?

    I would have thought that the Electoral Commission would propose a change and parliament decides?

    Is Parliament decision by a simple majority or a super (75%) majority.

    For if this PM and her parliamentary majority can decide one way (lower the threshold) to alter the MMP system, the next PM can than alter it the other way (increase the threshold).

    Not sure what you are asking here.

  2. Grimm

     /  June 29, 2018

    Ardern is the polar opposite of Trump. In a bad way.

    Trump’s success is that he is rebuilding the defences against cultural Marxism. He’s not afraid to be loud and proud about what has made the west successful. That resonates with many people, and with our institutions that have lost confidence in themselves.

    Ardern will only make us more separate, more identity politics, and more victims.

  3. Gezza

     /  June 29, 2018

    If Ardern really wanted to be make a mark as a progressive leader she would tweak our MMP by dropping the failing threshold.

    She doesn’t have the intellectual equipment for the job.

  4. PartisanZ

     /  June 29, 2018

    Are we talking about politics ever being something other than tribal?

    If so …. What?

    That bucket’s chock full … we can’t put any more in it …

    Something can’t be like 120% tribal …

    • Grimm

       /  June 29, 2018

      Perhaps it’s become more about believing in your “side”, whatever position they take, rather than believing strongly in issues and values.

      Key was so popular because he wasn’t tribal. He bent with the wind. Some folk on the right hated that. Ardern is deeply tribal.

      • PartisanZ

         /  June 29, 2018

        Key WASN’T tribal …? Seriously … !?

        I suppose in a way he wasn’t. In the same way no-one can be universally tribal across the whole spectrum of overlapping tribes …

        I’d say Key’s tribe were the Rich & the Aspirant Rich … which 34+ years of neoliberalism has turned into a fairly large cohort of the population …

        • PartisanZ

           /  June 29, 2018

          Many more Aspirants than Rich …

        • Grimm

           /  June 29, 2018

          Despite the nonsense rhetoric from his detractors, Key clearly didn’t favour the rich. He wouldn’t have been our most popular PM ever, if that were even close to being true.

          Despite Wff being “communism by stealth”, he still kept it.

          • PartisanZ

             /  June 29, 2018

            Have you really ever asked yourself why you’re precious National Party would do that … maintain such a system of “communism by stealth” … ?

            Why? They didn’t need to, did they, for popularity purposes?

            • Grimm

               /  June 29, 2018

              “precious” Nope, never voted for them.

              Doesn’t matter what I ask myself. It was one in dozens of examples of Key not favouring the rich.

            • PartisanZ

               /  June 29, 2018

              Or did they need to maintain WfF for popularity purposes? Perhaps so?

              Could it be that even National supporters have enough common decency to recognise that without such wealth redistribution the mock system of neoliberalism – where phony economics projects a semblance of utility via such concepts as pragmatism and “cost effectiveness” – would be revealed as the very leaky dyke it is … ?

              Even based on pure self-interest most people can probably see that as the dyke becomes more and more leaky, their own security is more and more directly affected …

              Potentially, both scenarios are evidenced by Edward’s missive …

              Rightie 1: There must be some minimal little thing we can do to stop this hoi poloi of common riff-raff gathering at the gates each evening to hurl Word Grenades at us … I mean, it can’t cost that much just to sorta ‘pay them off’ … can it?

              Rightie 2: Duck! (Whistle, vocal explosion sound!!!) Whoa! That was colourful. That was one of those LGBT ‘Diversity’ ones. They can sting you know, if your son or daughter decides to ‘come out’ … and really, don’t we need them to have at least enough money to buy our most basic goods?

              Rightie 1: Well, actually … We need them to buy a significant number of luxury goods too … or at least cheap Chinese copies of luxury goods …

              Rightie 3: Nahhh, just put them all in prison. Look, we can identify every one of them from the CCTV at the gates. I say set the dogs onto them and then call the police.

              Rightie Child: (Enters, with portable radio). Dad, Dad …

              Rightie’s 1 & 3: (simultaneously) Yes son … (1 & 3 look at each other) …

              Rightie 2: What? What did you two say … Son!?

              Rightie Child: Orhh shut up! They’re playing this old nursery rhyme or aphorism or something on the radio, over and over …

              Rightie 2: (to 1 & 3) … Are you two … ‘co-parenting’ … The ‘community rules’ specifically forbid same-sex co-habitation and child-rearing … You could be banished … out there … into the midst of that Mob!

              Rightie Child: Quiet! ….. (then on the radio) “Sticks and Stones may break my bones … But Names with never Hurt Me” …

              Rightie 2: I vaguely remember that from when I was a child …

              TO BE CONTINUED …

            • PartisanZ

               /  June 29, 2018

              The Right Brigade – EPISODE # 2

              “We are in Guatemala now Doctor”

              TO BE CONTINUED …

  5. Blazer

     /  June 29, 2018

    ‘Key clearly didn’t favour the rich. ‘….comedy post of the week!

  6. Griff

     /  June 29, 2018


    Just like not all conservatives are neocons, not all conservatives are wingnuts either. In fact, more often than not, the term is usually used interchangeably with “reactionary” or “radical right”.

    Being a wingnut requires a particularly paranoid worldview, teetering on the edge of or falling wholesale into tinfoil hat territory, as wingnuttery causes the victim to refuse to accept any source of information that doesn’t back up their prejudices (essentially, wingnuts are almost always authoritarian as well as being politically right-wing). Constant gibbering about the “liberal media” as well as a slavish devotion to cognitive dissonance, conspiracy theories, global warming denialism, psychological projection, and crackpot theories of economics (e.g. Austrian school, Social Credit) are also, if not required, at the very least nearly universal symptoms. This is all usually accompanied by a side dish of a severe persecution complex. Not all wingnuts are racists, misogynists, homophobes, or transphobes, though many racists, misogynists, homophobes, and transphobes are also wingnuts.

    t just

    • Corky

       /  June 29, 2018

      Lol…rationalwiki !!

    • Griff

       /  June 29, 2018

      I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any hon. Gentleman will question it.

      John Stuart Mill
      In a Parliamentary debate with the Conservative MP, John Pakington (May 31, 1866). Hansard, vol 183, col 1592

      • Grimm

         /  June 29, 2018

        Quoting from 1866 is a pretty good example of conservatism, don’t you think?

        Also a pretty good example of accepting quotes as historically accurate. Might as well quote from the Bible.

        • Griff

           /  June 29, 2018

          Like you know….. when the clerks write up the debates in parliament in a big book.

          The personalty type’s that cling to conservatism have not changed only the issues have changed with the times.
          Bob Altemeyer’s – The Authoritarians
          The wingnut reference could as well be to Trumpnuts.
          Except the economics has switched to populist protectionism for who ever has the orangutans ear and the attacks on the “liberal media” have switched into over drive.

          I am pointing this out for the rational observer not for the MAGA blinded subjects of these comments .

        • PartisanZ

           /  June 29, 2018

          If you reckon conservatives are Conservative nowadays Grimm, you shoulda seen them back in 1866!

          Today’s conservative is as sponge-cake to a slab of concrete …

          It’s impossible for someone’s opinion, recorded back in history, NOT TO BE historically accurate.

          What’s impossible is any or all opinions to ever be ‘The Truth’ …

          • Grimm

             /  June 29, 2018

            IKR. This is what Mill had to say about tax. Gotta be careful when cherry picking huh Griff.

            “To tax the larger incomes at a higher percentage than the smaller is to lay a tax on industry and economy; to impose a penalty on people for having worked harder and saved more than their neighbours.”

            That would be seen a “conservatism” in today’s money, don’t you think?

            • Griff

               /  June 29, 2018

              I would strongly suggest that placing the burden on the coming generations is not Conservative either .

              Trump has introduced tariffs which are a wealth transfer to industries that can not compete. The consumers of the products effectively pay the tariff not the overseas entity. Many of the consumers are also trying to sell value added product offshore the tariffs mean they end up paying more for their inputs so have to change more for their pruducts .The protected industry’s are less likely to innovate and adapt to changing conditions in world markets.
              Due to fiscal drag some of the value the goverment takes with a tariffs is dissipated before it re enters the economy as either a reduction in taxes or more protectionist measures.

              The tariffs have the net effect of making the USA less competitive.

            • Grimm

               /  June 30, 2018

              Back to the point, you quote an opinion from 1866 to support.your hatred of people who don’t agree with you, largley because you think they are stuck the past.

            • Griff

               /  June 30, 2018

              Hatred .
              No I think many conservatives are stupid.
              I dont hate stupid peploe I pity them .

  7. PartisanZ

     /  June 29, 2018

    Mill had a long career of course … and his theories evolved over time …

    ” … some of his views on the idea of flat taxation remained, albeit altered in the third edition of the Principles of Political Economy to reflect a concern for differentiating restrictions on “unearned” incomes, which he favoured, and those on “earned” incomes, which he did not favour.

    Mill promoted economic democracy instead of capitalism, in the manner of substituting capitalist businesses with worker cooperatives. He says:

    “The form of association, however, which if mankind continue to improve, must be expected in the end to predominate, is not that which can exist between a capitalist as chief, and work-people without a voice in the management, but the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves.””

    – Wikipedia


  1. Political tribalism worsening in USA, less so in NZ — Your NZ – NZ Conservative Coalition