It’s hard when viewing the remnants of the steel industry in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, not to be astounded by what once was. At its height, the eponymously named Bethlehem Steel Corporation was the second-largest producer of steel in the United States and the nation’s largest ship builder. From furnaces filled with ore, coke, and limestone came the materials for our bridges and battleships, our tallest skyscrapers and largest factories.
Bethlehem Steel thus also helped fuel the American capitalist superpower. But just important as the wealth the mills produced were the communities that such industry nurtured. The workers who came to this town, and many other towns like it, built homes, schools, and churches, finding in the process a path toward stable and fulfilling lives. Today just a few of the old blast furnaces that once served as a kind of skyline for Bethlehem remain standing, converted in 2011 into a casino and performing-arts center. And like much of the old rust belt, Bethlehem struggles to replicate the culture and economy that steel once provided. Gutted of their industry and raison d’etre, these once tight-knit towns have withered and declined, their shrinking populations underemployed and anxious, if not despairing, about their prospects.
How and where we live influences the political climate, with the way we sort ourselves shaping an oppositional topography—what urban policy hands refer to as spatial polarization. That polarization has of course taken on, nationwide, an unmistakably partisan quality, with a calcifying effect on U.S. politics: red states are pitted against blue ones, cities against suburbs and rural regions, the people of working-class towns against those gathered in media and financial centers. Is there a way to make sense of the changing nature of our union?
Yale Law professor Amy Chua takes up this question in her new book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. In a brisk examination of the rise of political tribalism and the increase in ethno-nationalist sentiment across the United States, she sees danger to the cohesive origin myth developed more than two centuries ago by our founders. Rather than coming together as a more perfect union, the United States is, in Chua’s opinion, fracturing along lines of geography, ethnicity, religion, and class. What such divisions portend is not just a map mottled with red and blue states, but also a more atomized collection of different and insular peoples. While the fissures are unlikely to lead to the kind of dissolution that threatens the European Union and the United Kingdom, or the kind of violent state collapse seen in the Middle East and the Balkans, what is at risk, Chua argues, is a collective sense of identity. “Today, no group in America feels comfortably dominant,” she writes. “Every group feels attacked, pitted against other groups not just for jobs and spoils but for the right to define the nation’s identity. In these conditions, democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition.”
The current historic rearranging of the country’s ethnic and cultural composition is likely to compound these disputes, Chua adds. Some analysts project that the United States will cease to be a majority-white nation by mid-century. Increasingly, as the baby-boom generation continues to age and pass on, everything from the languages we speak to the food and entertainment we consume will only continue to diversify and, consequently, spur regional and ideological divisions. Often these disagreements manifest themselves in relatively benign debates over issues like cultural appropriation and white privilege, and sometimes in more alarming forms, such as the resurgence of violent white supremacist groups.