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Author Jared Diamond on the 'breakdown' of American democracy


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Award-winning writer and historian Jared Diamond has spent his career studying the rise and fall of civilizations.

In his latest book, he examines major geopolitical events of the recent past, looking for lessons that may help navigate an uncertain future.

William Brangham recently sat down with Diamond to talk about it for our latest installment of the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

William Brangham: The cliche says those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it.

And in a very overt way, historian Jared Diamond, who also teaches geography at UCLA, is trying to use history as a road map for the present.

The book is called "Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis."

In it, Diamond explains why he thinks the U.S. is on the brink of crisis, rising inequality, declining democracy, and a government seemingly incapable of addressing our biggest challenges. And then, using the examples of six other nations that also dealt with major crises, including Finland after its war with the Soviet Union, Chile in the Pinochet era, and postwar Germany, Diamond draws lessons from each country's success and suggests how we might do the same today.

Jared Diamond is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Guns, Germ, and Steel," which looked at why some societies thrived, followed by collapse, which examined in part why some didn't.

Jared Diamond joins me now.

Welcome to the "NewsHour."

Jared Diamond: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis": Thank you. And it's pleasure to be with you.

William Brangham: So, your book uses the example of these nations, and then compares their response to these crises.

But you use as a measure how human beings, how individual people respond to personal crises. And I was sort of struck as that -- as a lens through which to look at how a nation looks at its own crises.

Why did you choose that particular lens?

Jared Diamond: I chose that lens because my wife, Marie, is a clinical psychologist who did a year's specialty in a branch of psychotherapist called crisis therapy, which, instead of having several years to work with a person, deals with a client for just six weeks, someone who has plunged in a personal crisis, which typically is breakup of a marriage, death of a loved one, setback to career.

The person realizes that the way they operate is no longer working well. They have to change and they have to change fast, but also you can't operate in the vacuum. And I realized that the outcome predictors for personal crises suggest outcome predictors for national crises.

William Brangham: Really, that how an individual human responds in a moment of crisis tracks in some meaningful way how a nation responds?

Jared Diamond: Partly yes and partly no.

Partly yes, the obvious cases are that we people get help from friends in a personal crisis. Nations either do or don't get help from allies. People either accept responsibility or deny responsibility, in which case you don't deal with the crisis.

Nations either accept responsibility or think of the United States today, blame their problems on Canada and Mexico, rather than the United States. So there is a parallel.

But there are also differences, of course, that we individuals do not have leaders, and nations have leaders. So personal crises are a starting point.

William Brangham: Let's stay with that idea.

How do you measure how the U.S. is responding? I mean, first off, do you believe that U.S. is in a crisis or on the brink of a crisis?

Jared Diamond: I would say we are spiraling into a crisis, for obvious reasons that we have all noticed, the political polarization, the gradual breakdown of democracy, which means compromising where necessary, not having tyranny of the majority, Congress passing fewer laws than in recent history.

All those are signs of the breakdown of democracy in the United States.

William Brangham: You argue in the book that political polarization is the single greatest threat to this country. Why that?

Jared Diamond: It's the threat that could end American democracy.

I lived in the Latin American country of Chile in 1967, the most democratic South American country. Democracy ended there by military coup d'etat as an outcome of political polarization.

In the United States, there's political polarization today. The outcome in the U.S. will certainly not be a military coup d'etat, because the American Army has never interfered. Instead, the end of democracy in the United States, if it happens, would be by a continuation of what we're seeing now, namely, parties in power locally or in a state preventing citizens likely to vote for the other side from registering to vote, and a majority of American voters who can't be bothered to go to the polls and vote.

If we don't like what our government is doing, we have only ourselves to blame with those low voter turnouts.

William Brangham: Your book also deals with what you would refer to and I think many people would believe as international crises, things that are beyond the borders of one nation.

Climate change is a perfect example, but the extinction crisis, the gobbling up of natural resources all over the world. With so many competing nation with different interests and fractious ideas and territorial governance, how are we going to tackle those issues if we can't even get our own house in order?

Jared Diamond: That's a really interesting question.

In fact, if you look again at my chapter on problems of the world, and imagine it stopping six pages before it actually stops, it would be a pessimistic chapter. And that was my first draft.

But then I learned about the difficult problems that the world has resolved in the last 30 years that give me hope, the problem of chlorofluorocarbons being released into the atmosphere and destroying the ozone layer, delineating overlapping economic zones in shallow water. God, if there's something difficult, that.

The elimination of smallpox. There is no smallpox in the world. The last smallpox cases were in Somalia. So the world has solved really difficult problems. And that gives me hope that since we solved those, we can also solve climate change, nuclear proliferation, sustainable resource use, and inequality.

William Brangham: So you really are optimistic?

Because your book, just as you say, does end on an optimistic note, but the book is also full of these enormous, seemingly intractable problems that no one seems to be tackling in any serious way.

Jared Diamond: It seems that no one is tackling them in any serious way, and yet the world problems, we have this recent track record.

And lots of people are trying to tackle climate change, trying to tackle inequality. So, yes, most of the book is about the problems, but the book ends on an optimistic note.

People ask me, Jared, are you an optimist or a pessimist? And my answer is, I'm a cautious optimist. I think the chances are that 51 percent that we will resolve our problems. But it depends entirely upon our choice. I don't know what people will choose. If people make the right choices, the chances are 99 percent that we resolve our problems.

William Brangham: All right, well, here's to optimism.

The book is "Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis."

Jared Diamond, thank you so much.

Jared Diamond: Thank you.

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