Author Jared Diamond on the 'breakdown' of American democracy

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 , Author, "Upheaval: 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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