Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author Jared Diamond Describes How the U.S. Could Become a Dictatorship in 10 Years

It can happen here, and it has.

By “it” I mean the enormous concentration of wealth and political power in the hands of a very few, and by “here” I mean the United States of America, a country that advertises itself as a democracy, but should rightly be referred to as an oligarchy, ruled by a wealthy elite.

But the country is not a dictatorship yet. I say “yet” because that too can happen here, given the aforementioned concentration of wealth and power, the increasing tolerance for nationalism, cruelty, xenophobia, and near-constant lying, and the craven acquiescence so many of the country’s legislators—who are supposed to put a check on such things—have shown to the whims of a baldly autocratic executive.

Perhaps it is only a matter of time, given the above. How much time? Maybe ten years, argues Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist, geographer, historian, and ecologist, and author of The Third ChimpanzeeGuns, Germs, and Steel; Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed; and The World Until Yesterday.

In the Big Think video interview clip above, Diamond frames the problem as one of an unwillingness to compromise, using the analogy of a happy marriage. “The best you can hope for in a marriage is an agreement on 80%. If you agree on 80%, that’s fantastic.” For any two people, married or otherwise, 80% agreement seems optimistic. For an entire country, it seems almost utopian.

But whatever number you want to set as a realistic goal, the U.S. has fallen far below it—at least when it comes to the way our governmental bodies work, or don’t, together. This is not a problem reducible to “both sides.” One party in particular has consistently refused to work with the other and used every dirty trick—from extreme gerrymandering to refusing to let a sitting President appoint a Supreme Court Justice—to hold power.

Politics is a dirty business, you may say, and yes, it is. But—to return to Diamond’s point—a functioning democracy requires compromise. These days, congress cannot pass legislation; “legislatures are at odds with the judiciary” (Diamond cites the example of the Republican-controlled West Virginia congress impeaching the state’s entire, Democratic-majority, supreme court in 2018); state governments are suing the federal government, and vice-versa.

The failure of compromise, says Diamond, is “the only problem that could precipitate the United States into the end of democracy and into a dictatorship in the next decade.” The usual historical examples can be more or less instructive on this point. But there are other, more recent, dictatorships that do not receive nearly enough attention—perhaps by design, since they have been “friendly” regimes that the U.S. helped create.

Diamond describes the situation in Chile, for example, where he lived in the late 60s. When he first moved there, it had been “the most democratic country in Latin America,” a country that prided itself on its ability to compromise. But this quality was in decline, he says, and its loss led to the country’s military coup in 1973, which brought the brutal dictator Augusto Pinochet to power (with the help of the CIA and certain American economists).

The new Chilean government “smashed world records for sadism and torture,” says Diamond, shocking those Chileans who believed their country was immune to the excesses of other Latin American nations that had succumbed to repressive authoritarianism. If that happens here, he argues, it will not come through a military coup, but rather through “what we see going on now”—namely restrictions on the right to vote and voter apathy.

Voting is the primary solution, Diamond claims, but voting alone may not address the problem of oligarchy. When a handful of the wealthy control mass media, fund local and national political campaigns, and otherwise exert undue influence, through mass surveillance, manipulation, and the use of foreign agents, the possibility of free and fair elections may disappear, if it hasn’t already.

Nonetheless, Diamond’s point deserves some serious consideration. If we want to avert dictatorship in the U.S., how can we encourage compromise—without, that is, relinquishing our most fundamental values? It's a point to ponder.

Related Content:

Aldous Huxley Warns Against Dictatorship in America

Umberto Eco Makes a List of the 14 Common Features of Fascism

Hannah Arendt on “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship:” Better to Suffer Than Collaborate

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • Bad Haircut says:

    “This is not a problem reducible to “both sides.” One party in particular has consistently refused to work with the other and used every dirty trick—from extreme gerrymandering to refusing to let a sitting President appoint a Supreme Court Justice—to hold power.”

    In other words, vote for Democrats or the US might/will be a dictatorship in 10 years. Ok, got it. Who would have guessed it that Joe Biden holds in his groping pawing hands the very last hope for the United States of America.

  • Don says:

    Diamond is talking about compromise. Yea… but there are also times when compromise is not to be embraced. Should we have compromised during the abolition movement when the southern states pushed back? The idea that slavery would have been outmoded within 20 years is a myth. It took not compromising, even to the point of a civil war to rest the country from the grips of slavery. Should Martin Luther King Jr. have compromised when Kennedy asked him to slow down the civil rights movement a touch? Kennedy was well meaning but King knew better — systemic change does not happen without some type of force, in his case non-violent force, but force nonetheless. As a supporter, Kennedy followed. Today, should the Progressive wing of the Democratic party compromise on climate change issues with an administration and Republican party (and moderate Democrats) who are in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry — whose overwhelming interest is in slowing down a transition to a green economy? (something we must do for human survival). Should they compromise with Republicans and Trump on immigration, when their “partners” across the aisle want to shut the doors on family based immigration (which has been the cornerstone of American cultural diversity) and want to replace it with skill-based immigration? Or who want to officialize English as the language of the land, which is code for whitewashing Latino culture, banning Muslims, and maintaining the superiority of white Anglo culture? Compromising on any of these issues inches the needle slowly toward the unjust, the unethical and the “unAmerican” values that have taken over half of the congress and now the executive office. There are times to dig in, even if the risk is dictatorship. Because, if that’s the result we run from by compromising, then we have a much deeper seated problem, that can only be remedied by some kind of ethical revolution. And hey, if it takes a physical revolution to rid us of this growing dictatorship, then yes, that’s what it takes. Compromising as Diamond describes here is simply averting the inevitable: dictatorship by lack of governing by the congress, which allows the president to govern by consolidating power, OR dictatorship of ideology ceded by continuous compromise with partners who have no real interest in giving up anything themselves. That’s incremental creep toward the same thing. Sorry, I’m not buying Diamond’s oversimplified analysis. There are two Americas. The sooner we accept that, the better we’ll get at anticipating how to navigate this storm.

  • Lonnie says:

    The problem is when the media starts telling the people who to vote for

  • Gerald says:

    So our political parties do not compromise. That is what elections are for. The party in power gets to call some shots for a while until voted out. And on and on it goes. What I cannot fathom from this post is how this gets us to dictatorship.

  • Patrick says:

    Sounds like we should have as small a federal government as possible.

  • TexasHoldEm says:

    Finally, someone with a brain to state the obvious.

  • S Parker says:

    The only answer to the problems of democracy, is more democracy.

  • Joan Sullivan says:

    How do we leave it to voting when the party in power won’t address election fraud, voter suppression, voting interference? Nothing has been done to make sure our elections are tamper proof.

  • Jonathan Collins says:

    Well, the good news is the dictatorship will only last 2 years, as the end of the world will occur in 12 years, according to AOC, so, no worries!

  • Jim says:

    THe fact is we do not have slavery as an issue today. We have abortion but that is not a salient issue to most people. It is a social issue. Issues like immigration, abortion, the deficit, etc. are convenient little issues that are trotted out near elections to firm up the Republican base and divide the nation’s electorate. They are non-issues in terms of what is actually important to most Americans.
    Poll after poll shows that the Democratic policies are what Americans want. The reason Americans can’t have them is because of the dictatorship of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is sitting on more than 100 bills sent to the Senate from the House.
    Another reason is the incompetence in the White House and its cynical manipulaton of the public through the press.
    No, Democrats are willing to compromise. They showed it with Trump’s ill-conceived wall. Obama showed it with the stimulus bill.
    The problem with compromise is that one side won’t. That side is the Republican Party and that is a fact.

  • Lonnie says:

    Joan,

    The only voter tampering that is perpetrated is done by the Democrats.

  • MartynW says:

    Maybe if we are looking for how countries fall into authoritarianism, there should be less in this article about Chile in the 1960s, and a bit more about Venezuela right now.

    But then, some people only recognize “strong-man” authoritarianism, and overlook the historical totalitarianism driven by Party organizations instead of just one dictator. If it’s a Politburo running things instead of some guy with medals on his chest, it doesn’t seem to count as “authoritarian.”

    Often of course, as in Venezuela and other collectivist nations, you end up with both.

  • Lonnie says:

    If Democrats are worried about a dictatorship then maybe they should lay off of gun control for a bit

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