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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Comments (13)
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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:


    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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