Jared Diamond on overcoming national political crises

Jared Diamond talking about the national political crisis.
Jared Diamond speaks at the Aspen Ideas Festival about national political crises.
Riccardo Savi | The Aspen Institute

An Aspen Ideas Festival lecture by Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Guns, Germs, and Steel." He's working on a new book that looks at ways to identify, and overcome, national political crises.

Some of his ideas are based on the experiences of individual people in crisis, and those of other countries throughout history.

"My current book is on national political crises," Diamond said, "defined as a country encountering a major problem that the country's traditional coping methods cannot solve, and whose solution instead requires new approaches for the country."

Diamond suggests it is useful to look at national crises from the experience of a personal crisis. "All of us," he said, "have encountered personal crises in our lives, situations that force us to realize that our previous coping methods are no longer working and that we gotta figure out something new." These can be relationship crises, or death of a loved one, or serious health, financial or career crises.

In a personal crises, psychologists recommend that you rely on friends for advice, do a realistic self-appraisal, be patient, try different things, and recognize that experience gives you confidence — if you dealt with a crisis before, you can do so again.

Nations, Diamond says, have a few things going for them, including national identity and freedom of choice — depending on geopolitical constraints.

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In his forthcoming book, expected to release May 2019, Diamond looks at national crises in 7 countries: Japan, Finland, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, Australia and the United States.

Diamond has identified four serious threats or problems the United States faces:

1) Political polarization and the breakdown of compromise and civility generally.

2) Low voter participation. If you don't or can't vote, you are likely to be hopeless and one of the few outlets is violence.

3) Socioeconomic inequality and the growing loss of socioeconomic mobility.

4) The decline of public investment in public purposes.

How likely is it that the U.S. can solve its problems? Diamond says there are several factors working against us including this: "The U.S. resists learning from other countries, because of our belief in American exceptionalism. The belief that the U.S. is unique and because it's unique we can't learn from any other country that is like us." He added that the U.S. is "weak" in making honest self-appraisals.

There are factors working in our favor, however.

"Our geographic advantage being protected on two sides by oceans and on the other two sides by countries, Mexico and Canada, that are not military threats to us."

In addition, America has a "can-do" attitude, it has the advantage of being a democracy, and we have "our unusual and wonderful federal system," Diamond said.

While the future is uncertain, Diamond says Americans facing crisis need to acknowledge that "it's your responsibility to do something."

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at UCLA, and spoke June 28, 2018, at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado. He was introduced by Elliot Gerson of the Aspen Institute.