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Jared Diamond

Jared Diamond, a noted polymath, is Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. Among his many awards are the U.S. National Medal of Science, Japan's Cosmos Prize,[…]

JARED DIAMOND: Let's talk about compromise, both personal compromise and national compromise. In a marriage, you have to make compromises. A friend of mine with a happy marriage said the best you can hope for in a marriage is agreement on 80 percent. If you agree on 80 percent, that's fantastic. Nobody is ever going to agree on 99 percent. And so every couple is going to have to compromise about something. Maybe they agree about sex, children, and money, but they got to compromise on the in-laws. Maybe they agree on in-laws, sex, and money, but they disagree about what they're going to have for breakfast. So you have to have compromise in a marriage. You also have to have to have compromise in a country.

It's especially the essence of a democracy. This is something worth restating for the United States today because during much of my lifetime our elected representatives and our electorates succeeded in reaching compromise about difficult issues. But political compromise is sadly breaking down today. The most recent congresses in the United States have passed fewer laws than any Other Congress in American history. They cant reach agreement. In the 1980s President Reagan and the Democratic House leader, Tip O'Neill — they disagreed strongly in their politics but they respected each other and they reached compromises. And they got big pieces of legislation passed. The legislation was not exactly what Tip O'Neill wanted. It wasn't what Ronald Reagan wanted. But it was a satisfactory compromise. And they'd pass some legislation. Nowadays our Congress is not passing legislation. Our executive, our president is at loggerheads with the lower house of Congress. Within each political party, there are the radical and the centrist wings.

Our legislature, our executive, our odds with our judiciary, the legislature of the state of West Virginia-- don't laugh when I say this-- but the legislature of West Virginia has impeached every justice on the Supreme Court of West Virginia. Why? Supposedly because they spend $30,000 to buy new sofas for their office. But there are more fundamental things. There is breakdown of compromise between the state government and national government. My state, California, is busy suing the federal government because the federal government is busy suing the state of California. So political compromise is breaking down in the United States today. We can discuss the reasons for it. But to me, that is the most serious problem United States faces. It's the only problem that could precipitate the United States into the end of democracy and into a dictatorship in the next decade. The United States is not the first country in human history to have a breakdown of political compromise.

Other countries have faced it as well. An example that I experienced firsthand was the South American country of Chile, where I lived in 1967. Chile has been the most democratic country in Latin America. When I moved to Chile in 1967, and my Chilean friends wanted to explain to the American visitor what our country is like, my Chilean friends said we are not like those other Latin American countries. We are a democracy. We know how to govern ourselves. That was 1967. But Chile was in the middle of a decline of political compromise, which exploded in 1973 with a military coupe. The military government stayed in power for 17 years, smashed world records for sadism and torture. And for me and for Chileans and it should be for Americans, It was a wake up call, because it shows how a functioning democracy can decay within a relatively short time into a vicious dictatorship. This is the risk that I see for the United States.

In the United States, if democracy ends with us, It's not going to be by military coup, because the American army has never been involved in politics. Instead, the decay of democracy in the United States Will be by what we see going on now, the restrictions placed on voter registration where the party in power locally or in a state prevents citizens likely to vote for the other party from voting. It will come about because those citizens who are registered to vote can't be bothered to vote. In the most recent election for mayor of my city, Los Angeles, Los Angeles is one of the most important cities in the United States. And the mayor of Los Angeles' most poor elected Position in Los Angeles, in our last election for mayor, 80 percent of Los Angelenos couldn't be bothered to vote for mayor. 20 percent voted for mayor. So if we don't like our mayor, it's our fault for not having voted for our mayor. Well, what can we do about dealing with our political compromise? The first thing you can do is vote. If you don't like your government, it's your own fault if you didn't vote. The second thing we can do is to complain loudly when you see one party restricting vote for another party. And there are other things. But that will do as a start.