Characteristics of a banana republic

People have asked me how I define “banana republic”. So I’ll do that in this post. Before doing so, I have to explain a really basic point that should be obvious. But it’s 2020, and the internet has turned us into a nation of morons. So I have to spell it out. This post is my definition of banana republics, not a description of Trump. So don’t say “But Trump doesn’t do that” Or, “but that’s what the Democrats do”. Heck, some of the items on my list, such as government data manipulation, don’t apply to either party in the US.

I have to say this because in 2020 I can do something as innocuous as complain about how the US responded to Covid-19 and Trumpistas will immediately assume I’ve attacked their Dear Leader.

By the way, this sort of misreading is itself evidence of being a banana republic. I doubt whether when some Swiss guy complains about some problem in Switzerland that the listener automatically assumes it’s a direct attack on the Prime Minister. But they probably do in Venezuela.

This is obviously just a partial list:

1. Actual fake news in the media, and false accusations of fake news by politicians. Weird conspiracy theories.

2. The cult of the “man on horseback”, who rides into the capital to rid it of corruption.

3. Highly corrupt governments, especially governments elected on anti-corruption platforms.

4. Packing the Supreme Court with loyalists.

5. Attempts to end term limits for the current president, or to replace the president with his spouse to evade term limits. (Not having term limits at all is not evidence of being a banana republic.)

6. Corrupt police and violent vigilantes.

7. A strong president and subservient Congress.

8. No trust in election fairness. (This is perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of BRism)

9. Presidents blame foreigners for domestic economic problems.

10. Frequent impeachment attempts.

11. Opponents are demonized, electorate is highly polarized.

12. Schools teach propaganda.

13. President’s family members become important policymakers.

14. Governments spend money like there’s no tomorrow. The national debt soars. High inflation.

15. New governments routinely prosecute members of the previous administration.

16. Unwritten rules and norms of civic culture erode away; politics becomes the law of the jungle.

17. Presidents demand loyalty from other government officials, including law enforcement.

18. Statist economic policies that favor cronies of the president.

19. Voters focus on personalities, not policies.

20. The government manipulates economic data to look good.



47 Responses to “Characteristics of a banana republic”

  1. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    23. September 2020 at 13:30


    a good list. Everything currently seems to apply to the US – except high inflation.

    But I wonder what else to expect from a country with this degree of freedom and over 300 million individualistic inhabitants in the year 2020. This is not the 1950s.

    So we need a fair comparison. Europe is supposed to look so much better on paper, but it’s simply a lot of countries with fewer inhabitants. If you look at the totality of European countries, and compare them to the US, in a way so that it’s roughly 300 vs. 300 million, then Europe is no different from the US, most likely it’s even more extreme.

    I think the US is, in this population range and with this degree of freedom, still by far the most stable democracy in the world.

  2. Gravatar of John John
    23. September 2020 at 14:03

    When do you think the US started turning into a banana republic? I think it started in the 90s when federal elections became more competitive and the Soviet Union was eliminated. All of a sudden there was no external threat, and politicians were willing to do anything to beat the other party

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    23. September 2020 at 14:15

    John, That’s a plausible theory. I believe the internet was the biggest factor, but many factors are presumably involved.

  4. Gravatar of Tiago Santos Tiago Santos
    23. September 2020 at 14:20


    I do not have any comments on the American situation at all, but would like to point out about the specific list you presented that they are mostly associated with presidential countries. Some of them may be seen as the antibodies acting instead of being problematic in themselves (much like a fever helps the body fight viruses). On this issue, I would really like to hear your views on my book, “Why Not Parliamentarism?”

  5. Gravatar of Kevin A Kevin A
    23. September 2020 at 14:37

    We should just wind the federal government down and alter it into something we can actually agree on, which might even include splitting the USA into two countries or multiple countries.

    Seriously no one likes this thing and the only thing that motivates people to participate is poisoning the other side.

  6. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    23. September 2020 at 15:03

    In the classic sense, a Banana Republic has a single resource that dominates the economy, minerals, oil or …. bananas, concentrating power those who control that resource. When your money comes out of hole in the ground, then there is no need to invest in any infrastructure other than one road from the mines to the seaport and one from the presidential palace to the airport.

    They have also suffered from excessive meddling from foreign interests.

    And, weak institutions apart from the head of state.

    Nonetheless, a good (and scary) list.

  7. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    23. September 2020 at 16:12

    Add on: militarism, glorification of a mercenary, global guard service for commerce (instituionalized, legal cronyism pertaining to both parties).

  8. Gravatar of Sean Sean
    23. September 2020 at 16:39

    Agree good list. Obviously at any particular time having some of these is fine. Personally I don’t have any problem with kushners role as he seems about as qualified as a typical administration official. Dems have backed off from packing the court; my guess is there’s enough boomer senators afraid of the radical left that they don’t mind giving up the court. That is if they believe Biden’s going to win.

  9. Gravatar of foosion foosion
    23. September 2020 at 16:48

    Today in Banana Republic:

    Asked if he’d “commit to making sure that there is a peaceful transferral of power after the election,” Pres. Trump says, “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens.”

    “Get rid of the ballots,” Trump adds, “and you’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.”

    “According to [GOP sources] at the state and national levels, the Trump campaign is discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority.”

  10. Gravatar of ChacoKevy ChacoKevy
    23. September 2020 at 16:50

    “Heck, some of the items on my list, such as government data manipulation, don’t apply to either party in the US.”

    Someone certainly flirted with the idea!

  11. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    23. September 2020 at 16:53

    Good post. A few things.

    1. I guess I would describe this as characteristics of “poor government.” The term “Banana republic” is a distraction and doesn’t contribute to the discussion.

    2. A lot of the things you have on your list are characteristic of nearly all governments.

    3. I would extrapolate number 4) on your list to “attempts to change the rules of governance whenever you can’t win under the existing rules.” (Voting process, senate rules, electoral college, etc.)

    4.I would add
    – Delegation of law making authority from elected individuals to bureaucrats (and in general to the executive branch.)
    – Criminalization of normal business behavior
    – Draconian criminal penalties for minor crimes
    – Excessive prosecution of process crimes
    – Excessive emphasis on transparency

    5. I would generalize on your 15) as selective criminal prosecution for political purposes.

    6. I would disagree on 17). The bureaucrats damn well better do what the elected President tells them to do.

    Finally, I think the underlying problem is that when any government gains too much power, corruption and bad governance becomes inevitable.

  12. Gravatar of Daniel B Daniel B
    23. September 2020 at 17:49

    keep up the good work Scott!

  13. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    23. September 2020 at 17:59

    When the US globalist-foreign policy establishment turned its back on free Taiwan to seek lucre in communist China—was that banana-ism in action? Or crony capitalism?

  14. Gravatar of ee ee
    23. September 2020 at 19:14

    The Economic Freedom Index and the World Press Freedom Index scores for the US don’t have a pattern that looks like a clear decline to me. Both of those indexes are at least tangentially related to bad governance – EFI contains a “Government Integrity” component along with some other relevant ones, and with a free press it’s hard to consistently teach propaganda or alter public data. A quick and dirty way to label a banana republic could be by choosing thresholds in those indexes, such as “Mostly Unfree” in the EFI and “Difficult Situation” in the WPFI.

    You’d think there would be declines in those scores after 9/11, the financial crisis, the ACA, various crony deals, tariff policy, etc, but it doesn’t show up. I consider that to be a flaw in the metrics.

  15. Gravatar of Cartesian Theatics Cartesian Theatics
    23. September 2020 at 19:36

    21. Revolutionaries in the state capital call for civil war.

  16. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    23. September 2020 at 23:46


    good list and maybe some comments about characteristics of dysfunctional governments in general. I believe this dysfunction creeps in when the form of a country’s institutions clashes with the underlying culture. The UK and US democracies have worked so well so long because their form of government grew out of their actual cultures. For many other countries this is not the case, most obviously for any colonized place that de-colonized and was left with ideologies and state forms modeled on their former colonial masters – not home-grown concepts.

    The term “Banana republic” and your list suggests, dysfunctional Latin American countries. Their dysfunction (in my opinion) stems from a clash betwen government form often copied from the US model, and popular culture derived from the Spanish, often clan oriented and, well, latin. Not Anglo Saxon rule-of-law-ish. So “democracy”and “law” are maintained but often wildly misconstrued and misused.

    It would be different, in, say, African countries. Their dysfunction often stems from general admiration of powerful leaders, and the overriding obligation to ethnic group and family. A book on Kenyan corruption is named “It’s our turn to eat” which already tells you where this is going – government as a tool to distribute income to one’s group.

    Asia or the Middle East again would be different, each region developing their very own mode of dysfunction.

    Which brings me back to the US. Why on Earth does it now develop a Latin American model of dysfunction when ALL the main actors are perfectly anglo? Is it “Borderer” type of clannishness (re: Slatestarcodex’ article on the “Borderer” culture). Or else? What is it?

  17. Gravatar of BC BC
    24. September 2020 at 00:36

    When one googles “banana republic”, all of the front page links refer to the clothing store. I hadn’t thought about it before, but “Banana Republic” is a strange name for an upscale, trendy brand. A banana republic is supposed to be a bad thing, right? It’s like naming a store “Corrupt Oligarchy” or “Dystopian Wasteland”.

  18. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    24. September 2020 at 01:30


    hilarious comment. Reminds me my wife always thought it strange that the travel book series was called “Lonely Planet”, rather than something more positive, say “Lovely Planet” …

  19. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    24. September 2020 at 02:35

    However, this list by Scott Sumner is seriously deficient in one regard: A banana republic has to be able to grow bananas.

    Yes, we have no bananas.

    The US is merely a faux-banana republic.

  20. Gravatar of Kevin Adolph Kevin Adolph
    24. September 2020 at 04:43

    “It’s like naming a store “Corrupt Oligarchy” or “Dystopian Wasteland””

    Dystopian Wasteland could be a landfill

  21. Gravatar of BB BB
    24. September 2020 at 05:22

    SPot on. I think #9 is underrated and I would added blaming domestic minorities for problems. I think minority rule is always a good indicator. And both Erdoqan and Putin built their base by in the rural regions by stokes fears of various forms of cosmopolitism. Anyone who is arguing that this is just bad governance is tribal and part of the problem. Trump is following the Erdoqan and Putin playbook. The argue anything less is to be complicit.

  22. Gravatar of John John
    24. September 2020 at 06:46

    Replace “president” with “governor” and you’ve more or less got the deep south since Reconstruction.

  23. Gravatar of Sean Sean
    24. September 2020 at 08:05

    One issue I believe we are dealing with is the complexity of policy (and cheap uninformed commentators).

    Take Scott’s desired NGDP policy. What is a side effect of that policy in this environment? Its caused the FED to drive real interest rates deeply negative. Which led to companies with strong earnings visibility to appreciate significantly in this envrionment. Hence many view it as driving up wealth inequaiity (though I don’t think this effects income inequality). Hence it leads to demonization of policy.

    I’m not sure democracy works as well in an advanced society where its virtually impossible for the public to understand why things are happening.

  24. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    24. September 2020 at 09:04


    Same in Iran I think.

  25. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    24. September 2020 at 09:04

    @BB or Israel for that matter.

  26. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    24. September 2020 at 09:29


    You bring up an interesting point. Is the modern world too sophisticated for democracy to work as well as when life was simpler?

    Maybe technocratic state capitalism (like China) is the wave of the future. Can that work with actual competitive elections?

  27. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. September 2020 at 10:33

    Tiago, I have not read your book, but I favor a proportional representation parliamentary system. Non-insane people should also have a party they can vote for.

    dtoh, You said:

    “Criminalization of normal business behavior
    – Draconian criminal penalties for minor crimes”

    I assume you are advocating drug legalization. Otherwise I’m not sure what this means.

    I don’t want the head of the FBI to be loyal to the president, I want the FBI to investigate the president when he is being corrupt. Like our current president.

    Ben, If you know nothing of history then it’s best to remain silent. We recognized the Beijing government for Cold War reasons, not to make money in China. LOL, there was no money to be made in China in the 1970s!

    Look, I wish the nationalists had won the Chinese civil war. But it’s absurd to claim that Taipei is the legitimate government of all of China. The good guys (or less bad guys) lost. We almost had to recognize Beijing.

    ee, Do those indices include things like immigration?

    mbka, I wish I knew.

    BC, Or it’s like when academics have posters of Che on their office walls. They don’t seem to know that he was a really bad guy.

    BB, Good point.

    John, There’s some truth in that.

    Sean, No, NGDP was never adopted, and in any case the Fed did not drive real interest rates negative. Real rates are determined by the market, at least over any extended period of time. If the Fed’s had any effect, it’s to hold rates above their true equilibrium level.

  28. Gravatar of David S David S
    24. September 2020 at 10:59

    How about the use of conventional armed forces as an agent of the dictator when it comes to repression of domestic opponents? In this respect, Trump might not have the support of the Pentagon to declare permanent martial law on November 4th.

    But, if I interpret Scott correctly, it’s no just about Trump–it’s about a more aggressive and organized autocrat who can leverage these existing conditions to go full Chavez.

  29. Gravatar of Negation of Ideology Negation of Ideology
    24. September 2020 at 13:40

    Scott – To John’s question:

    “When do you think the US started turning into a banana republic?”

    You’re right, it’s probably many factors – including the internet. One factor that I think is involved is the move away from party leaders determining the nominee of their party to primaries, especially open ones. A banana republic has weak parties but strong partisanship – a healthy republic has the reverse.

  30. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    25. September 2020 at 00:06

    As you know I favor legalizing the sale but not the consumption of drugs.

  31. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    25. September 2020 at 09:36

    I believe many of the problems you list above are simply symptoms of a central government that is not being held to account for its liabilities. For example, because we do not account properly for our entitlement costs we make promises that we cannot keep to millions that turn them into dependents of the state and then self-pitying, partisan defenders of unsustainable policies. We build a military that we cannot afford and in the process create millions dependent on its continued bloat. We create a government education bureaucracy that hires hundreds of thousands whose employment has no tie to educational quality. The government becomes a spoils system where it yields more than it costs until the accounting comes due in a very painful way: financial collapse, lost wars…

    Scott, your great insight was identifying a single metric for sound monetary policy. I wonder if there is a similar metric that could be targeted for fiscal goals that would bring our fisc back into balance and return us to thinking of government as a service provider instead of a sugar daddy.

  32. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    25. September 2020 at 10:39

    Sean says

    “I’m not sure democracy works as well in an advanced society where its virtually impossible for the public to understand why things are happening.”

    I am not sure the “experts” understand why things are happening either.

  33. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    25. September 2020 at 12:00

    Yes, we recognized Beijing in the early 70s as part of Nixon’s “triangular diplomacy” strategy, after the growing rift between China and the USSR was recognized. The idea was to, not surprisingly, triangulate between the two powers to maximize our leverage, particularly against the USSR.

    I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that those who advocate completely incoherent policies have no understanding of the history of the evolution of policy.

  34. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. September 2020 at 12:49

    dtoh, You want to make consumption of drugs illegal? So that’s what you mean by eliminating:

    “Draconian criminal penalties for minor crimes”

    I’m sure the 400,000 Americans in prison for drug crimes will be a bit confused by your stance on criminal justice.

    Just legalize drugs—it’s not complicated. They were legal in 1910 and the country functioned fine. Indeed by far the biggest “drug problem” in 1910 was alcohol.

    Carl, That’s harder to do for fiscal policy, as both future taxes and future spending are uncertain (and widely debated.) The optimal deficit today depends on what we plan to do on spending and taxes in the future.

    Doug, Exactly.

  35. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    25. September 2020 at 20:45


    Making something illegal does not necessarily mean imposing draconian criminal penalties as a punishment.

    Nearly everyone in prison for drug offenses is in for trafficking not use. Legalizing use would do very little to reduce the 400,000 people in prison.

    Legalizing trafficking would reduce the violence associated with the drug trade.

    Keeping use illegal would a) help to prevent abuse and addiction in young people, b) provide a mechanism to identify addicts and others who need help and treatment, c) keep downtown city neighborhoods from constantly smelling like a weed factory (try walking in downtown Seattle if you don’t believe me), and d) be a way to clean up litter with offenders sentenced to community service.

  36. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    26. September 2020 at 04:55

    Now, Trump is talking about packing the Supreme Court in his second term, after he subverts the will of the people and remains in office, in his mind.

    The Gandhi approach can work at times, particularly when the relatively responsible political party can use such an approach for durable political advantage. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party is not such a party. They are politically incompetent, and out of touch with most Americans.

    Also, they face an enemy that is a fascist personality cult in which nearly every supporter is epistemologically closed. They only practice realpolitik, so concerns about Democrats turning us even more into a banana republic are very misplaced, in my opinion. Weakness on the part of Democrats is the real danger here.

  37. Gravatar of You are not in Turkey – The Money MischiefThe Money Mischief You are not in Turkey - The Money MischiefThe Money Mischief
    26. September 2020 at 08:25

    […] Sumner recently wrote a post listing some of the features of banana republics. For my country, Turkey, it is obvious that […]

  38. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. September 2020 at 08:36

    dtoh, Even prison doesn’t stop many people from using drugs, so your proposal obviously will not stop people from doing so. Pot use in Colorado, Washington and California didn’t rise very much, and use in those states was almost fully legalized.

    There are about a million problems in America worse than the occasional smell of pot. It reminds me of the people who told me San Francisco was a hellhole, and when I actually visited last year it was delightful. Even the skid row area (where I stayed), wasn’t bad.

    But at least you don’t support prison, that’s important.

    And I don’t agree on your claim that almost no one is in prison for drug use. Drug warriors make that claim, but they lie. Many people supposedly in prison for drug sales are actually in prison for drug use.

  39. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    26. September 2020 at 12:53

    Pot use in Colorado, Washington and California didn’t rise very much, and use in those states was almost fully legalized.


    This sounds like false promises and false expectations to me. Wasn’t the promise that crime would be significantly reduced and that prisons would empty, at best to pre-1970 levels? Is that what is happening?

    Now it is supposed to be great that consumption might not have increased by “very much” and that crime rates and incarceration rates have not increased significantly either. Wow, okay, that’s just great.

    The results are so exhilarating, so, as you suggest, let’s do benzodiazepines, amphetamines, ecstasy, crack, and heroin now.

    As you know I favor legalizing the sale but not the consumption of drugs.


    Don’t you find that bizarre? What’s the point. It’s a contradiction in itself. In Italy such conditions actually exist, purely by accident, because they have made bad laws, with loopholes large enough for a truck to pass through. Are you sure that Italy is a role model in this respect?

  40. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    26. September 2020 at 13:13

    @Christian List
    I think you need to take into account crime throughout the supply chain to get a true accounting of crime levels. M

  41. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    26. September 2020 at 20:45


    I suppose most of the people in the supply chain profit, otherwise they would not participate.

    And I doubt that many of the side effects disappear, just because you legalize certain illegal drugs.

    Free health care for all, more social workers, more drug counsellors, free drug clinics and free rehabilitation. That could help, it is done in Europe, but it is some kind of socialism, and extremely expensive, I’m not sure if most people in the US want that. Not to mention that it’s not necessarily the ideal solution, even though European politicians like to of course claim that it is.

    One should take the many promises of the legalization site exactly at their word and look critically whether the promises will come true.

    I’m not against the legalization of pot per se, legalize it, who cares. I just think that most of the promises and expectations that come with it are exaggerated or flat-out wrong.

    Real crime won’t change and the prison population won’t drop significantly.

    The legalization of pot mostly seems to be a project of rich white kids because they want to smoke their pot undisturbed. That’s why virtually none of these people wants to legalize crack seriously, except maybe for Scott.

  42. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    26. September 2020 at 21:23

    @Christian List
    I’m thinking of the supply chain all the way back to the source. A proper accounting includes the effect of legalization on the supplier countries as well. Just look at what the drug cartels are doing to Mexico.
    I don’t doubt that there are problems with legal drugs. Just look at all the problems with alcohol consumption in this country. But you don’t have Jim Beam dealers shooting Jack Daniels dealers to gain control of the Chicago whiskey market. Even in the case of opioids, which are often cited as proof that the costs of legalization will match the cost of fighting the drug war, there are many more deaths from heroin overdoses than opioid overdoses.
    As for the concern that legalizing drugs requires funding a socialist infrastructure of free treatment services, I would counter with concerns that the drug war requires trampling civil liberties and requires additional law enforcement expenditures. The trampling of civil liberties is perhaps the strongest argument of all. By what conception of the State should it have the right to deprive you of your freedom because you ingested a substance to make yourself feel better?

  43. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    27. September 2020 at 03:42


    How would you know if prison stops people from using drugs. Almost no one goes to prison for drug use. 99.5% of people incarcerated in federal prisons for drug offense are there for trafficking not for use.

    Like I said, the main reason for not legalizing drug use are: a) create a disincentive to keep kids from using drugs, b) being able identify and force people with serious problems into treatment (it’s a disgrace that we leave people with drug and mental problems on the street and don’t do anything to help them).

    Also I do think that if you legalize (and remove the profit from) the drug trade, you will get a drop in the violence and crime associated with the trade (even though a lot of individual involved in drug trafficking would certainly pursue other criminal activities if the money went out of drugs.)

    And no I would not put drug users in jail. I’m thinking along the lines of community service/fines enforced primarily in the case of public consumption/disorderly conduct.

  44. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. September 2020 at 08:58

    dtoh, I don’t agree with your claim on drug users not going to prison very often. It actually does occur quite often, but the government claims they are “dealers” because they have a certain amount of drugs, or they sell some to their friend. Only a fraction of the 400,000 are “drug dealers” in the sense that we see in the movies.

    As for crime after the end of prohibition, I’d point out that the murder rate in America fell in half after alcohol prohibition ended, so those criminals did not seem to simply switch into other forms of criminal activity.

    I think what you miss is that a corrupt society creates a criminal class. Criminals are not born, they are made.

  45. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. September 2020 at 09:01

    Christian, If we completely legalize drugs then no one will go to prison for selling or consuming drugs. Crime plunged sharply after alcohol was legalized following prohibition.

    And the drug warriors claimed that legalizing pot in Colorado would be a disaster. They were wrong but refuse to concede that they were wrong. I’ve lost all respect for drug warriors; they are intellectually dishonest people.

  46. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    27. September 2020 at 14:33


    I never claimed that drug users are not going to prison. What I said was that people were not being imprisoned for drug use. Nearly all people convicted of trafficking offenses are themselves drug addicts or abusers but that’s not what they are charged with.

    And I totally agree that the crime rate will drop if we legalize drugs, but not if we just legalize use and not if we just legalize marijuana. That’s why I keep emphasizing that we should legalize the sale but not the consumption of drugs.

    And as for criminals being made or born, I think (roughly) that 5% of people are born criminals, 5% are born saints, and the remaining 90% of us can be corrupted or made honorable by the society we live in.

  47. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    27. September 2020 at 14:57

    And the drug warriors claimed that legalizing pot in Colorado would be a disaster.


    True, the prohibition advocates were not right, but I don’t think that you are completely balanced here, because the promises of the legalization advocates have not been fulfilled either. Both sides are biased.

    Only 1/5 of the reasons for detention seem to be related to drugs. On the other hand, 75-85% are drug users, and 80-90% are said to have at least one serious psychiatric conditions, such as severe enough personality disorders. This may indicate that the problems lie somewhere else.

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