Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about Election Day 2020.
*Interview conducted on October 26, 2020.*
Scott Jacobsen: Off tape, you said something. Was it an older Yiddish phrase. Okay, Jon, why did we come to you stating that particular quote?
Engel: Well, obviously, we’re talking about the election a week from tomorrow. And that’s Election Day already, this election is different than past elections in the United States because so many people are voting early. In fact, my plan: I have my ballot. I plan on, depending on the weather, one day this week. But Election Day is still Election Day and there’s still a lot of people who are going to vote on Election Day. And, the tradition is to stay up, watching TV to see who won. Although, again, with all the absentee ballots and voting by mail that’s going on with the chances; we don’t really know on election night. But why “hope for the best and expect the worst”? It’s because the “hope for the best part “comes from, obviously, just generally speaking, hoping for the best. But also there is reason from an objective viewpoint to feel pretty decent that Biden’s going to win. The polls are showing pretty well the early voting has been tilting democratic. There are a lot of constituencies like young people and African-Americans who seem to be voting in very large numbers, who tend to vote for Democrats.
So, that’s the hope for the best. And if I was being objective about it, there are a lot of people like me in this country who were absolutely traumatized four years ago. And I just couldn’t imagine that this election is going to go for Donald. I just couldn’t. And when I was watching the returns that night, when it looked like, “Yes, it looks like Trump could win.” I was floored when it looked like he was going to win. The horror of this was incredible. And I know some fellows.
In fact, yesterday, I was doing a Zoom presentation for a group in New Jersey. There were people telling me, “I’ve already ot it in my mind that Trump is going to win again.” And I was like, “Why?” And they were like, because if I don’t sort of prepare myself for this; I don’t know how I’m going to be able to take it. I never felt this way, again. Maybe, it’s different. I, recently, lived through a lot of elections. I’m 62 years old. My candidates have lost, which has happened a fair amount of the time. I felt terrible. I was upset. But I don’t think it would be anything like this. It was bad enough the first time for a couple of reasons. Number one, the idea that so many American people could say, “Yes, I like this. This looks good to me. People dying left, right and center of Covid,” but he wasn’t saying, “I wish we’d stop thinking about it.” That’s a fear in and of itself.
But there’s really more to it than that. It’s also that if he gets another term, when he’s like a couple of days after Election Day in 2016. I heard that the public and political commentator Bill Maher saying: From now on, the next four years, he says this is more talking about himself. He’s a fierce critic of Trump. He said, ‘I’m going to have to keep looking behind me because this guy lives for revenge.’ And he’s right. If Trump doesn’t have to think about more and more, ever running again, he will be unleashed to. And first thing he will do is go where every person he perceives as an enemy. He will fire William Barr. Who, believe it or not, he doesn’t think of the love of that sycophant as attorney general and may replace him with, God knows, Rudy Giuliani or somebody.
And the next thing we’re going to see is Barack Obama being perp walked in handcuffs into the FBI and this could really happen. So the stakes couldn’t possibly feel any higher at all. And so, I’m hoping for the best and even expect the worst part; I don’t know if I can even bring myself to do… Oh, by the way, do you have, like, a spare bedroom?
John: I’m just asking.
John: Because I may get the hell out of here, if Canada would take me.
Jacobsen: Bring your winter coat.
John: If Trump gets re-elected, I think, if he manages to hold on power, I’m not so certain about staying here. His continuing as president would be a matter of being re-elected or rather just a matter of finding a way to nullify the will of the people and to stay in office.
Jacobsen: Do you think Dave Chappelle is right, in his interview with David Letterman, where he states racism should be seen as a national security issue? The fact of reducing hate and tensions in the country as a matter of national security because of the threat to the nation-state called the United States. Is this something crucial to consider when walking to the voting booth?
John: Oh, yes, I think so, because people take a narrow view, in my opinion, of national security, of the phrase “national security.” What is the biggest national security threat facing the United States today? Right now, it’s climate change. And interestingly enough, who will tell you that? The Pentagon, the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the top Army generals, will tell you that the biggest security threat to the United States today is climate change. So I guess it is a threat. Think about this. The American Armed Forces is one of the most integrated institutions in our country. We have a large proportion of our armed forces that are African-American or Hispanic or Asian. And we have people in this country who are not citizens, who are serving, not in the United States, but our residents in the United States who are serving in our armed forces.
So something like racism, is that a threat to our security? You bet it is, and so is climate change. So people think that our national security is just about having a bigger army. And the truth of the matter is our national security pivots on a lot of other issues that are extremely important, not just the size of our army or the power of our army, as Bill Clinton used to say. But the point isn’t just the example of our power. But the power of our example and there are so many things that are intrinsic. People don’t realize: How do you get a big army as you want? But we also need alliances. We also need allies. And so, diplomacy is part of national security. There are so many things that are essential to us that are part of our national security that people aren’t necessarily looking at, that I think, really are threats existential threats to this country.
Jacobsen: Do you think Biden truly provides a solution to the problems created by Trump or the persistent long term issues in the United States, or do you think Biden provides more of a far better alternative to current President Trump further into four years? In the sense, it’s not an ideal situation. It’s more of a settling for a candidate because the alternative is grotesquely abhorrent to secularism, to human rights, and to science standards and respectability of the United States on the international stage.
John: That’s kind of a yes, and no. Sometimes, when I had discussions with friends who are progressive, they’re worried that Biden isn’t progressive enough and will institute systemic change. I understand where they’re coming from. But my analogy is: the house is on fire. We can talk about how we’re going to redecorate it after we put the fire out. So, yes, I think for a lot of people, part of it is just we have to stop the bleeding. We have to stop the destruction of our country and our democracy. And so I think that does appeal to a lot of people with regard to Biden, because he’s a normal person which would be nice. But also he’s obviously a decent human being.
Now, I think the Democratic Party has pushed somewhat to the left. And so, I think he will be more open. He’s talking about a trillion-dollar environmental policy or environmental injection into the country in order to fight climate change. I think that there will be some change. And I think what’s really needed in this country is systemic change. Republicans at this point are not even bothering with democracy. In fact, I heard Senator Mike Lee of Utah, Republican of Utah, said the other day, “Oh, we’re a constitutional republic. Democracy really doesn’t matter, which is enough.” I went to grade school in the United States of America and here in the United States Senate to say, “That is enough,” makes me fall off my seat. Biden will help to make those really systemic changes.
But at first, on his own, he barely can do anything. If Democrats don’t take the Senate, get the House and win the presidency, he really won’t be able to do much of anything. Except, again, stop the bleeding, which right now looks like something that’s at least somewhat of a positive outcome. But the answer, of course, to that is, I’m not sure, but I’m not too worried about him being too centrist in the middle of the road. I know he’s talking about reaching across the aisle. And still, what he’s talking about there, there are a lot of people in this country who just want to say, “Oh, can’t everybody get along sort of thing.” But I hope he realizes that the Republican Party, whatever’s left of it. If he does win, it is not going to be helping; it’s not going to be willing to work with him. And that’s what happened with Obama a little bit because, he watered down the Affordable Care Act in and of itself. Thinking, “All this will help me get some Republican votes because I’ll be more along the lines of what they want.” And in the end, they didn’t. None of them voted for it, anyway.
So, I think I’m cautiously optimistic that some change can be done. But I’m realistic to know that if the obstacles to change this country needs today are more a matter of the system rather than a matter of the individual. Joe Biden, he tends to be somewhat more centrist, is going to be the kind of obstacle to making the sort of changes that this country really needs in its foundation as much as just the arcane rules that much of what we still have in this country. So, like the Electoral College, this is getting too crazy. You get most votes, but you don’t win. But changing that will require changing the Constitution, which will mean that some voters in some states would have to say, “Yes, I’d rather have democracy than have sort of a system tilted in my favor.”
So I think that’s more of an issue than Biden himself. I don’t think Biden will be an obstacle to significant change. Especially since, he’s got his voter. I want to see these kinds of changes, and I think he will move along with that. But what he can accomplish, given the structure as it stands for me, is the bigger question.
Jacobsen: Jon, thanks so much for your time.
John: My pleasure, Scott. Take care now.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal (ISSN 2369-6885). Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and the advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.
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