Dr. Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition for America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. He authored Complex variables (1975), Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt (2012) and An Atheist Stranger in a Strange Religious Land: Selected Writings from the Bible Belt (2017). He co-authored The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America (2003) with Kimberley Blaker and Edward S. Buckner, Complex Variables with Applications (2007) with Saminathan Ponnusamy, and Short Reflections on Secularism (2019).
Here we talk about the nature of democracy, polyarchy, plutocracy, and the founding and present of the United States.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: In the context of the classism and racism found from the founding of The United States of America, one of the more salient facts in alignment with these titles for generalized analyses of the nature of American democracy amounts to the limit of democratic norms in place, where America was not a ‘democracy’ at the founding inasmuch as a plutocratic polyarchy. White, aristocratic, land-owning, slave-owning, formally educated, and males-as-men running the show from the top down.
The road upwards for wanting to be free was rather easier for those climbing to the holy ground of more power and privilege found at the Temple Mount at the top of the societal mountain. How have these threads of racist assumptions and classist assertions re-asserted themselves generation after generation in American society in which some aspects of the plutocratic polyarchy have been beaten back while others remain?
In a manner of speaking, we can scorn some aspects of the founding – and their ongoing legacy – while praising numerous American ideals and progressive developments over time for a wider ethical consideration into a broader moral tribal consideration. How have secular and humanistic ideas been tendencies in thought in American history with greater emancipation and better opportunities for all, at times and over time?
Dr. Herb Silverman: You refer to America as a plutocratic polyarchy at its founding. Let’s first define our terms.
A “plutocracy” is a government ruled or controlled by people of great wealth and income, while “polyarchy” means “rule by many,” and is a government ruled by more than one person (in your case, people of great wealth). A polyarchy may or may not be a democracy. A democracy is a government by all the citizenry who choose their leaders by voting for them in elections.
The founding fathers chose not to have a democracy. Some favoured a democratic popular vote for the president while others argued that Congress should pick the president. Their compromise is known as the Electoral College, a small number of people selected by the masses to vote for president because the founders did not trust the population at large to make the right choice. In modern practice, the Electoral College is a formality. Most electors are loyal members of the party that selected them, and wind up voting for that party. The Electoral College was also part of a compromise to satisfy small states. Each state had at least as many electoral votes as they had representatives in Congress, which means that no state could have less than three votes. In a small state like Wyoming, each elector represents 70,000 votes, while in California each elector represents 179,000 votes.
The Electoral College was not the only Constitutional limitation on direct democracy. States were permitted to ban women entirely. Slaves, of course, were not allowed to vote. However, there was a controversial “three-fifths compromise,” in which black slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of allocating representatives and electors. This compromise was made to ensure that Southern states would ratify the Constitution. After the Civil War (1861-1865), the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1868 abolished the three-fifths rule and granted former male slaves the right to vote, while the 19th Amendment (1920) gave women the right to vote.
While America is not now as much a plutocratic polyarchy as at its founding, a case can be made that we are more of a plutocratic polyarchy today than in years past. The wealthiest one percent of American households now own 40 percent of the country’s wealth. The top 0.1 percent own about 25 percent, which is more than the bottom 90 percent owns. This was not the case under President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1908), known as the “trust-buster” for preventing or eliminating monopolies and corporate trusts. He applied the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 to break up the largest railroad monopoly, Northern Securities Company, and regulated the largest oil company, Standard Oil. He also broke up other monopolies. Roosevelt said, “We had come to the stage where for our people what was needed was a real democracy; and of all forms of tyranny, the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy.”
Today, most Americans are entitled to vote, but there has been intimidation by those in power against voting by poor people, African-Americans, and immigrants. Many eligible people don’t vote because they think that their vote doesn’t matter. It’s true that most Americans have little influence over the policies our government adopts, especially those at the lower end of the income spectrum who are effectively disenfranchised. Congressional representatives pay little or no attention to their opinions. Moving up the income ladder, influence increases slowly, but it’s only at the very top that it has a real impact (plutocracy). Politicians of both parties receive substantial financial support from corporations, whose leaders demand that politicians reciprocate with favourable policies, including tax breaks that help increase the donors’ wealth.
As far as secular and humanistic ideas, I think secular humanists have always been on the side of the better angels of our nature. Humanists have opposed racism and misogyny in America. On the other hand, some people who say we need to “Make America Great Again” hearken to the days of white privilege when they could discriminate against those of a different race and those who had non-Christian religious beliefs or no religious beliefs. They would also like to use their privilege to take away rights from gays and lesbians. Secular humanists are fighting against a plutocracy of powerful white evangelicals who want to turn America into a Christian nation, instead of the secular nation we are. White evangelicals represent the base supporters of our Republican president. I know some atheists and humanists who consider themselves Republicans, but I have yet to meet one who supports President Donald Trump.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman.