With so much divisiveness in the political landscape these days, it can be overwhelming to try to speak up and take action to make government better. But author Ed Wynn has written a new book to show us how. It’s called We the People: Restoring Civility, Sanity, and Unifying Solutions to Politics. In this interview, Ed and I talked about how individuals like you and me can better educate ourselves on what’s going on in our government, and how we can come together to create the change we want to see.
Emily Gindlesparger: Welcome to Author Hour. I’m sitting here with Ed Wynn, author of We the People. Ed, I’m so excited to talk to you about your book today because I think we need this book now more than ever.
H. Edward Wynn: Well, thank you, Emily, very much, and thank you for having me on the podcast today.
Emily Gindlesparger: Absolutely. Right before I hit record, we had started getting into the background of why you wrote this book. Tell me a little bit about what the process was like just getting started with the book idea.
H. Edward Wynn: Yes. The idea for the book came about in a rather interesting way. In 2016, in the late fall, before the election, I cycled across the US, beginning in Oregon all the way to Maine. That trip, in addition to be amazing in and of itself, allowed me to have very firsthand, on the ground–literally–observation of the political divide between many of those in our country and how vocal that divide was and how mean it was.
That really began the genesis of the idea for the book.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, can you illustrate a little bit of what you saw?
H. Edward Wynn: I went through many of the states that turned out to be the determining states in the election–Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. And what I saw, as many other Americans saw too, was not so much political signs and banners that reflected a positive feeling about one of the candidates or the other but more, “I don’t like that candidate” or “I don’t like that position.”
It was less about a positive, make-America-better type of positioning by most of our fellow Americans. It was more about hating one particular candidate or hating their positions and people taking that position. I think the other thing that I saw was, and this is very important, is a feeling by many that they were not listened to or heard or that their voices were drowned out, because, in whatever area they were in, their voice wasn’t the majority position.
That was an important learning as well to know that we need to have multiple viewpoints and voices expressed in a positive, kind, not a mean or belittling way, and that’s how we get to better solutions as a country.
Emily Gindlesparger: How old were you when you took that bike ride?
H. Edward Wynn: Boy, that’s a question I didn’t think I would get, Emily, but I was 56 years old. It was quite a ride, I had to train for it for quite a while. I’m not built as a cyclist, but I am very determined and have strong legs. I think that got me through.
Ride Across the US
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, I think stubbornness counts a lot more than athletic ability on an endeavor like that.
H. Edward Wynn: I think it does, and I think the other thing that really got me through it, and it’s kind of amazing to think about this and to reflect about it, is that particularly starting in the West, and I live in the Midwest, I was not used to the long, very high hills. Even though I had practiced on shorter hills when those are available here in the Midwest, I found that they weren’t as difficult because the beauty of our country is so amazing.
On those days that we had really tough rides like one, I think it was 134 miles with 8,000 feet of climbing and 95-degree heat, I was able to make it because everything around me was just so beautiful. Of course, on some days, where we went through states, and we won’t mention names, that were flat and maybe there were only things like determining was it corn or soybeans on the sides of the road we were traveling down.
Those seemed harder even though they were fewer miles and obviously not as mountainous.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, not quite as much variability. I’m actually from Illinois, which, I know you went to the University of Illinois. Lack of elevation training, I understand is a huge impediment.
H. Edward Wynn: For sure is. I’m actually born and raised in Illinois, and Illinois does have some hills down where I went to high school. There are some hills in very far southern Illinois but, for this ride, because I live in the Chicago area, I trained primarily in Madison. They have some really steep hills there and those were good training and, by the time we got to Wisconsin and had to encounter some of those hills, people that knew I struggled a little bit on the ones out West, were surprised that I was leading the pack up to ones in Wisconsin. I said, “Well that’s because I’ve trained on these.”
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, absolutely. Where are you from in southern Illinois? That’s where I’m from as well.
H. Edward Wynn: I grew up in Kahoka, Illinois, which is more suburb. My father died when I was 14 and then we moved to a small rural town even further in southern Illinois because that’s where my dad’s family was from. It’s called Steelville, it’s about 35 miles northwest of Carbondale. A very small town, 2,000 people, there were 44 my high school graduating class. Very small community.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, I’m from Murphysboro, right by Carbondale.
H. Edward Wynn: Sure, I know exactly where that is. Oh my gosh!
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, that’s so funny. I totally understand the small-town piece of it. I’m curious, and this may not be a direction we need to go, but how did growing up in a small town influence your ideas of how people should get involved politically in government?
H. Edward Wynn: Actually and surprisingly, it had a fairly significant influence on that. I’ve always been interested in politics. I still have this book, Scholastic Book of Presidents, from when I was eight years old. I recorded the election results from the 1968 presidential elections, it’s a book I still have, so it is obviously very old. I’ve always had an interest in it but one of the things that I learned in that small community is that each of us has an important viewpoint, particularly when we may be a minority.
It was a relatively difficult transition for me because I went from a very large high school with a lot of different offerings to a community where I was clearly the outsider, and that gave me a strong appreciation for understanding that we need to listen to all viewpoints, both from a human perspective and also from a political one.
Emily Gindlesparger: That’s beautiful. You went on to get a political science degree and then studied law. How did that start to inform your viewpoints on that kind of civic involvement?
H. Edward Wynn: It really did. So, at the University of Illinois, I actually ran for student body president. Unfortunately, I lost to a candidate sponsored by the fraternities and sororities, which is funny. It did teach that you could have significant influence just by having your voice heard, even if it didn’t mean that you were in office or not.
That was really important and, as a result of that, I was elected the student president of the college I was in, liberal arts and sciences. It was amazing that, by listening to the different viewpoints of students within the college, we were able to come up with some solutions to issues that had been kind of nagging or troubling. But by listening to everyone we were able to strike a compromise on those things.
Emily Gindlesparger: From there, let’s pivot to your book because I think a major premise that’s evident in your book is this idea that our political divide is so strong right now, that the sides are not listening to each other. Your book is very much situated to persuade individual people, individual citizens, that we can take that power back, and we the people can create the government that we want to see.
Tell me who is this book for ideally?
H. Edward Wynn: I think it’s for the 75% or 80% of us who are tired of the extremes dominating our political debate. I think most of us have a wide variation in our positions on various issues, and really have a commonality or common belief in the ideals upon which this country was founded.
We may have different views of how we might realize those ideals, but I think we all agree on what the objective is. If we can just come together and have a civil discussion, I think we can solve most of these issues that are so pressing for us right now.
The difficulty really is because of a lot of factors that I discuss in the book, the extremes really have dominated the debate and squelched our voices.
The book is designed to give people, first, the information that they need to understand how government really works, the things that we should have been taught in civics but weren’t.
Then secondly, it explains what’s going on with the discourse we have right now in politics, and how we can get from being so divisive and mean, to being constructive and humanizing.
Then from that, I wanted to make sure that I practice what I preach. So, I take on some of the most controversial issues and show how, by getting alignment on our common ideals, and then listening to all different viewpoints, we can find a range of solutions that can be very helpful to solving even these most controversial and most difficult issues, that we have faced for, in some cases, decades.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, I love that. Your book starts with this part one on what you need to know that you weren’t taught in civics. Why was it so important for you to start there with your readers?
H. Edward Wynn: I think it’s important, and this goes back to the 2016 election, when so many people found it so surprising that a president was elected with less than the popular vote, but with a majority of electoral votes and how the whole electoral college worked. That said to me, that there are some basic things we’re not understanding about how government works. I would say some of these things to people that I knew and they would say, “That’s very insightful,” and I thought to myself, “Boy, that doesn’t seem that insightful. Maybe this is something that needs to be taught?”
Then as I reflected on that and did some additional research, I think the reason we don’t teach it is we’re too focused on facts and figures.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, I’m curious, so often, we as citizens feel powerless, in terms of what we think we can actually do to influence government. What are some of the ways that you see where the average American could get involved in decision making but they decide not to?
H. Edward Wynn: The number one on that hit parade, Emily, is vote. If you look at the percentage of us who vote in any given election, it’s appallingly low. I think in a presidential election, it’s between 50 and 55, I think it may have reached 60% in some elections, but just think about that. 40% of us, our voices are not being heard because we failed to take one simple action. Vote.
Emily Gindlesparger: I’m guessing that you mean, vote for more than just the presidential election?
H. Edward Wynn: Absolutely. But also that, because the data I just gave you I believe is consistent with what the presidential voting turn out is. Think if only 50 plus percentage of us are voting in the presidential election, it’s even lower in our state and local elections, and those can be just as important. Indeed, most of the things that influence our daily life, they may not get the news leads in the media. They really are at our state and local level and we need to take a more active role there as well.
Emily Gindlesparger: I know from your bio that you have worked in all levels of government. I assume probably in a variety of different roles. What were some of the most formative experiences you had and some of the insights that you learned from those experiences?
H. Edward Wynn: Yes, I’m very fortunate to have worked in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, federal, state, and local. Here’s what I would say is probably the most formative of the whole thing, is how quickly we tend to go to our corners on the most significant issues we face, rather than just sitting down and having a discussion.
If it’s in the executive branch, everything seems to be focused around supporting the governor and, “What do we need to do to support him?” But that really isn’t the issue. The issue is, what do we need to do to support the citizens, the residents of our state? That’s the question we should be asking. We’re asking the wrong question.
In terms of the legislature, it’s so much on the accumulation of power, in particular, the partisan splits within most of our legislatures, we’re asking, how does that help my party?
Again, that’s the wrong question. The question is, how are we helping our constituents, the residents and citizens of our state? Same would apply at a county level, even at the national level. In the courts, the same thing–so many of those disputes I believe could have been resolved if people just sat down and had a discussion.
The theme really is around, let’s make sure we’re focused on what we really should be doing and who do we serve? And then secondly, how can we get issues resolved rather than creating more?
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, that creates such an interesting issue when we think about the way that each of us as individuals can act. Primarily through voting. How do we vet our candidates and really find the people that we think are going to sit down at that table and have a discussion versus start a fight?
H. Edward Wynn: I think that’s key, Emily. In the book, I discussed this, and there are two factors–it sounds very jaundiced, but actually, it’s the reality. One of the things we needed to do as a nation and individually is, we have to face the reality and we have to face the facts. We don’t all get our own facts. We certainly can have our own opinions, but we don’t get our own set of facts.
We need to get to those facts. The two things that are most important, I think, for us to figure out about our elected leaders, is our money and influence. Who are they getting campaign contributions from? The money side. And who has their ear, the influence side? In the book, I talk about how we have a lot of information available, that politicians provide that information to us, we have a lot of information, a big quantity of information.
That information is not relevant and reliable. So, we need to get that basic information, a one-pager almost, that would show that this elected official received these campaign contributions in these amounts from these groups. Top 10 for example, aggregated, so it shows who is really influencing them from a financial perspective, and then correspondently, how are they spending their time, who are they spending their time with?
Is it primarily industry lobbyist raising political contributions? Or is it doing the work we would expect them to do–of listening to our voices and working with their colleagues to come up with unifying solutions to the most important missions we face today?
Emily Gindlesparger: And it sounds like ideally, you’d love to see a one-page distilled version of this. Are there resources out there now that helped to gather this information one place for voters?
H. Edward Wynn: Not really and that is something I discussed in the book. So, let’s say we are just taking the money side. For federal candidates, there is a website you can go to. FEC–standing for the federal election commission– .gov. There all political contributions are required to be reported if they’re over I believe $200 or $250. The problem with that is, the information is reported so that none of us can really see how they add up.
So, for example, in federal campaigns, contributions by an individual corporation or entity, direct contributions are not allowed. Therefore, individuals give contributions. So let’s say we were looking to see what the contributions were from a union or from a corporation, you can’t easily get that information from the sources that are out there right now, because you would have to know each of the individuals who are part of that union, each of the individuals who are affiliated with that corporation, be able to identify all of them, add up all of their contributions, and report it in that way.
Again, it is an example that we have so much information because of the information age that we are in right now. It needs to be made more relevant and reliable so that it is meaningful to us as we make decisions.
Simplify the Data
Emily Gindlesparger: I imagine that that turns into voter apathy on the part of some people, in terms of not being able to sort it out.
H. Edward Wynn: You’re right, Emily, because when we make it so difficult to get that information, who is going to bother to do that? I will readily admit I have not done that for the candidates that I vote for. Obviously, I used other sources of information to make my voting decisions, but it would great to have that on a one-pager. It would also be nice to know how they’re spending their time and which lobbyist they’re spending most of their day meeting with because, if they’re just getting one-sided viewpoints, that is not going to make them very effective in their position.
Emily Gindlesparger: What are some of the attributes that you look for in who you vote for?
H. Edward Wynn: Yeah, so the first thing, before I even get to the attributes, and this is a point I should have made a little while ago, is a lot of us get our information about various candidates from what we see and hear on national or local media, but primarily national media and even through candidate advertisements. I think the difficulty that we are having now, and it is becoming increasingly more so, is we can’t sort the truth from the lies in all of that information that we’re bombarded with.
There is a reward right now, when it comes to statements, because you can’t really effectively challenge them. Once they are stated out there, it’s believed to be true, and therefore it is hard to dispel them. If you take the time to dispel the lie, you are just re-emphasizing it. So, one of the key things we all need to do as voters is understand that this occurs. It occurs every day, and we need to figure out how we sort out the truth that’s among all of this?
The book discusses some ways that we can do that, even by how the information is presented, you’re often able to determine whether or not the information is reliable, is relevant, and that’s really where we need to go.
Emily Gindlesparger: Give us a little preview of that, what are some of the ways that people can determine that?
H. Edward Wynn: One easy way to find a fact is most non-facts don’t have a citation attached to them. So, if you think of a Twitter message or all different kinds of messages that we have out there right now, there is not a source attribution to the statement, or that source attribution is flawed. Just the fact of, “Do they even cite a source?” can help us determine whether or not the information is truthful or not.
Then some of the things about the language can tell you that. You know, facts don’t have to be pounded with vilification of the opponent. A fact is a fact, so when I see a statement with attacking language, when I see in a factual statement words like “all or nothing,” when I see things in a factual statement that appear to appeal to emotions, or talk about how a candidate looked or felt–because how do we even know that–I can start looking at that and saying, “This source doesn’t seem to be very reliable because it has these characteristics and how they are reporting that information.”
Also, I think we can look at and see–and this is really old school but I am old so I guess I can say this. We used to, in newspapers and even in television broadcasts, very clearly delineate the news, the facts, from opinions, which we called editorials. Now we don’t do that at all. You could turn on right now, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and they’re supposed to be news media, right? But you could turn any of those on right now and you would have a host leading a discussion in which that host is giving his or her opinion on the issues, and it would be clearly editorial.
However, because it is presented in a news media outlet, often we believe that what they are saying is a fact, and we base our decisions on those facts, which are really not facts but opinions.
Emily Gindlesparger: Very well said. That blurring boundary between emotional language and factual language, I think, is a particularly sticky wicket for where we’re at today.
H. Edward Wynn: I think that is right and I really strongly believe in avoiding all-or-nothings. I think there are very few things that are all good and very few things that are all bad. We need to be more curious about each other, particularly around those that have a different opinion than we might have. To understand, “Why do you have that opinion? What facts is that based on?” And then you can have a discussion around those facts and say, “Are those facts true, or are they not true?”
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, getting back to that ability to have civil discourse not only helps us to bring more diverse understandings and perspectives to the table but then helps us find solutions that can encompass all of those.
H. Edward Wynn: I think that is exactly right and one of the trends, Emily, that I do discuss in the book, and I think all of us have seen or many of us have seen is that, on college campuses, where the exchange of ideas and research and scholarliness and coming up with new solutions should be a prime, we have now gotten into a situation where viewpoints that are unpopular are not allowed to be stated.
Now to be clear, I am not talking about speech that is abusive or harmful in that sense, but speech that is deemed to be unsafe because it is different than the viewpoint that I have. When we don’t encourage multiple viewpoints and a discussion of those viewpoints in a non-violent, non-attacking, humanizing way, then how can we possibly get the solutions that unite us? We can’t.
Emily Gindlesparger: I imagine you started this book long before some really rapid changes that we’ve seen in the last couple of months, with COVID-19 surging, with protest being renewed across the country. I am curious, how has the relationship to your book and your message deepened or changed for you as we go through this?
H. Edward Wynn: Both of those events, I think, are very unfortunate. The reason for that is, I think, both are preventable or largely preventable. The positive to this, if there is a positive, is I think it has highlighted, to all of us, the importance of getting facts, acting with facts, working together as a nation to solve these very difficult issues, and not going to our quarters or to our sides.
I have done a couple of posts on LinkedIn about both of those topics, and I think the key is we can’t hope as a people to really tackle these crucial, life-altering, life-or-death issues, unless we have facts, use facts, stop the political polarization, and have a discussion with each other. Yet in each of these, we politicize things in both of those issues.
Let’s start with COVID-19. Who would have ever thought we would have created a political fight, mask versus non-mask, when the whole purpose is just to protect each other?
On the issue of racial injustice and systematic racism in our country, why is it that we go to defund the police or fly the confederate flag? Neither of those are going to help solve those issues when you just say them. Let’s come together and let’s not start with the result. Let’s start with the issue. Let’s start with the facts. Let’s start with where we want this country to be, and then marshal the facts that are relevant to that, marshal the resources we have, and have a discussion to figure out the solution to this very important problem.
I would note, one really important thing about both of these issues because these are such good examples of this, if we spend our resources, our time, our discussions, less on political positioning on each of these issues and more in having a discussion, outlining what our common objective is, marshaling the facts related to it, and then discuss solutions, we could have avoided much of the pain that each of these issues have cost us as a nation.
Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, it is almost like we’ve abandoned civil discourse on those issues in favor of each party really scrambling for power.
H. Edward Wynn: Absolutely and I think, in many cases, it does require us to recognize facts that are sometimes difficult. So, for coronavirus or COVID-19, I think it does cause us to realize that we have made mistakes, that individuals have made mistakes, but rather than doubling down on those, let’s say, “I’ve made a mistake. We made a mistake. Here are what the facts now say and here is what we need to do to resolve it,” rather than acting like it is going to go away, Or it is not that significant of an issue–even misstating the data, that is just so unproductive. It leads to more division and fewer solutions.
The same thing with systematic racism and racial injustice. We need to admit we have a problem. We don’t need to say that it is solely this person’s fault–let’s not worry about the blame. Let’s identify the problem, recognize the problem for what it is, figure out how we got into this situation, and then work together on a set of solutions to come up with some answers so we can finally solve it.
You know, the concern with that issue in particular that is very troubling to me is this just didn’t happen six months ago. This has been going on for decades, and we’ve tended to always go to our corners, not recognizing what really was going on. I think, if there is a moment in history that we can sustain some type of momentum to have and get a unifying solution, now may be the time. The trick is going to be making sure that that solution isn’t drowned out by the extreme positions on either side.
Emily Gindlesparger: Thank you, that is so beautifully stated. Ed, writing a book is such a feat, huge congratulations on that achievement alone. If readers were to take away one or two actions that you’d like them to take after they have listened to this podcast and after they have read this book, what would you want them to do?
H. Edward Wynn: I think there would be three. We’ve actually discussed all three but the first one is vote. Your vote matters, as I describe in the book, and this is another thing people may not have realized about our process of selecting our president, if the candidate who receives half, 50% plus one vote in the stake with two exceptions, Nebraska and Maine, gets all of the electoral votes in that state. So, it really demonstrates, constitutionally, and actually, the importance of each individual’s vote.
Vote is the first one. The second one is to get the facts and insist on the facts. Too often, we’ve gone toward views and beliefs that we like, and align our facts with those beliefs and opinions. We need to say, “Let us not start with the opinions, let’s not start with the beliefs, let us start with the facts.” And really insists that we get the facts, and challenge opinions that are presented to us as facts, and make sure we understand how we can get facts that can help guide our decisions and improve us as a nation.
And the third would be to have a discussion, a civil discussion, a conversation with each other. Really important to the book is identifying what I believe are the six causes of this lack of civility in our political discourse and then, from that, the six things we need to do to make sure that we are having constructive discourse and not engaging in discourse that divides us and causes us to be less than we need to be as a people.
Emily Gindlesparger: Well, thank you so much, Ed. The book that you’ve written is called, We the People, and it’s incredible. It’s been such a pleasure to hear your story of creating it and share what you are doing. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you?
H. Edward Wynn: So I have an author website, this has been a learning process for me. It is hedwardwynn.com.
Emily Gindlesparger: Beautiful, thank you so much, Ed.
H. Edward Wynn: Thanks, Emily.