Ed Yohnka on the ACLU and the President

By Karen Berner, Communications Team Leader

 

 

“Donald Trump is the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime,” Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois told ACE members at their April meeting. “People feel more alarmed after the 2016 election.”

And with good reason.

Yohnka said there are 100 legal actions against this administration. Nationwide, more than 600 people were hired by the ACLU last year, 500 of whom were lawyers.

The first question on ACE members’ minds?

Impeachment.

Yohnka thought if President Donald Trump were to fire FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller, then members of Congress might look at impeachment. He also wouldn’t be surprised if the president quits before his term was up.

“This chaos cannot sustain itself for a full term,” Yohnka noted.

Whether Trump serves a full term or not, it’s important to remember that the Resistance is not just fighting the president, but also other movements, such as the people who want state constitutional conventions, as well as collaborations between Evangelical Christians and oligarchs who want no government oversight.

After working with the American Bar Association and now the ACLU, Yohnka has spent his career orbiting the judicial system. He called himself “optimistic” about it, even about some of the Tump nominees.

“I’m fairly optimistic, regardless of the ideological baggage,” Yohnka said. “They (the justices) tend to even out the longer they sit on the bench. That gives me hope. I’m concerned, but I think everything will be okay.”

Yohnka thinks nothing happens in the courts that cannot be fixed by public outcry and legislation, citing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 as an example.

“Speak out and urge Congress to address issues,” he encouraged ACE members.

In his role as ACLU of Illinois director of communications and public policy, Yohnka said the organization has changed the way it operates since he took on his role in 1999. “When I started, we saw every problem as a legal issue to solve with litigation. That was emblematic of the ACLU culture at that time,” he recalled. “Now, we almost never start out with a lawsuit. We begin with a legislative solution.”

Organizations used to combat various issues by themselves, but now coalitions are working together. There is also more collaboration between organizations and grassroots groups. There’s also been a change in messaging.

 

“It’s important to explain things to people in a way they can feel it,” Yohnka noted. “We will not win these battles simply because we are right.”

 

“It’s important to explain things to people in a way they can feel it,” Yohnka noted. “We will not win these battles simply because we are right.”

He told ACE members he’s watched many focus groups and thinks no one makes up their mind based on facts and details. “You have to be able to connect with people and bring something valuable. Build the narrative,” Yohnka explained. “You have to make it clear to people that what we want is good for all people.”

Messaging on civil rights, for example, must include the fact that everyone benefits from other groups obtaining civil rights, that giving one group rights does not take rights away from someone else. “Rights are not a zero-sum game,” he said.

But how do we return to the honest communication necessary to spread the word? Is it even possible with a president who, in his first year in office, has made “2,140 false or misleading claims, according to The Fact Checker’s database that analyzes, categorizes, and tracks every suspect statement uttered by the president,” an article in the Washington Post stated.

“We need to return to the idea that there are norms for all of us, not just the White House,” Yohnka said. “Double-check facts before telling a reporter. Don’t question the motives of the other side. Let them speak for themselves. Constant clashes don’t advance anything.”

Yohnka thinks we are in a golden age of media, citing newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, who cover daily events as well as carry longer, more in-depth pieces. The downside of this era is people tend to stay in personal bubbles that confirm their own biases. He urged ACE members to read newspapers they disagree with to broaden their perspectives. “Search for the truth and validate it whenever you can,” he suggested.

How do we, as a society, protect reputable news sources? Yohnka said the first step is through government transparency. He also thinks members of Congress should push back when the president attacks the media. “It’s not helpful to label organizations as ‘fake news’ when they don’t agree with him.”

“Stay engaged and listen to the other side,” Yohnka advised. “This democracy is going to hold. We’re stronger than this one person.”

 


ACE  Communications Team Leader Karen Berner has been a professional writer/editor for more than 30 years. An award-winning journalist, her work has appeared in several magazines, newspapers, and blogs, including the Chicago Tribune, Writer Unboxed, Women’s Fiction Writers, Naperville Magazine, and Fresh Fiction. She also is the author of three contemporary women’s fiction novels and is a member of the Chicago Writers’ Association.