NORMAL — Not long after the halls of the U.S. Capitol were overrun and ransacked, Josh Bender, an Illinois State University junior studying history education, stopped looking at Facebook and Twitter.
It was just too much.
The full impact of the past few months — the powder keg of a bitter election, the charges of voter fraud, the insurrection in the heart of democracy and the subsequent impeachment proceedings — are still being realized.
“I think at first, we are going to be a little fractured, we’re going to be a little broken,” Bender said. “But it’s going to die down.”
Last week, The Pantagraph talked with a mix of area residents from both major political parties about the roller coaster of this extraordinary election cycle.
They spoke about feelings of sharp anger and frustration, disillusioned voters and political polarization, but also hope and resolve. Mostly, they reflected upon a deep desire to heal in these still unprecedented times, as the country this week faces the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump’s trial in the Senate.
“I hope we can get out of that because honestly, it’s exhausting. ... We need to come together and work on this,” said McLean County Board member Hannah Beer, a Democrat who is among the youngest holding elected office in the region.
She pointed to a news cycle in overdrive that has had “some disaster after another after another after another.”
“I'm hopeful for the future, but I'm also hesitant because I'm so used to just bad things happening,” she said.
Said Bloomington resident Ty Collins, 23: “I think you’ll see a change in how we conduct politics in the United States.”
He thinks the long-term effects of the past few weeks will “unfortunately” fall within party lines. Those who feel there was voter fraud will probably feel numb “and think that politics don’t actually do anything relevant,” he said. And those on the left will “get more invigorated by it.”
‘A flaw in our system’
The allegations of voter fraud were fueled by Trump and his surrogates, even as the Electoral College votes were being certified. The House voted 232-197 on Wednesday to impeach the president for inciting the rioters to rampage.
Trump has denied he caused the deadly unrest and said his impeachment is “causing tremendous anger and division and pain far greater than most people will ever understand, which is very dangerous for the USA, especially at this very tender time.”
U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, voted against impeachment. A week earlier, he was on the House floor and could hear the crowd outside the Capitol.
LaHood, who served as an honorary chairman for the Trump campaign in Illinois, said the nation’s divisiveness is palpable and COVID-19 has caused a further divide as people are at home more often.
“People watch the news, they’re on their phone. Everybody’s in their own silo,” LaHood said. “People have become hyper-focused on politics and elections during COVID just because people have been indoors and it’s caused people to do that. I think that’s why you saw so much animosity and anger.”
LaHood came under fire for signing on to a brief backing a Texas lawsuit that challenged Biden’s win in some states. Still, in speaking with The Pantagraph, he said restoring confidence in elections starts with reforming states’ election systems. He pointed to the six states that had objections to election results because they did not start counting early voting ballots until after polls closed on Election Day, causing a loss of confidence in those results.
He referred to the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which took 37 days to resolve because of an issue with Florida’s election system.
“But what did they do after that? The Florida Legislature realized they had a problem, they changed their election code, they made it more secure, they invested in machines,” LaHood said.
He hopes state legislatures can adjust their election laws so they can start counting earlier, and that the federal government ought to help them with funding.
“It’s a flaw in our system that we have 50 different election systems,” LaHood said. “Wyoming is different from Illinois, Illinois is different from Pennsylvania.”
‘The election actually mattered’
Tokena Franklin, 46, of Bloomington, said she doesn’t care much for politics, but thinks recent events could probably lead to fewer people participating in democracy.
“It doesn’t matter who’s president because regardless, they got the power, so they’re going to do what they’re going to do regardless what we feel,” Franklin said.
“As long as I wake up to see another day with my children and my grandkids, that’s all that matters to me,” Franklin said. “There’s nothing I can do about that. I’m sad that is what we’re going through, but what can I do? I’m just one little person in Bloomington, Illinois, trying to make a living every day.”
A sense of isolation, however, is nothing new when it comes to the electorate, said Lane Crothers, a professor of politics and government at Illinois State University who teaches about the U.S. presidency.
“Being jaded and not participating in American elections is a long-established tradition,” Crothers said.
What was striking with 2020 is that turnout was exceptionally high, which suggests another trend, he said.
“What we saw instead, it seems to me, was a much more dramatic mobilization of people who felt for the first time in a long time that the election actually mattered to their lives,” said Crothers.
Greg Shaw, a political science professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, said he expects there will be a struggle forward during this period of polarization, but it won’t cause people to turn their backs on politics. The risk is that people may become more engaged, but “some will do it in unhealthy, dangerous ways,” he said.
“Some will feel emboldened to mimic this in, for instance, their own states. Consider the rally at the statehouse in Lansing last year,” he said, during which armed protesters entered Michigan’s Capitol in April to protest COVID-19 restrictions. Their action came a few days after Trump tweeted, “Liberate Michigan.” Two of the protesters were later charged in a plot to kidnap the state’s governor.
Last week, the FBI warned about chatter of armed protests at state capitols.
Crothers hopes dissent won’t continue down that path.
“We have walked up to the edge of deep social chaos before even like in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he said, when there was “actual domestic terrorism in the United States, actual bombing campaigns in the United States, and we walked back.”
Crothers, who studies radical groups, said, “I don’t think we’re on the verge of a vast revolutionary movement. I don’t see these people galvanizing 15 million people into the streets in order to destroy the American empire or anything like that. But I do see the very real possibility that some numbers of them are going to do some really radical, vicious things.”
‘Our democracy is durable’
LaHood, who won reelection in November, said the focus now needs to be on moving forward with a peaceful transition of power.
“Obviously our democracy was threatened on Jan. 6 in that terrible attack, but I think if there’s one silver lining, I think it shows our democracy is durable, it’s flexible, it’s resilient in the fact that we went back in session that night and we certified, through our constitutional duty, the electors, and so democracy moved on, kind of limped along,” he said.
Bender, the ISU student, said another positive sign is the number of young people running — and winning — political office.
He pointed to U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., who was elected last year at age 25, making him the youngest member of the GOP in Congress.
“I think that’s what we’re seeing a lot more — I mean with people like Madison Cawthorn, who’s very young, who can … step up and say, ‘I don’t like what the country is doing,’” he said. “We’re seeing younger people get involved (and) I think that’s fantastic. I think younger people tend to have more of a grasp on what’s truly happening in the country, and they talk to younger people more.”
Right now, Bender’s plan is to go on to teach high school history. But, he added, “I’ve always said that if I feel the call, I will jump in” and run for political office.
The political climate hasn’t dissuaded him from that entirely, and despite some cynicism regarding D.C.’s “insider baseball,” he feels positive.
Beer, the Democrat, also feels like there is optimism.
“In the aftermath of everything that’s happened in the last four years … I’m going to do as much as I can to work with everybody and try to come to an understanding or a solution on whatever the issue is,” she said.
Shaw, the professor, said there is no reason to think the citizenry will give up.
“In moments of crisis, you don’t get people just throwing up their hands,” he said.
Still, said Shaw later, “Democracy is only as good as our collective belief in it.”
IN THEIR WORDS: Midwest elected officials react to U.S. Capitol breach
Elected officials react to U.S. Capitol breach
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Democrat
Illinois U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Channahon
Illinois U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, Republican of Peoria
Illinois U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, Republican of Murphysboro
Illinois U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, Republican of Taylorville
Illinois U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Democrat
Indiana U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, Democrat of Indianapolis
Indiana U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, Republican of Elkhart
Indiana U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, Republican of Columbia City
Indiana U.S. Rep. Larry Bucshon, Republican of Evansville
Indiana U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, Republican of Jeffersonville
Indiana U.S. Rep. Victoria Spartz, Republican of Noblesville
Indiana U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, Republican
Indiana U.S. Sen. Todd Young, Republican
Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, Republican of Glenbeulah
Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, Democrat of Milwaukee
Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, Democrat of Madison
Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, Republican of Green Bay
Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, Democrat of La Crosse
Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, Republican of Minocqua
Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, Republican
“I'm hopeful for the future, but I'm also hesitant because I'm so used to just bad things happening."
— Hannah Beer, McLean County Board member