Chesney Guest Column: Overcoming Political Divisions in Illinois on anniversary of Lincoln-Douglas Freeport debate

Debate Square in Freeport, Illinois.

August 27 marks the anniversary of the historic debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held in Freeport in 1858. Douglas, a Democrat and a powerful U.S. Senator, was challenged by Lincoln, a lawyer from Springfield and a member of the new Republican Party.

Freeport hosted the second of seven debates between the two candidates that year, who were to face each other again just two years later in the presidential election of 1860. According to the Lincoln-Douglas Society of Freeport, Illinois, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people attended the Freeport debate to hear two of our nation’s most influential statesmen speak.

In an era before radio, television, social media and big tech companies, candidates appeared in person to address crowds so that voters could hear from them directly, unfiltered. Very rarely, however, did opposing candidates appear together, as Lincoln and Douglas did throughout the summer and early autumn of 1858. At the time, the United States stood on the verge of Civil War, which was to break out in 1861.

While the story of what Lincoln and Douglas said in Freeport that day is worthy of its own column, it is striking how politically divided our country is today as it was then. Unfortunately, differences in political views leads some people to stop speaking with family members or friends. The rhetoric you hear on cable news channels and other media outlets arouse seemingly endless “us vs. them” attitudes that separate us into red or blue states and pits different groups of Americans against each other. It is no wonder that public trust in the media and in government is so low today.

Up until the last two decades or so, it was not like this. In the 1980s and 1990s, Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton presided over periods of economic resurgence and secured bipartisan legislative victories despite congressional majorities held by the opposing political party. Here in Illinois, we had a Republican Governor from 1977-2003, and except for 1981-82 and 1995-96, Democrats held the majority in the Illinois House of Representatives. Partisan differences on legislation were resolved through negotiation and compromise. The state functioned with stability and purpose. Not so today.

The last several years, we have suffered under a Governor who runs Illinois by executive order as if he were a monarch or a dictator, sidestepping the people’s elected representatives in the state legislature as often as possible. Despite this challenge, I have remained committed to delivering results for Northwest Illinois families.

In light of my reputation as an unapologetic voice for conservative principles, you may be surprised to learn that of the 56 House Bills passed into law during the 2021-22 legislative session that I personally sponsored or co-sponsored, 35 were carried by a Democrat Representative and 21 were carried by a Republican Representative. On issues ranging from support for Illinois manufacturing and agriculture to animal welfare and veterans’ issues, I have succeeded in finding common ground with colleagues across the aisle to make meaningful changes in state law that benefit hardworking families and retirees right here in Northwest Illinois.

I will keep doing my part as a citizen and a public servant to compete honestly and fiercely in the public debate on policies, and when an election is over, work together with everyone whether they agree with me or not to find solutions that make Illinois a safer, stronger, more prosperous place to live.