Russ Feingold Speaks Out
What do you mean when you refer to "the broader struggle"? What should progressives do now?
I don't know how it could be more stark or clear: this entire society is being dominated by corporate power in a way that may exceed what happened in the late nineteenth century, early twentieth century. The incredible power these institutions now have over the average person is just overwhelming: the way they can make these trade deals to ship people's jobs overseas, the way consumers are just brutalized and consumer protection laws are marginalized, the way this town here—Washington—has become a corporate playground. Since I've been here, this place has gone from a government town to a giant corporate headquarters.
To me, the whole face of the country—whether it be the government, the media, agriculture, what happens on Main Street—has become so corporatized that the progressive movement is as relevant as it was one hundred years ago, maybe more so. It's the same issues. It's just that [corporate] power, because of money, international arrangements and communications, is so overwhelming that the average person is nearly helpless unless we develop a movement that can counter that power. I know we've all tried over the years, but this is a critical moment. We need to regenerate progressivism and make it relevant to what's happening right now. But there's no lack of historical comparison to a hundred years ago. It's so similar; the only real difference is that corporate power is even more extended. It's the Gilded Age on steroids.
Do you think Barack Obama—whom you have known since before he was a senator—recognizes this?
I think he does at some level, yes. I think the fact that he was willing in the  State of the Union address to do something that I didn't think any president would ever do—to directly confront the Supreme Court about this lawless [Citizens United] decision—gave me some hope that he really does get what an attack on our system of government this decision is.
In other areas, I'm concerned. I don't think he gets it on trade agreements. I really wish he saw the connection between these agreements and what they do to working families and communities. It's devastating. Voters recognize the connection; we saw that in the election. I'm hoping that [Obama] makes the connection in a more direct way. He hasn't yet, and that worries me on many levels.
You've never been cautious about suggesting that this president has missed the mark, not just on trade but on a host of economic issues. Yet you reject talk of a Democratic primary challenge that might press Obama on some of these issues. Why?
I'm going to be supporting President Obama. I don't see it as productive to go after, and basically make it very difficult for, somebody to be re-elected who I think has, at least in a number of areas, some progressive instincts. I think there's still great opportunity for him. So I'm not one who believes that a primary challenge that would weaken him in a serious way is a good idea. Now, I understand some people are of the opinion that a challenge would strengthen him; but I'm a little bit skeptical. I look at these Republican candidates [laughs] and I know pretty well who I want to be president. You know, this is serious business, when you see what these people [Republicans] want to do. You give them a president, and we are really in trouble.
How should progressives relate to Obama? What's the best way to influence him?
I think we need to be very vocal. We can respect him and also indicate a desire that he move more strongly in certain areas, such as civil liberties. We can do it in a way that makes it clear we are not trying to harm the presidency but that we're trying to make sure that the base of the party and the progressive movement is motivated for this re-election. Because it needs to be. The other side is going to be very excited about 2012. I hope the White House understands that progressives have to be excited too. That will require a real effort to take some chances by moving in a more progressive manner on certain issues. I don't think we should be shy about saying that. It's not particularly helpful to talk about how we are disappointed. I don't think that accomplishes much. What we have to talk about is what the president needs to do to excite progressives. What he and his people need to recognize is the sincerity of the appeals for him to move in a more progressive direction on issues that are so important not just to progressives but to the country.
[Obama] already, I think, has shown good instincts and good activity on money in politics. I want that to continue. But I'd like a much stronger push on civil liberties and foreign policy—in particular the Afghanistan policy. That needs to change. I continue to believe that it is a mistake to continue there, and we should be getting out. It is way too broad a commitment; it doesn't make sense to me. I feel very, very strongly about that.
Your father was a La Follette Progressive, and you have often noted that La Follette and others identified more as progressives than members of a particular party. There are people who see the changes in our elections in general, and your defeat in particular, as evidence that the progressive tradition is a relic that won't be viable in the twenty-first century. What's your take?
To me, that's nonsense. When I said on election night, "On to 2012!" what I meant was that—for all the progressives who believe in what we have fought for, not just in recent years but for a century—nothing ended in 2010. There will be more elections. There will be more opportunities to step forward on behalf of our ideals. At some point it may include me again, but it certainly doesn't have to. I do not believe for a minute that that tradition is dead.... There is no way we're at the end of this. It will be revived, and it will prevail.
And you presume to be a part of that revival?
I very much intend to be a part of it. I guarantee I will be.