When Russ Feingold jogs onto the stage of the Barrymore Theatre on a Friday night in Madison, Wisconsin, a thousand old-school progressives—not liberals avoiding the L-word but heart-and-soul believers in a political ethic that traces back to the trustbusters and anti-imperialists of a century ago—rise to cheer the living embodiment of their faith. The three-term senator speaks to them in the language of another time in America, when populists shouted from the backs of farm wagons and urban radicals mounted soapboxes to spread the social gospel. "There is no institution in our society that is safe from the power and greed and corruption of these corporations," rages Feingold, who speaks against the warping of foreign policy by military contractors, the molding of the national debate by consolidated media and the pay-to-play politics of business interests, before lowering his voice for a dramatic declaration: "Now, after they attacked the media, the Congress and the executive branch, they have managed to corrupt the US Supreme Court."
Echoing former Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette, whose memory he has come to honor with activists from across the state, the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act says he knows there are reasons to fear big government. "But," he adds, in a speech that decries the High Court’s decision to let corporations spend as they choose on elections, "there is one thing that’s worse: government controlled by, dominated by, corporate special interest."
For Feingold, though he is locked in a brutal battle with a free-spending millionaire Republican who cloaks allegiance to Wall Street in the populist rhetoric of the Tea Party, the essential question of the moment has less to do with party politics than with the money that’s turning the major parties into two sides of one corporate coin. His re-election fight is being covered by much of the national media as just another partisan horse race, one of several in which senior Democratic senators, like California’s Barbara Boxer and Washington’s Patty Murray, are in unexpectedly tough re-election struggles that could determine whether their party retains control of the Senate. But Feingold’s race raises more basic questions about how much our politics are becoming nationalized and homogeneous, about whether the parties are more than mere extensions of sitting presidents or in opposition to them, about whether there is a place for the independent man or woman of principle—especially one who rejects the dictates of Wall Street and multinational corporations—in an increasingly managed and manipulated Senate.
Feingold has taken these questions on the road in a campaign that is like no other this year. With the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling opening the floodgates for special-interest spending, the Senate’s fiercest campaign finance reformer says the Court is "turning our system of government and our democracy into another example of what is essentially corporate naming rights."
"What do they want us to do: choose between Republican toothpaste and Democratic toothpaste?" asks Feingold over an approving roar from the crowd that has gathered on a late summer night. The progressive faithful are with him, but the polls show Feingold struggling to keep even with GOP businessman Ron Johnson, who has pledged to spend as much as $15 million on a campaign so carefully plotted to exploit frustration with President Obama, fears about the economy and anger at Washington that it appears to have been squeezed from Karl Rove’s tube. The contrast is sufficiently stark that the result on November 2, no matter what happens elsewhere in the country, will tell us something about the politics of our era.