Russ Feingold was a different kind of senator—more committed to progressive principles than to a party, an internationalist who opposed free-trade deals because they served multinational corporations rather than multinational communities, a stalwart defender of the Constitution whose commitment to civil liberties and regard for the requirement that wars be declared by Congress led him to stand alone against presidents and colleagues. Feingold’s independence and rectitude were such that the most conservative member of the Senate, Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, would mark the departure of the most progressive member by saying of the Wisconsin Democrat, "One man of great integrity [kept] his word and [held] to his values through every crisis and every vote."
So it should come as no surprise that Feingold will be a different kind of ex-senator. Instead of retaining his residence in Washington and signing on with some K Street lobbying firm, he packed up his apartment and headed home to Middleton, Wisconsin, where he’ll live in the same modest house he owned when he first ran for the Senate in 1992. Feingold has taken a teaching post at Marquette University’s Law School in Milwaukee, and he’s already outlining a book that will be highly critical of recent US foreign policy. But there is much more on Feingold’s agenda. After maintaining relative silence since his narrow defeat in November, he arranged to talk with me on the last day of his third term. Just minutes after finishing his service as a senator, Feingold and I conducted a wide-ranging interview in which an upbeat and highly engaged former legislator explained that, far from leaving the public stage, he intends to embrace the role of citizen reformer, continue challenging corporate power and play a part in renewing and extending the progressive movement. He is not running for president in 2012. But he surely hopes to influence a president, a nation and the world. Here is some of our conversation:
Nichols: Why, after years of serving as such an independent senator, such a maverick, did you get swept up in the wave that defeated so many Democrats in 2010? Why didn’t the fact that you were so often at odds with your own party and president insulate you?
Feingold: I think people got in a mindset that they weren’t going to make distinctions between different Democrats. They wanted to send a message, particularly to anybody who was an incumbent, particularly to anybody who had supported the president’s policies on some high-profile issues. So I think that was more important to…people than looking at the actual record.
People wanted to send a message. Sometimes elections are for that purpose. I respect that. I don’t think it was a reflection on my record or what I was doing; somehow, there was enough concern about the way things were going that it prevented people from considering the record.
I think a lot of the concern that was generated was not based in fact, with regard either to the stimulus bill or the healthcare bill [both supported by Feingold]. But I do believe there was a broader desire to send a message, and I think I was just included in that…. It had to do with broader issues. That was something no amount of independence or facts could get around.
Do you think the way mass media cover politics these days—so much attention to the horse race and partisan positioning—made it harder for you to connect with voters in 2010 than in the past?
Oh, yes, it’s gotten a lot harder over the years since I came to the Senate. It’s gotten a lot harder to make distinctions. Everything is painted in broad strokes. It seems like a judgment is made [by elite media] earlier in any election year about what’s going to happen. The narrative is defined according to what pundits believe will happen, or…should happen, and it’s very hard—harder than ever—to break through that. In the past, you could steer the debate in a more serious direction. But it’s so much harder now to be heard above the shouting—and the incredibly simplistic partisanship—and to get to the substance of the debate.
What about the money that was spent in your race?
Money in politics is a huge issue. But let’s be clear: I certainly wasn’t underfunded [in 2010]. I don’t think another $100 million would have changed the outcome of my race. I don’t think even $100 million would have mattered, because of the mindset that had developed, because of the desire on the part of a lot of voters to send that message. I think it’s important to make this point, because I’m not here to say that I was a victim in particular of that. I think we have to see the whole money-in-politics issue in a broader context.
What happened in my race was frustrating. What happened in 2010 was frustrating. But it is going to be worse in 2012 unless we do something—much worse. That’s why money in politics is such a fundamental issue. In terms of the incredibly corrosive effect that unlimited spending by corporations has, we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg…. I think the process is being destroyed by this. Some of my future activities will involve challenging that directly.
You were always resistant to the idea of proposing a constitutional amendment to address Supreme Court decisions—the Citizens United v. FEC ruling, but also the earlier  ruling in Buckley v. Valeo—that have allowed money to dominate our politics. Since Citizens United, however, many constitutional scholars and activists have suggested that an amendment is the only tool we’ve got to renew competitive elections. What’s your sense now?
I’m not ready to endorse the idea of amending the Constitution. But…these events, for the first time, make me at least have to look at it one more time.
I really hate the idea of changing the words of the Bill of Rights for the first time in the country’s history; I don’t want to go down that road. But this thing that’s going on with our political process is so destructive, so contrary to what I’m sure the founders intended, that we’ve got to find a solution. So my efforts will be directed toward finding solutions that involve something short of a constitutional amendment—especially toward overturning the [Citizens United] decision, and also toward legislative initiatives. But I want to be in coalition with those who might have other views. And I intend to keep an open mind.
Something has to be done about this. This is one of the worst threats to democracy in our nation’s history. I don’t think I’m exaggerating. So I continue to oppose [a constitutional amendment]. But…I’m a little less vehement about it, because [removing limits on corporate spending] is something I never believed could happen. I couldn’t imagine the Supreme Court doing this. We have to look at everything now, every tool we’ve got to address a real threat.
So you intend to remain engaged with reform issues in a major way.
Yes, I’ll be involved in a structural way.
Working with an existing reform group?
Either that, or having an organization that I help set up. That’s something that is still being worked out. But I am going to be a part of this fight, this debate, in a big way.
Everything you’re saying suggests a determination to remain in the political arena. Do you see yourself as a candidate for public office in the future?
You’re absolutely right; I have no intention of stepping out of public life—in terms of speaking out, being involved with causes, maybe being involved in organizations. I prefer, at this point, to have the experience of working on these issues in this way, the way so many progressive citizens do. Whether or not I would ever run for public office again is completely up in the air.
"Up in the air" for you, perhaps, but a lot of progressives got excited when, at the close of your concession speech on election night, you shouted, "On to 2012!"
All right, I’ll tell you what I meant. This is a serious answer; it is my true intention: I’m only one guy in a long, beautiful sweeping tradition of Wisconsin and American progressives. I was looking on election night at a crowd of people in that room, and thinking about people listening from across the country, who had fought these battles, these incredible battles we’ve been involved in to defend civil liberties, to oppose wars that just don’t make sense. I just wanted to say to them: Despite the disappointments of the evening, including the result in my race, "It’s on to 2012!" That means that our collective effort together to turn things around, to do this as progressives, continues.
The reference to 2012 had nothing to do with me in particular, other than that I am a progressive. I am one of the people who recognize that we have to go on to the next fight. It wasn’t egocentric; it simply wasn’t about me or my intentions. I’m very aware that the only reason I ever got to have this privilege is because of progressives in [Wisconsin] and around the country who saw me as a worthy example. That’s what I meant: that the broader struggle goes on. I am happy, I am proud, to be a part of it. But it’s not about me. It’s about this movement, this tradition.
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.