Everyone else is talking about Donald Trump and the mess that has been made of American politics, about deepening divisions and the ugliness that the 2016 election has exposed. Not Russ Feingold. He’s talking about making it easier to access the Internet. But he’s not doing so in the way that politicians usually do—adding another vague promise to a laundry list of proposals that they hope will touch just enough hot buttons to get them elected. Feingold is going into detail about a digital disconnect that puts some Americans on an information superhighway and others on the equivalent of a digital dirt road. When high-speed Internet isn’t universally available, says the former senator from Wisconsin, high-school students have to sit at night in parking lots outside small-town libraries and schools, trying to get a decent enough signal to finish their term papers. Small businesses can’t compete with multinational corporations because the digital playing field is uneven. And the people who are always left behind—in the inner cities and at the end of country roads—find themselves left out of the future they were promised.
There is nothing wonky about where Feingold is headed here. He has the crowd at the American Legion Trier-Puddy Post #75 hall in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, applauding, laughing, and nodding in agreement as he describes how far the world has come since the days he struggled to find a paragraph of information on Tunisia in his family’s well-used set of encyclopedias. “Now we can get 500 articles on Tunisia—all the information in the world,” he says. “But none of this works if some of us are left behind.”
Then Feingold does something that few candidates do these days: He lays out a vision—one that extends back to Franklin Roosevelt’s rural-electrification program and Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate-highway system—to guarantee access for all Americans to high-quality, high-speed Internet as part of a bold push to address inequality. Let municipalities, co-ops, and nonprofits compete with the telecommunications giants, and let government provide regulatory, technical, and financial support to close the digital divide.
“Get it done!” Feingold declares at campaign stops across Wisconsin as he campaigns for the Senate once more. “It’s unacceptable that everyone doesn’t have the same access to the Internet. This should be like a utility, like electricity or telephone, where it’s guaranteed to everyone. That’s the change in attitude that has to happen.” When he finishes his talk in Fond du Lac, the union members and small-business owners and students and retirees are on their feet. They’re cheering. And smiling.
If there’s an antidote to the bitter, broken politics of 2016, it’s a Russ Feingold rally. The former senator, who has maintained a steady lead in the polls as he seeks to regain the seat he lost in 2010, refuses to get bogged down in the petty politics of the moment and generally steers clear of personalities. Feingold is thinking about the future. The former legislator, who is perhaps best known for his part in enacting the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, argues that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, are still searching for common ground outside Washington. Feingold peppers his remarks with references to Wisconsin real-estate agents who tell him that reducing student-loan debt will free young people to buy homes; to business owners who say the “free trade” agreements of the past have failed and who share his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership; to self-described conservatives who support an increase in the minimum wage.