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Editors' Picks Government Officials Interviews

An Interview with Democratic Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold

“We seem to rely on very bad things happening in order to come together. We’ve got to do better than that.”

Russ Feingold (D) is a former United States Senator from Wisconsin. A Democrat, he served as Senator from 1993 to 2011, and as the United States Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 2013 to 2015. He was a Rhodes Scholar, attended Harvard Law School, and is currently the Martin R. Flug Visiting Professor in the Practice of Law at Yale Law School.

Feingold is known for cosponsoring the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, a major piece of campaign finance reform legislation more commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act. He was the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act during the first vote on the legislation.

The Politic’s Adrian Rivera spoke with Senator Feingold in his Law School office about national unity, the state of the Republican Party, and campaign finance, to name just a few serious topics, along with Feingold’s favorite music (“It’s Bob Dylan, it’s all Bob Dylan”), and his advice for current college students.

The Politic: I listened to your concession speech from November 2016 last night, and something you said really struck me and that is, and I quote, “Something is happening in this country tonight. I don’t understand it completely, I don’t think anybody does.”

My immediate question in response to that is: Do you understand what that “something” is now?

You also said, “I would urge you to be as restrained as you can be as the next steps occur. I don’t know exactly what they’re going to be, this could be one of the most challenging times in the history of our country.”

The last part [of your quote] is clear, but I’m struck by the fact that you used “as restrained as you can be as the next steps occur.” To me, this language implies you were expecting something that would require restraint. I’m curious what you meant by that, as well as your comment that you “don’t know exactly what they’re going to be.” What did you think was going to happen in the days, weeks, months leading up to January 20, 2017?

Russ Feingold: Look, this is a slow discovery process, of trying to figure out why people would elect somebody who is clearly inappropriate to be President of the United States, that’s part of it. Part of it is discovering how far this administration is willing to go to destroy whatever remaining unity or principles we have in our government.

It’s not a pretty track record already, we may see much worse things–just as an example, I couldn’t foresee particular abuses, but a great example is the president finding out he can pardon people and then pardoning Joe Arpaio, which was just an outrageous thing to do. So the president appears to have no respect for the things that have kept us together over the years, in fact, he exploits the opposite.

So I think that is why I was thinking electing somebody with this sort of attitude is a sign of substantial anger and disillusionment, some of which I can relate to, because I fought against, for example, the trade agreements that shipped our Wisconsin jobs overseas. Some of it I find very troubling and already did, the idea that he appealed to racist and other anti-immigrant and other appeals in order to get elected, that’s a very sad basis on which somebody can win. I mentioned restraint just because I had a feeling that if this man was president that there would be some kind of trouble, that we would have to be methodical and patient in trying to either remove him from office through impeachment or some other mechanism, or through something opposing what he’s done.

So I admired the rallies and the initial shows of disappointment and anger, the women’s rallies and others, but I had this feeling that it would be very difficult for people to maintain that energy over time. So in restraint, I mean not only restraint in the sense of not moving too quickly or doing things that are too extreme, I also mean saving your energy. That was a lot of it–pacing one’s self. We don’t know how long this is going to be, we don’t know if we’re going to be able to have a change of government earlier than 2020, or if we can hope that he won’t run again in 2020, or if we can defeat him in 2020, but we need to pick our battles and figure out a way to–at the same time we oppose the outrageousness, that we appear reasonable, and ready to include everyone.

So, I created this group called LegitAction, which is an organization that is trying to say: look, it’s not only about the progressive agenda, which I believe in. I’m very much a progressive, and I think we need an all-out assault on the dominance of special interests in this country and the power of big corporations. It’s criminal. But we also need to get back some of these things that there wasn’t a disagreement about.

The idea of going after people’s right to vote is only about eight or nine years old. You know, some of these things that are being done, the voter ID things. The campaign finance decision [Citizens United] is only seven years old, and it’s destroyed aspects of the campaign finance system. The role of the Electoral College in electing the president is old, but the consequences of it have only been really felt in the last two or three presidencies. And the theft of the Supreme Court by the right, by refusing to let President Obama have his appointment–these are all things that would not have been done by either party just a few years ago. So part of it is trying to get people to say, “Wait a minute. Let’s get back to having some kinds of rules of engagement, let’s get back to some kind of principles that say, ‘You won’t do it to me, I won’t do it to you, that goes too far.’” So that’s also an example of restraint, if you will, because we’re asking everybody to show restraint, and to not go too far.

So speaking a little bit about, you know, you mentioned the right’s theft of the Supreme Court—what do you think the Republican national vision is [Russ Feingold laughs out loud] and what do you make of the fact that they control Congress, and yet they were unable to repeal Obamacare? So do they have a national vision, or are they still just the party of “Anti-Obama?”

I think the Republican Party has become a wholly owned subsidiary of some large, wealthy elements of this country. I don’t think it’s really the Republican Party at all, anymore. It’s just a tool of people like the Koch brothers and other people who are willing to invest in buying our democracy. It’s not a political party, it’s a corporate subsidiary. And so it’s sad, because when I grew up, and even when I was in the U.S. Senate for many years, many of the Republican principles were, I didn’t necessarily [agree with all of them], but we could agree on certain things, certain procedures, agree on certain aspects of civil liberties, on certain aspects of how you treat the president’s nominees and so on.

Because of the ability of the moneyed interests to tell, to instruct the Republican Party as to what to do, they don’t have the ability to act independently anymore. A great example is, you know, Mitch McConnell knew very well that it was entirely wrong for him to announce, basically hours after Justice Scalia’s death, that they wouldn’t consider anyone. That was on orders from the powers that control the Republican Party. And so he was willing to sacrifice what he knew to be a major principle of the United States Senate and its role in the confirmation process, he thought for political reasons that he needed to do this outrageous act which really did steal the Supreme Court. So I don’t think of the Republican Party as a separate party anymore, I see it as a part of a sort of industrial-corporate monolith.

So I want to be fair here [Feingold laughs out loud again], what do you think about—it seems like there’s an apparent split between what I’ll call “Corporate Democrats,” like Hillary Clinton and even Barack Obama, and more populist progressives like yourself, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. Because I think a recent criticism of the party is that the Democrats don’t have a national vision either, and if they’re trying to create one, there’s a problem because there’s a split between people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton.

I don’t necessarily make the same divisions between individuals as you do, but I do see the Democratic Party as having lost its way and lost its vision because it’s not focused strongly enough on the way in which the system has become rigged against the average person, all the way from trade agreements to campaign finance to letting Wall Street run rampant. And this is something that started in particular with the DLC, the Democratic Leadership Council under [Bill] Clinton in that era, and sadly, it made it very difficult for Hillary Clinton to look like a different candidate.

We needed a more populist appeal; Bernie Sanders did a very good job articulating this appeal, but going forward…it might be a person like Clinton in the future, but it has to be somebody who really makes clear that they’re going to stand up to Wall Street when appropriate, stand up to big campaign contributions, and stand up to measures that don’t take into account the needs of average working families. I think Clinton would have made a great president, but we’ve got to win an election, and we’ve got to defeat Donald Trump or whoever their candidate is, so we’re going to need somebody that people perceive as different and really, who is going to fight that battle against those who are rigging our system.

It seems like, over the course of the last few questions, it’s a common theme that you are against dark money in politics, to put it lightly. [Feingold puts his feet up on the table.] And so, as the former senator from Wisconsin, what are your thoughts on Gil v. Whitford, the Wisconsin gerrymandering case?

And we could also talk about the role of the Supreme Court because, if the Republicans have become corporate subsidiaries, if the Democrats don’t have a national vision, and if the problem is campaign finance reform, it seems like the Court is all that we have left. And, you know, do you think somebody like, not even Anthony Kennedy, but somebody like Chief Justice Roberts, do you think he’ll see what has been caused by Citizens United, and do you think he’ll act on that?

You know, I don’t see campaign finance as the only issue here, but it is clearly the most important. I fear the Supreme Court is already compromised. I am hoping that Anthony Kennedy will do the right thing in Gil v. Whitford, and obviously, he’s the only way it’ll happen. But yeah, I mean, this issue, and a great portion of issues, are all related to the ways in which the right and corporate interests are trying to destroy the Supreme Court as an institution, by locking it up with special interests and big interests.

I do have some hope about Chief Justice Roberts. You know, a lot of liberals were furious with me, I voted for him. I voted for him, and I did not vote for Sam Alito, because I believe that Roberts cares about his reputation as Chief Justice. Possibly, he could end up being the longest serving Chief Justice in American history, easily, he’s a relatively young guy. I think he cares about the institution.

He’s way too conservative way for me, he did the wrong thing in Citizens United, but he’s shown independence on a couple of key issues. He saved healthcare [Obamacare]. I don’t think he really wanted to do that, I think he knew there was danger to the Supreme Court if he didn’t. Its credibility after Bush v. Gore, and after Citizens United, was on the precipice. You know, he has also refused, on a couple of cases, to overturn McCain-Feingold. That’s one of the great myths out there, that McCain-Feingold was overturned by Citizens United when it had nothing to do with McCain-Feingold. Citizens United overturned a 1907 act, the Tillman Act. They had another chance last term to overturn the soft money ban, which was the key to our bill—they didn’t do it.

So, you know, I could see him finally looking at all this, and saying, “Something’s wrong.” We’d be a lot better off if we got some different justices, but, you know, I’m still hoping that he does some things that will help us. Even with him, we need five. So if they end up making Roberts look like the liberal on the court, and there’s five people even more conservative, we’re in real trouble.

So, in answering that last question, you said, you know “I don’t think the issue is—” 

The only issue.

“The only issue is, I don’t think the only issue is campaign finance reform.” And so I have this broad question—why is America divided? Is it divided?

Oh, it’s very divided. It’s very divided. That we have such overwhelming percentages for one presidential candidate in so many states is not a good sign. In other words, instead of being close, it’s like there’s no chance for Republicans in Democratic states and vice versa. It’s gotten a lot worse.

I do think that issues of diversity are troubling people in a way that’s sad because this country thrives on diversity, and has benefited from diversity. I do think that the unfairness of certain economic policies, particularly trade agreements, makes people in certain parts of the country feel like they were left behind for the wealthy interests, including some that the Democrats are connected to in the big cities. And I think there’s still residual from the economic collapse of 2007 and 2008, and a lot of people still don’t feel like they’ve recovered, even if they’ve received economically, there’s an incredible loss of a national spirit that is troubling.

And naturally, there’s another element that’s gotten even worse, it started thirty years ago. Cable television, social media—I taught a course at Stanford Policy Lab last spring on Fake News and Misinformation. The development of these echo chambers, not only in the context of social media, but just generally, has broken down the ability of people to reason with each other. And so a lot of it has to do with communications and how people get information. And whether they feel like they need to choose a side and stick with it, or it’s alternate facts or whatever you call it, it’s a very bad trend. And I’m a free speech guy, I voted for the Communications Decency Act, which basically exempted the platforms from liability, but something has to be done about the sort of extreme unwillingness of people to listen to each other. And I don’t have an easy answer for that.

You know, every time some major new technology comes out, there has to be adjustment. I’m teaching a course at ISPS, a seminar, a private seminar, on Fake News and Misinformation. Great group of students. You know, one of the students came up with an article about the history of fake news pointing out that when the Gutenberg Bible was first printed, and things could be put on the printing press, there was no mechanism for knowing whether something was true or not. Journalism hadn’t really developed, and so this is sort of a Gutenberg Bible moment, in that we—because journalism has suffered so much from being overtaken by other [inaudible], the ability to check and figure out whether things are right, the ability for people to agree with [inaudible].

The example I used was the BBC in England. The BBC is a good thing. BBC is a sort of, balanced common conversation throughout Britain, where, you know, they’re pretty tough on everybody. But everybody is listening to this, and it creates a common discussion. We don’t have something like this, this is too big of a country. NPR is considered too liberal, but you know, I think it’s very good. Without that, it’s very hard to create some kind of unity, because we are constantly being persuaded to believe the worst about our fellow American.

I guess this is more of a historical question. In talking about national unity, I wonder if there was ever a moment in history where America was truly united, barring after catastrophe. So you know, after Pearl Harbor, after World War II, after 9/11, and I don’t mean to ask, is that what it takes for the country to be united, but are we holding on to this ideal that in reality has just never existed?

Of unity?

Of unity, have we always been––I don’t want to say this divided, but maybe, are we only aware of how different we are because of things like social media? I mean, regarding the Las Vegas shooting, on my news feed, I’ve seen people claim that it’s not a real thing. I mean, how do you even—

Well, we’ve hit many years of disunity. This is by no means the only one. It may be more challenging because of social media, and the things you’re talking about. You know, I worry about what you said, I worry about, do we only come together when it’s a catastrophe?

I grew up and ran for office in an environment where a lot of people remembered the Depression and World War II. That’s when people had to come together. They got to know each other, they go to know people around the country, they realized, “There’s other things here that are really ruining our lives.” And they did come together, and it lasted for a while, and it helped once we were able to deal with the Depression, once we were able to win World War II, we did enter into a period where there wasn’t necessarily a complete unity, but enough common spirit that people were able to be—not only able to get along, but to be prosperous and successful. I’ve noticed that a lot of people now have never been forced to do something like deal with a Depression or go to war, and so, for a lot of people, you know, [they can say], “Well, I’m on this side in America” instead of looking at themselves as Americans generally. And that’s damaging.

So I don’t want there to be a catastrophe, I hope there never is another one, there probably will be, but it is really terrible that we need, we seem to rely on very bad things happening in order to come together. We’ve got to do better than that.

As a last serious question, I just read your Guardian article that was published two days ago, and you said, “Our system of government is meant to protect the power of voters and result in a government that represents the voters. Instead, we now have a system deliberately meant to manipulate and beat the voters in order to lock in a government that intentionally does not represent the voters.”

My question is, keeping that quote in mind, what do you think, or how do you feel about the future of America knowing that in order to change this, something has to change from the top? So Congress or the Court has to do something about this, but earlier, you said, you know, maybe even the Court is compromised. I don’t mean to—

Oh no—

I don’t mean to pin you into this position of “Oh there’s no hope,” but—

The question is whether it’s permanently compromised. I don’t think it’s permanently compromised. I fear that it’s compromised in the near future, and depending on who leaves and who gets to appoint people, it’s a serious question. Look, I think I tend to be an optimist. This era is challenging that, personally. But, I think we may win this case [Gil v. Whitford], which would be a big step in the right direction. It would hearten people who still believe that the Court can stop things that are wrong.

I do think the election cycles will shift. I don’t know if it’s going to happen in 2018 or 2020, but we have to be patient, and I’m confident things will shift within a few years. The question is how much damage is done in the meantime, how much of it can be repaired–particularly if we’re taken into wars that we didn’t need to be in, certain constitutional principles are damaged.

You know, your generation is going to have to do a lot of repairing. One of the funny things when I was a little kid, we had two wonderful United States Senators from Wisconsin, Bill Proxmire, and Gaylord Nelson. And I said to my dad, “You know, I want to go into politics, but these guys are going to take care of everything.” [Both burst into laughter.]

Well, as you grow up, you realize that never happens, and Lord knows, there’ll be no problem with your generation having a lot to do. Because our generation has been severely compromised by the disaster of the 2016 election. So in the end, I think it’ll be good. I don’t know how much of it I’ll get to see. But I believe that things will start turning around in the next two to three years.

I’m going to renege on my “last serious question” promise [Feingold: “Oh that’s ok”], just because there’s so much we could talk about. Do you have anything you’d like to say about an issue that I didn’t cover, for example, North Korea? You mentioned wars that we didn’t need to be in, and that, to me, obviously jumps out as the biggest national security concern we have today.

Well, let me just say something about this country and the issue of race. We’ve got to stop pretending that we are going to be ok on this issue if we don’t deal with it directly. This idea that you treat African Americans as a separate group that we don’t have to figure out how to work with and make sure they feel like a part our society, as well as Latinos. It’s not going to work.

Being in separate camps like this, you know, always picking one side or another, acting as if it’s not your problem—it’s not going to work. It’s everybody’s problem. And I don’t have all the answers, but you know, I worked against racial profiling when I was in the Senate, I’m very concerned about the over-imprisonment, the felony voting restrictions. We have got to do something to signal a very serious desire for more inclusion in this country. Some say it’s too late, some, Ta-Nehisi Coates was on Stephen Colbert and was asked if there was any kind of hope for the country, and he said, “No.” I hope, I’m hoping, but I do know it is so serious, this tension is so serious, that we’ve got to address it as a nation.

It feels almost weird to segue into these questions, but let’s go ahead and try. [Feingold bursts out laughing.] Where do you get your news?

It kinda depends on where I am, physically. In the car driving back home, we have CNN on a lot, or Fox, I like to listen to Fox—some, as much as I can take. I used to kid around that, people would ask, “Why are you watching Fox News?” I said, “It was great, I knew what my opponent was going to say two weeks before he did,” which was a snarky remark.

I’ll sometimes read the Wisconsin papers, The New York Times, I like to read The Economist. But now, social media has become more a part of my life as well. I am a Redditor. I joined because of my class, it was one of the things we were studying, and I find that an interesting way to generally get news. I’m not into subreddits per se, but I do like to get that perspective. And then, NPR is on almost all the time. But I try to make sure I get some conservative viewpoints in there.

Great. What place would you most like to visit that you haven’t been to?

I think Istanbul. I’ve just never been to Turkey, and I hear that it’s just wonderful. My wife’s been, my daughter’s been, but I haven’t been. I’m interested in that whole sort of crossroads of cultures, I’m interested in Islamic politics, I’m interested in how that’s working out.

If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?

I think I’d like to go to a foreign country and teach about American government somewhere so I could learn the language there, and just look at how people regard this country from afar as I learn their language and as they learn about our government.

Which living person do you most admire?

Probably the Pope. I think the Pope has surprised people, he has become, on many issues, the moral leader of the world. And I have an awful lot of regard for someone who came to that position and just really decided to, on so many things, take a gusty stand, given who he is. So I’m a fan of the Pope, even though I’m Jewish! [We both burst into laughter.]

What keeps you up at night?

Noise outside of Benjamin Franklin College. [I laugh out loud.] No, actually, it is not at all noisy. That’s where I’m living. Um, drinking too much coffee? Occasionally, occasionally, it is the workload of whatever job I’m doing. And then once in a while, it’s the feeling that––that what many of us have fought for throughout our lives is being gutted. But I generally sleep very well. It’s not easy to give an answer, I have very few sleepless nights, I’m fortunate that way.

What is your advice for college students?

Just really enjoy learning. That’s not an issue here, this place is so vibrant, students are so engaged, it’s wonderful, I really enjoy the students tremendously. I’m struck by the desire to go beyond the classwork. There are so many organizations, I mean this course I’m teaching at ISPS––they’re not getting credit for it, and they’re just doing it. There isn’t just this single focus. So the love of learning, and the sense that they want to do things while in college in addition to coursework, makes me want to say learning throughout your life is really a great joy. That’s the thing that keeps you going.

And I can say that, because I can remember—I went to the University of Wisconsin, Madison—I was 18, and I thought, “Eh.” High school was fine, I enjoyed it, but all of a sudden, I had all my books for all my classes, and I looked at them and I thought, “I want to learn all of this.” And that feeling has never left me.

And here I am at 64, and as long as someone can maintain that curiosity, that desire to know, it’s a lifelong thing. And it also causes you to want to do the right thing, because it causes you to have empathy for others. You learn about other people, other cultures, other ideas, other concepts, other disciplines. It increases empathy and we are suffering greatly from a lack of empathy in this society.

Speaking of your desire to know, what is your favorite book?

It’s a book I assign for a course that I’m teaching next semester: King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild’s book about the disastrous way in which the Congo was treated by King Leopold, but just the interesting interface of history and issues concerning colonialism and then what’s happened since; to me, it’s just an example of a really great book, so it’s one of my favorites.

What’s your favorite movie and favorite song, or an artist?

My favorite movie is a movie from way back in the ’70s called Days of Heaven, which is a beautiful sort of artsy movie about a Texas farm, an East Texas farm and an affair that goes on there, but the cinematography and the acting—some actors [who] became very famous, that was their first movie. I saw it when I was actually at Harvard Law School, a theatre there, and it’s just always struck me as one of my favorite movies.

In terms of music, it’s Bob Dylan—it’s all Bob Dylan. I love many artists, but Dylan is very special to me, and to me, a great genius. He’s the guy I still want to meet! There aren’t a lot of people I want to meet, but I want to meet Bob Dylan. What song would I pick…you know it’s funny, it’s kind of an esoteric one. I think it’s called “Across the Green Mountain.”

It’s a song that Dylan wrote, I think, when Ted Turner was creating this series about the Civil War, and Dylan went to the New York Public Library and sat there for weeks and just started learning about the Civil War. And he wrote this very touching ballad about what it was like to be a soldier in the Civil War, and to me, it’s hauntingly beautiful, very sad, but hauntingly beautiful. I could pick a hundred songs, but since that’s less well known, it’s the one that I’d pick.

What do you wish you had more time do for leisure?

More time to golf. My wife and I love to golf. And we just love to spend to travel, I can’t complain, we’ve been able to travel a great deal. And of course, time with our grandchildren—those are the things I’d like even more time for, but I don’t feel cheated.

Who should run in 2020?

Hm. Somebody who’s a strong progressive who’s ready to take on Donald Trump.

That sounds like Bernie Sanders, would you…

Look, Bernie did a great job, I’m not going to endorse anybody, there’s a lot of other good progressives, but he really took a lot of responsibility and did a good job.

The interview ended, but Adrian and Senator Feingold went on to have a conversation about former Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, a man who spoke on the Senate floor on a daily basis from 1967 to 1986 to support the ratification of the U.N. Genocide Convention.

This interview was edited for concision and clarity.