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2011 / Senator Russ Feingold

Russell Dana “Russ” Feingold has spent nearly three decades serving the people of Wisconsin, first as a State Senator from 1983 – 1993, then as a three-term U.S. Senator from 1993 until the end of 2010. Feingold was a different kind of legislator—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 belief 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.”

Born and raised in Wisconsin, Feingold attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where he earned another degree before attending law school at Harvard, from which he graduated with honors. After four years of practicing law Feingold began his next career as an elected public servant.

Feingold took the moniker “public servant” seriously. He took principled stands, even when it was politically unpopular. Through three terms in the U.S. Senate he managed to frustrate his allies nearly as often as he angered his opponents. During his career Feingold was a relentless opponent of capital punishment, a budget realist who returned hundreds of thousands of federal dollars his office had been given, a tireless fighter for American jobs, an advocate for veterans, and a defender of civil liberties. He voted on principle and against politics in opposing the PATRIOT Act, and most famously, was a champion of fair elections in which voters rather than donors decide the outcome. When he first ran for State Senate in 1982, Feingold painted his campaign promises on his garage door. He spent the next eighteen years keeping those promises.

Having been an attorney and an elected official, Feingold is now beginning his third career. As he recently told The Nation, “I have no intention of stepping out of public life.” And indeed he hasn’t. Feingold recently founded Progressives United, whose mission is, “Empower Americans to stand up against the exploding corporate influence in Washington, especially since the Citizens United decision; hold our representatives accountable to every constituent, regardless of economic class or insider access; and support national, state, and local candidates who stand up for our progressive ideals.”

In addition to The Ridenhour Prize for Courage, Senator Feingold has been awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.

2011 Courage Prize Speech

Transcript of Russ Feingold’s speech

RUSS FEINGOLD:  Thank you, Andy, and thank you for bringing up the votes that got me in trouble with a lot of people in the room here first and then sort of balancing it, I appreciate that. I thank the Fertel Foundation and The Nation Institute for this wonderful award. I’m deeply honored to be recognized as a part of this year’s awards, and also, of course, to be in some way associated with the incredible list of past recipients. It’s just something to read that list of names, having lived through the era of so many of their courageous acts.

And it’s been a pleasure to learn in the last few weeks, and particularly last night and today, about the life and work of Ron Ridenhour. I, of course, remember as a teenager the My Lai incident, followed it pretty closely at the time. But to learn not only what he did there, but how he followed it with his career of investigative journalism is inspiring and we need inspiration these days. These are very hard times for our country. So I am so pleased.

And I want to thank, of course, my staff and supporters over 28 years who allowed me the opportunity to do this work. In great part, the honor that has been given to me, I think, results from our work in the United States Senate that stemmed from two major areas of concern; the erosion of the rights and freedoms afforded us in the United States Constitution, and the mushrooming corporate influence on our democratic institutions. First on civil liberties, the rights that were designed to shield us from arbitrary government action are under constant assault. But this is to be expected. Like any other organization, government agencies want to simplify their lives, ease their burdens, and justify their existence. This is no different than the way other organizational structures behave, whether in the public sector or the private sector. But our founders constructed our government so as to check these tendencies, especially when they risked threatening those rights they considered fundamental.

As every middle school student knows, or at least I hope they know, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches each have checks on the other two, a deliberate tension that was created by the founders to protect us. All that is necessary for those checks to work is that those who serve in the three branches of government do their job. That’s all you need. But in recent years, for many elected officials, doing one’s job has apparently been too much to ask. For reasons of some overarching policy goal, or possibly just political expedience, elected officials have felt comfortable sacrificing those fundamental rights. Regrettably, this has been especially true in Congress, who should have been pushing back when the executive branch wanted to do extralegal spying on innocent Americans. [applause]  And when it sought to wage war in Iraq. As we all know, Congress failed to check those unjustified reaches by the executive branch.

Now, this isn’t a partisan issue. I wish it were. I wish the Democratic Party could proudly point to its opposition to these abuses. But, of course, President Bush passed the Patriot Act and got the authorization for the Iraq War when the majority party in the United States Senate was the Democratic Party. Nor has this overreaching stopped with the election of a Democratic President. Just last week, the administration decided to try five people accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks before a military commission rather than a civilian court. That decision was flat out wrong. [applause] As a practical matter, we have a great track record of successfully trying and convicting terrorists in civilian courts, while the military commission system is largely untested, and poses a very real risk of getting bogged down in years of legal challenges. More broadly, establishing a special legal regime outside of our courts for a few people greatly undermines our constitutional system. And in doing so, weakens our national security by providing a rallying cry for our enemies. The administration’s flip flop on this issue is a mistake.

Now as to the other issue, the problem of the ascendancy of corporate special interests on our democratic institutions is certainly no better than the other problem. Even before the lawless Citizens United decision, corporate interests dominated our policymaking. We’ve seen that in the disastrous trade agreements into which our country has entered over the last two decades that helped ship millions of family-supporting jobs overseas. We’ve seen it in the reckless deregulation of our financial institutions that laid the groundwork for the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. We’ve seen it in the fiscally irresponsible tax and budget policies of the last decade that turned trillions, trillions of projected debt reduction into trillions more in debt.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, though, thanks to Citizens United, is what is likely to come: corporate interests overwhelming our electoral process. We are seeing the beginning of what might eventually be called the second Gilded Age, and it may be that the historical reputation of today’s elected officials will be measured by what they do, or fail to do, in response to it. In effect, in its Citizen United decision, the Supreme Court overturned 100 years of settled law, which had safeguarded our political process from the corporate dominance that was the hallmark of the Gilded Age. And it’s done so at a time when corporate interests are far less connected to the interests of our nation.

Now in 1953, when GM CEO Charles Wilson told a Congressional committee that, “For years, I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa,” his sentiment was expressed at a time when the economic fortunes of our biggest firms were much more closely tied to the economic well-being of our country, of this country. But today, multinational corporations shift capital across the globe at the speed of light. They justify paying substandard wages in emerging economies rather than a living wage to an American family as somehow being necessary for their corporate bottom line.

The robber barons of the first Gilded Age were at least restrained in their actions by the need for American workers, farmers, and small businesses to thrive. That restraint may be largely gone now, making any second Gilded Age perhaps far more perilous. In the last few weeks, we’ve seen a revealing tip of the potential iceberg in Wisconsin. The right to collectively bargain, a cherished right for generations in my home state, was stripped away from thousands of people who work for public agencies. Despite a remarkable outpouring of opposition, the interests that orchestrated this assault on workers rights prevailed, at least for now. But only for now. I can tell you, I was recently at University College in London walking through the halls and saw a poster that said, “From Cairo to Madison.” [applause] That’s how they promoted an upcoming rally at University College in London, with a picture of the Wisconsin state capitol.

But we’re seeing some of the assaults that happened in Wisconsin and other states. Of course, some forms of corporate influence are less dramatic. They are so prevalent that we often lose sight of them because we’re so used to seeing them. Corporate influence blends into the background because it is the background. Corporate influence pervades government. Take a look at the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. There are twenty-six members of that council, but only two of them have ever publicly questioned our disastrous trade policy, two out of twenty-six. And consider again the head of that council, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt. We should not give someone like Mr. Immelt the responsibility of heading a jobs creation taskforce when his own company has been creating more jobs overseas while reducing its American workforce, while his own company reportedly spent hundreds of millions of dollars hiring lawyers and lobbyists to evade taxes. And while his own company is still having the nerve at this point to ask its workers for major concessions in the wake of Mr. Immelt doubling his own compensation. That is one rotten record for somebody to be in charge of this.

We’re going to stop. If we’re going to stop a second Gilded Age, as I like to call it the gilded age on steroids, we’ll need to enact a number of critical reforms, and we’ll need to do so in the face of corporate power, fully unleashed by Citizens United. That’s been one of my primary concerns since the election last November, and it will be my focus now that I’m no longer in the Senate, and it’s the reason I created Progressives United, a political action committee dedicated to building on the reforms of the progressive era and countering corporate influence.

I thank you for this honor and for this recognition, but I thank you even more for the work we have already done together, and I look forward to the work we will do together in the future. Thanks so much. [applause]