Russ Feingold believes America is at a defining moment due to the repercussions of the landmark Citizens United v. FEC decision by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.
"There are two paths before us: Where the corporations dominate or where the public says enough. I ask for your help so that the nation takes the second path," Feingold told an appreciative audience of more than 150 in Mineral Point Saturday night in a speech sponsored by Grassroots Citizens of Wisconsin.
The former U.S. Democratic senator who served Wisconsin for 18 years remains widely popular in the state. Since being defeated by Ron Johnson last November, Feingold has been teaching at Marquette Law School and has formed a political action committee called Progressives United, devoted to "stand(ing) up to the exploding corporate influence in our political system."
In the Citizens United decision, the high court ruled 5-4 that the First Amendment protects corporate and unions' political speech. The practical result of the ruling is that government may not place limits on what corporations and unions spend to influence elections. In the elections held since the January 2010 ruling, tens of millions of dollars have flooded into campaigns, most prominently in the form of issue ads widely broadcast in an effort to sway voters for or against candidates.
"Citizens United was a recklessly activist decision on the part of the Supreme Court," Feingold asserted. "It overturned 100 years of decisions and case law."
He described the history of court rulings and congressional actions designed to limit corporate influence dating back to Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette and the country's "emphatic reaction" to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. "Citizens United was so extreme that unless we take action to stop it, America will return to the Gilded Age -- on steroids," Feingold said.
The former senator said the best chance of overturning the decision rests with a change in the makeup of the Supreme Court, one of several reasons he gave to support the re-election of President Barack Obama. He also criticized Obama, however, for a weak financial reform law and for his advocacy of free trade policies that Feingold called "selling Wisconsin and America down the river."
Feingold also had strong words for his political party. "Too many Democrats are espousing the corporate line. The Democratic Party is in danger of losing its identity -- don't let them succumb to corporate influence," he said to cheers from the audience.
His appearance before the 8-year-old Grassroots Citizens of Wisconsin, a Dodgeville-based group with more than 1,500 members/supporters, was aimed to spur residents of southwestern Wisconsin to get involved in politics, said Doug Huebner, the group's president, adding that "Russ Feingold really epitomizes the motivation in politics we want right now."
Many in the audience are active in local politics and they clearly appreciated Feingold's words of encouragement as well as his shout-out to the Occupy Wall Street movement: "They should do it all over the country until they force reform."