Feingold: ‘We Need To Regenerate Progressivism’ To Battle This ‘Gilded Age On Steroids’

As a part of the Republican victory in Congress following November’s election, a number of long-time Democratic Party lawmakers lost their seats, the victims of a national wave of discontent fed by a struggling economy. One of those who lost was Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), who served four terms in the U.S. Senate before losing to Oshkosh businessman Ron Johnson.

Feingold, who will teaching law at Wisconsin’s Marquette University this Spring, sat down with The Nation’s John Nichols for a wide-ranging interview that covered the former senator’s thoughts on his time in the Senate and what he plans to do in the future. At one point, Feingold told Nichols that, while he lost his recent election, the “broader struggle” for social justice has to continue. Nichols followed up by asking Feingold what he meant by the “broader struggle” and what progressives should do now. The senator replied that progressives must confront the fact that “this entire society is being dominated by corporate power” and that progressive must mobilize against what he calls “the Gilded Age on steroids”:

NICHOLS: What do you mean when you refer to “the broader struggle”? What should progressives do now?

FEINGOLD: 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.

Feingold is not exaggerating in his comparisons between modern day America and the Gilded Age. The top 0.1 percent of income earners in America were in 2008 earning 8 percent of the country’s total income, “the same share as during the Gilded Era of the 1920s.” A University of California-Berkeley study released in 2009 found that income inequality in 2007 was the highest it had ever been in recorded history, with the “the top 1 percent incomes [capturing] half of the overall economic growth over the period 1993-2007.”

Later in the interview, Nichols asked Feingold if he thinks that Obama understands the level of inequality in the country and the policies that are needed to reverse it. Feingold replied that “he does at some level, yes,” referring to Obama criticizing the Citizens United decision during last year’s State Of The Union address. He continued, “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.”