Brown Daily Herald
April 26, 2012
By Caroline Flanagan
Russ Feingold, a former Democratic senator from Wisconsin, called for the overturn of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case and urged students to act against the abuse of corporate spending in a mostly full Salomon 101 Wednesday night. The event was hosted by the Brown Democrats and Democracy Matters, a student-run nonprofit that supports public financing of elections.
In his speech, titled “Corporate Power in Politics and the Economy: What the Citizens United Decision Means for Our Democracy,” Feingold condemned Citizens United as a “lawless decision” that “overturned 100 years of statutes and state laws … and handed unprecedented power to corporations to pervert and distort our elections.”
Feingold spent some time establishing the historical background of the Citizens United decision, which eradicated restrictions on corporate funding of political campaigns. He commented on the similarities between the current political climate and that of the corrupt Gilded Age during the late nineteenth century — just as the Progressive Era of reform followed the Gilded Age, Feingold emphasized that the U.S. political system must undergo drastic reform so it does not fall into a second Gilded Age.
Feingold said he could understand the desire of political candidates to “fight fire with fire” and accept contributions from corporations to keep up with their opponents. But the former senator stressed that the costs of massive corporate donations often outweigh the benefits.
“We say in the Midwest that there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” Feingold said. “Well, there’s no such thing as a free $10 million contribution.”
Companies are beginning to feel the detrimental effects of using their corporate treasuries to support political candidates, Feingold said. For example, Target faced intense backlash last year after the company contributed $150,000 to a Minnesota gubernatorial campaign for a candidate who didn’t support gay rights.
“They made Lady Gaga very angry — you don’t want to do that,” he said, adding that such companies are almost “begging for boycotts.”
“I don’t want to have to go down that road,” he said. “Overturning Citizens United is a far better alternative.”
Feingold lamented the fact that many Democrats have joined Republican candidates in accepting corporate contributions, ultimately weakening their image.
“We have to hold Democrats accountable when they are seduced by corporate money,” he said. “Otherwise, people will see Democrats as weak.”
Feingold emphasized that candidates should capitalize on passion and intensity to win elections, not money.
He cited his own first campaign for senator and President Obama’s 2008 campaign as successful campaigns that refused soft money.
In his campaign, Feingold raised $35,000 almost entirely from small contributions from citizens. President Obama used the Internet to raise millions of dollars and draw millions of people to his campaign, allowing all kinds of people to be “given a seat at the table of American politics.”
“This is how real people campaign,” he said. “Nothing makes people feel like they don’t have a place in the political process than seeing it dominated by corporate donations. … It weakens the base of the Democrats.”
In fact, Feingold said President Obama’s election was one of the reasons for the creation of Citizens United.
“When you examine the motives of the Citizens United decision, it’s that the corporate powers were rocked by the power of the Internet and the power of the citizens,” he said. “They saw the face of democracy, and they were terrified.”
He urged the audience to take action, stressing that the future of democracy depends on efforts at the grassroots level. The upcoming presidential election will be a defining moment for the cause, he said.
“We have a president right now who is more likely to overturn this than Mitt Romney,” he said. “This election could determine whether this is taken care of in a few years or a few decades.”
Students said they were impressed by Feingold’s speech. Lex Rofes ’13, a Wisconsin resident, said he particularly enjoyed the historical context Feingold provided for the issue.
“I’m a little upset that he’s not on the Senate right now,” he added. “He’s got a very good head on his shoulders, and he’s proven his ability to work across party lines.”
“It was nice to hear a political speaker who talked about what you believed in but made you feel like you could accomplish it,” said Rebecca Kagan ’12.5. “You usually have to choose one or the other.”