Educating for Democracy: Homage to Russ Feingold

11/09/2010 02:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With the decisive defeat of Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold by a millionaire businessman, Ron Johnson, whose work experience centers on Apple Computer and netting $100 million on his sale of Apple stock when he left the company, America has lost one of the most prominent progressive voices in the Congress. With the amount of money Johnson used from his personal fortune as well as over a $1 million in out-of-state contributions, and Feingold's refusal to avail himself of money from "special interests," it seems that it was all but inevitable for him to lose in this "throw the bums out" election.

What saddens me is that Feingold's most significant accomplishment, the McCain-Feingold bill that attempted to reduce if not eliminate the campaign finance abuses that have turned politics into a whorehouse of special interests, was seriously compromised when the Supreme Court concluded that free speech extended to corporations in its decision last January -- Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. It is for posterity to judge whether Feingold's efforts in trying to make our representatives in Washington more accountable to the average voter were justified in the face of increasingly expensive and, therefore, morally compromised campaigns for public office. I believe that the future will vindicate him.

Feingold always stood out in my mind as the exemplary public servant, taking unpopular stands such as when he was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act and among the few who voted against the authorization to start the war in Iraq. He had consistently avoided getting money from big contributors and although pressed for financial support in this election he even turned away contributions from his own party.

On the other hand Johnson, with no prior experience in politics, has never even been to Washington D.C. and seems to boast of the fact. To replace someone of Feingold's experience and integrity with a multi-millionaire business executive to deal with the country's financial problems is like trying to save a drowning person by tossing him an anchor. Perhaps one of Feingold's errors in this campaign was to embrace the Obama health care program since the perception is that the only people who could possibly benefit from it would be "them" rather than "us." But that seems to be where the country is drifting and not having someone of Russ Feingold's moral stature and political courage in the Senate is a blow to the future of economic justice far more serious than just the loss of his vote in the thin Democratic majority in the Senate.

As an educator, I am often mystified at what appears to be the ignorance of a considerable portion of the electorate when it comes to basic knowledge of American history and governance. I can understand in the recent election that for some voters, repudiation of the immediate past seemed a way to show their displeasure at the economic downturn that we are now mired in with few, if any, practical suggestions for addressing it. But I would have hoped that, in the case of Russ Feingold, the voters would have discriminated between someone who might have been able to find ways to improve the situation and, as I believe Johnson will turn out to be, someone who will make it worse. That is what the educated voter is able to do: discriminate between ideological bombast and self-interest and, even more important, balance self-interest with the interests of the society as a whole.

Benjamin Franklin, when asked about the importance of unity among the colonies in facing the British Empire was said to have remarked: "Either we hang together or we will surely hang separately." I believe that Russ Feingold's defeat might well be a sign that if we don't hang together -- that is do what is necessary for the common interest of this nation as he did -- we will, indeed, find ourselves facing a very ominous future.