Last month, members of The New School community and a crowd of interested outsiders packed into Tishman Auditorium for a much-anticipated discussion between former New School President Bob Kerrey and former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold.
For some students and faculty members, it was an opportunity to hear what the university’s infamous president emeritus had to say. But the main attraction was Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin known for his progressive politics.
As he discussed his new book, Feingold drew the fawning appreciation of a clearly left-wing audience. But the tenor of liberal concord was marred by an undertone of dissatisfaction bordering on dissent. At the end, as we filed out of the auditorium, I overheard disgruntled mumblings about the “dodging rubbish of a typical politician.”
These comments were more than just the standard expressions of frustration with a politician’s slippery and noncommittal rhetoric — they were recognitions of a hypocrisy in Feingold’s political activity, a hypocrisy that serves as an example of a dangerous and widespread problem: the trading of fundamental principles, under the pretext of practicality, for obedience to one of the two established parties.
This became vividly clear when one activist stood up and criticized Obama, complaining of “progressive burn-out” — exhaustion attendant upon years of work for the Democratic Party that has borne little fruit, Obama’s performance on civil liberties being a particularly sore spot. Feingold implored him and other audience members with similar grievances to be patient and wait for Obama’s second term. After the event, the student told me that this probably had to do with Feingold’s position as a co-chair on Obama’s 2012 campaign.
Feingold’s restrained criticism and strong support of Obama is ironic, to put it gently. In 2001, Feingold was the only U.S. senator to vote against President Bush’s Patriot Act. The law, passed in the aftermath of 9/11, authorized the federal government to spy on citizens and detain immigrants suspected of terrorism without due process.
“Protecting the safety of the American people is a solemn duty of the Congress,” said Feingold in a speech given a few weeks before Congress passed the bill. “But the Congress will fulfill its duty only when it protects both the American people and the freedoms at the foundation of American society.”
Yet Feingold is now one of 35 national co-chairs on the campaign to re-elect Obama, a president who has done nothing to revoke the Bush administration’s post-9/11 policies. If anything, Obama has only perpetuated his predecessor’s blatant disregard of the Constitution. Since taking office, Obama has continued the government’s warrantless wiretapping program, signed an extension of the Patriot Act, and, in 2010, authorized the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen who was suspected of terrorism. The citizen in question, Anwar Al-Awlaki, was killed in a U.S.-led drone attack on Yemen in September. His 16 year-old son, also a U.S. citizen, was killed two weeks later.
More recently, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which allows the federal government to imprison both foreigners and U.S. citizens, indefinitely, without trial. Obama has released multiple statements saying that he will not use this power on citizens, and will exercise the law with extreme prudence. But he signed the legislation nonetheless — it’s on the books, and future presidents can enforce it as they please.
This was a notable focus of dissatisfaction among the audience in Tishman Auditorium on February 22. To many of those who care about the constitution, liberal and conservative alike, Obama’s civil liberties record is worse than Bush’s. And Feingold, with his staunch history of supporting civil liberties, is perhaps the only Democratic politician who might agree.
But Feingold has not truly challenged Obama. Instead, he sits on the reelection committee, encouraging frustrated young activists to pin their hopes for change on a second term in the White House. While he’s not a sycophant — he recently accused Obama of “dancing with the devil” for taking money from Super PACs —he has grown noticeably tamer when it comes to civil liberties. This becomes readily apparent when you look at what Feingold had to say just a few years ago, when he openly criticized Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program.
“The president was blunt, so I will be blunt: this program is breaking the law, and this president is breaking the law,” said Feingold, speaking on the Senate floor in February of 2007. “Not only that, he is misleading the American people in his efforts to justify this program.”
The same could be said of Obama today, but Feingold hasn’t said it. And he probably won’t. Because there is no viable challenger to Obama on the Democratic ticket, and the GOP will likely nominate a candidate as bad or worse than Obama on civil liberties, Feingold cannot flee to another candidate. So long as he chooses to work within the established system, he has only one option.
It is always disappointing when politicians are forced to compromise their principles for the sake of politics, but such is the regrettable state of our country today: to be a practical servant in government, you have to concede defeat, to publicly support policies that you secretly oppose. To get anywhere at all, you must play by the rules of your respective team, whether it be the Democrats or the GOP. For Feingold, this meant cooperating with the destruction of our Constitution, which transgresses the lines of acceptable compromise.
Feingold genuinely supports some of the Obama administration’s other policies — he expressed great satisfaction with the president’s health care reform, for example. But he would be better off continuing his fierce censure of the executive for usurping the Bill of Rights, even if it means alienating himself from the mainstream Democrats.
The essential foundations of our republic should take precedence over all other issues and causes. Without those foundations, we cannot safely solve our problems with social security or health care or any of the rest. We cannot freely experiment with our systems.
When the federal government can imprison and kill citizens based on their supposed connection to terrorists, citizens may fear to speak out against and oppose those who occupy governmental positions. Legislative debate becomes a farce when the unscrupulous politicians who voted away our rights cannot be held accountable by citizens without fear of reprisal from a corrupt state.
Especially when we are involved in sustained wars abroad with questionable motives, anticipate more unwanted war in the future, and suffer the rampages of financial corruption on a global scale, we ought to be clinging very tightly to those rights which protect us from state abuse and allow us to always fight back. Without our civil liberties, we are lost.