The former senator discusses 9/11 sixteen years later and his new organization “Legit Action”.
Fmr. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
16 years ago today, the terrorist attacks on September 11 set in motion a series of responses that reshaped the world as we know it. Among those was the U.S.A. Patriotic Act which was rushed through Congress less than six weeks after the attacks and passed overwhelmingly, as you might recall.
The establishment of our modern surveillance state was opposed by just one U.S. Senator, Russ Feingold, from Wisconsin. Tonight we’ll talk with the Progressive Democrat about his historic vote and his new organization, Legit Action.
Then Memphis blues quintet, Southern Avenue, joins us for a conversation and a performance from their debut album.
We’re glad you’ve joined. Russ Feingold and Southern Avenue coming up in just a moment.
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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Russ Feingold back to this program. 16 years ago, he was the lone senate vote against the Patriot Act just a few weeks after 9/11. The former Wisconsin senator is now a visiting professor at Yale Law School and the founder of a new voting rights group called Legit Action. He joins us from Yale’s studio in New Haven, Connecticut. Senator Feingold, good to have you back on this program, my friend.
Russ Feingold: Tavis, it’s great to be back on. Thank you.
Tavis: Take me back all those years ago now and describe for me as best you can what it felt like being the lone vote against that Patriot Act.
Feingold: Well, it’s really something doing this show on the anniversary of 16 years ago. I can’t help but think all day about what it was like to be across the street from the capital and to see people fleeing and wondering if the capital was going to be hit.
What I do remember more than anything else, because I was able to attend the singing of the song, “God Bless America”, on the stops of the capital with the Republicans and Democrats alike that night, I recall the feeling of unity that lasted for a little while. I mean, it really was impressive.
And at this time in our country, there is so much disunity, we’ve really forgotten what it is to come together to try to solve our problems. So, obviously, the main thing is remembering those who were killed and hurt on 9/11, but also to rededicate ourselves to try to get back together to some kind of sense of community in this country. We’ve got to do that.
Tavis: Does it always require, will it always take, something as disastrous as 9/11 to bring us together as Americans? Why is it that we can’t seem to do that around something that doesn’t seem to literally take lives?
Feingold: I mean, that’s really troubling because, of course, in the past with the Depression and World War II, there are moments when people came together. And we’ve got to learn the lesson that you have to be ready for those kinds of disasters and problems by having strong institutions in what’s happening. Frankly, it started even before Donald Trump.
A lot of our basic institutions from voting rights to our campaign finance system to the way we elect the president or a supreme court, you name it, all these are being attacked and they’re being delegitimized. The reason I created this group, Legit Action, is to say, remember, these attacks started in about 2009, 2010, before Donald Trump.
Tavis, they’re going to keep going after Donald Trump even though, frankly, Donald Trump couldn’t be much worse. These attacks on democracy and on unity started before him and we’ve got to be very vigilant about that in addition to all the things he’s trying to pull.
Tavis: I want to come back to the democracy being threat, if I can put it that way, in just a second. But let me go back to the question I asked a moment ago which is what you recall and what kind of response you received 16 years ago when you were the lone guy standing against this Patriot Act.
Feingold: I voted for the Afghanistan invasion after we were able to narrow the use of military force provision there, so it wasn’t abused as much as it might have been, although some have abused it. But then they tried to jam through this bill and they named it the U.S.A. Patriot Act.
You know, I was chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee. I thought maybe I’d better read it, so I read it, and I found it that it was really an attempt to do a lot of things depriving Americans of their freedoms that had more to do with drug cases than terrorism.
I mean, even Bob Novak, the late conservative commentator, Tavis, said that it was old wish list of the FBI. So I tried to sound the alarm that this thing was basically taking advantage of a terrorist attack to get some other agendas taken care of, and I decided to protest by voting no.
I wasn’t able to stop it, but it did help galvanize a national opposition to this that was, frankly, even stronger sometimes in some of the most conservative states in the union like Montana or Idaho or Alaska as well as the more liberal areas because people sometimes get unified and not wanting the government intruding on to completely innocent behavior.
Tavis: In a moment like that, how many times were you labeled anti-American for that vote?
Feingold: Well, you get called a lot of things. I remember the Bush administration started saying that some of us had a pre-9/11 mindset or world view. And I responded by saying, well, actually they have a pre-1776 mindset [laugh] when they don’t realize that this was an attack on the fundamental principles of our Constitution.
Even George Will, when he saw the surveillance program that the Bush administration put in, despite the fact he’s a Conservative, he had the integrity to say, “Look, this is monarchical. This is what the Revolution was all about.”
Yeah, there were some names flying at us, but in the long run, I think it was a very exciting thing to remind people of the importance of balance even at one of the most difficult times in our modern history.
Tavis: And what do you make, Senator Feingold, of — my word here, not yours — the attacks and the increase, I should say, in those attacks on what many of us regard as civil liberties that need to be protected? If 16 years ago was, you know, a first strike against those civil liberties, what do you make of where we are 16 years later?
Feingold: Well, there’s always been strikes against civil liberties throughout our history that we’ve had to push back from Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams way back at the beginning of the country, to the detention of Japanese-Americans and, of course, the abuses during the Bush years. But now we have a president who seems reckless in this regard.
If some of these civil liberties get in his way, he just uses a very extreme rhetoric such as his travel ban and his attempts to try to prevent people to come into this country in an elicit way. So, unfortunately, we have a chief executive of this country who doesn’t seem to respect this.
And the Congress has been very weak-kneed on this, so they’re not likely to stand up to him as much as they should. So we’re in a very dangerous point here in terms of the repair that was attempted, at least in some cases, under the Obama administration.
Tavis: I used the phrase a moment ago that our democracy is under attack. I don’t want to put words in your mouth and you wouldn’t let me do that anyway. You certainly have a mind of your own. But how would you describe the fragile nature of our democracy? How would you frame what’s happening to our democracy these days in your own words?
Feingold: You know, I don’t think I have to edit what you said. I might just add the word extreme attack.
I consider a political movement in this country, the Conservative Republican movement’s attack on peoples’ right to vote, from gerrymandering, to not letting felons vote, to the Citizens United decision which has created a monstrosity of our campaign finance system, to having two out of our three last presidents elected who weren’t really the people who got the most votes, to essentially stealing the Supreme Court by taking President Obama’s seat that he was entitled to fill when Justice Scalia died.
This is severe attack in addition to the obvious problems that occurred during the election with Russian interference.
I mean, I can’t imagine a time when more aspects of our democracy have been directly under attack internally by our own government, by our own president in the Oval Office, as well as the members of Congress and politicians who are trying to repress the votes of Blacks and Latinos and others by using a very nasty tactic so they can win elections.
Tavis: So what happens then if the loyal opposition — in this case, that would be the Democrats — can’t seem to get their act together? What happens? How far does this story go?
Feingold: Oh, we already found out what happens [laugh] with somebody like Donald Trump, even though, obviously, he didn’t get the most votes and so on. We have got to come forward, Tavis, with a principled progressive agenda that takes on the big interests, takes on big money, takes on the people that control this system.
But when we do — and the reason I created this group called Legit Action — let’s appeal to those things that used to not be partisan. Nobody used to mess around with peoples’ right to vote in the last 20 or 30 years in any serious way. Nobody really thought corporations should be able to spend all they could on elections.
So these are things that we want to see if we can persuade people in the middle, maybe a number of Republicans, to say, wait a minute. Let’s get back to where we could at least agree on some common institutions and some common norms and some common traditions.
I’d say coupling that with a strong progressive, unified message against the dangers of powerful big interests in our country and around the world is the way to go. We can’t do it by being sort of semi-Republican or half Republican.
Tavis: Right. So I think — let me take those two points, Senator Feingold. I think that we could make some progress on getting that unified progressive message.
I think Bernie Sanders showed that it can happen, that you can raise a lot of money from small donors, that people do care, that a lot of us on the left aren’t just completely wrapped around the finger of the Democratic Party, or who the standard-bearer might be that they’re putting in front of us. I think you can get a legitimate — if I can use your word — progressive response.
What concerns me, though, is the other point you raise about getting some Republicans to take a look at this again. I just don’t see those moderate Republicans that were in the Senate when you were there, moderate Republicans in the Senate prior to your being there. You’re either on one extreme or you’re on the other extreme. How many moderate Republican senators do you know?
Feingold: Well, you know, a few of them are sticking their heads up a little bit. I’m a little bit encouraged with what Senator Collins and Senator Murkowski did along with Senator McCain on the health bill was encouraging. On some civil liberties issues, Senator Murkowski of Alaska has shown some willingness to work.
I noticed the other day that Senator McCain actually intervened in the United States Supreme Court case on reapportionment that actually is based on Wisconsin’s malapportionment. That was really kind of a surprise. So, you know, you don’t need 20 Republicans. All you need is two or three, and that changes the entire dynamic because the Senate is still very close.
So I think you’re even going to find some conservatives who are very uncomfortable with some of the things Donald Trump’s doing, this appeal to race, this appeal to anti-Semitism, and all the different things he’s been involved with who have unwilling to condemn. I think you’re going to find a number of Republicans who aren’t even liberals or moderates coming to help on some of these issues.
So I’m sort of a cup half full kind of guy, Tavis [laugh], so I’ve seen in the middle of the worst time almost that I can remember. I see little flickers of hope and we’ve got to encourage those kind of Republicans to work with us.
Tavis: Well, that’s the Wisconsin in you being hopeful and being optimistic, and I love that about you. Let me close on this note as we tonight have this conversation commemorating the anniversary of 9/11.
What say you, Senator Feingold, is the message all these years later about remaining vigilant, about how to make American better from within, as well as avoiding and being aware of those attacks coming from outside our borders?
Feingold: I don’t think we got it completely right on either the international or domestic side after 9/11. Internationally, we kind of got into this idea that you kind of go after an organization like this sort of one country at a time, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen.
We sort of fail to sort of sustain an understanding of how this kind of an organizations works or the various organizations that have succeeded it. So that has to improve and our foreign policy has to be a little smarter and a little more comprehensive.
On the domestic side, we made a lot of mistakes, including the attacks on civil liberties that we were just talking about. Sometimes not standing up for Muslim-Americans, South Asians and others who have been stereotyped and made to feel uncomfortable in this country.
That is no way to counter these kinds of problems. So we need to reinvigorate a sense of inclusion and the idea that America is a country for everybody and that just about everybody here is patriotic and we welcome each other with open arms as Americans instead of trying to divide us against each other as our current president has tried to do.
Tavis: Students at Yale Law School are fortunate to hear your insights and wisdom for the time that you were there. Thank you for your vote 16 years ago and, as always, thank you for being on this program once again to share your insights, Senator Feingold.
Feingold: Great to be with you, Tavis. Thanks.
Tavis: Up next, blues quintet, Southern Avenue. Stay with us.
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