Barney Frank, former congressman and co-sponsor of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, spoke in Chapin Hall on Sunday night about his Jewish roots, gay rights and the gridlock in government.
Frank, who is a Harvard College and Harvard Law School graduate, is considered the most prominent gay politician in the United States. He served in the House of Representatives for the Massachusetts fourth district from 1981 to 2013. In 1987, he was the first member of Congress to voluntarily come out as gay. From 2003 until he retired, Frank served as the leading Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee.
After an introduction by Professor of Political Science Justin Crowe, Frank opened with his widely known wit by joking that a picture of his bar mitzvah would have to serve as the part about his Jewish roots, and then quickly retracted that sentiment. He said that he decided to go into politics in 1954, at age 14, a choice motivated in part by his Jewish values and the “cultural milieu” within which he grew up.
“I took for granted that government was the protector,” Frank said. “Government was where you did good things.”
Frank explained that it was a shock for him to watch the government fail to protect Emmett Till, an African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, and to watch Senator Joseph McCarthy and his demagogues conduct a reign of terror. As an aside, he compared McCarthy to Donald Trump: a “mad dog” that the GOP had released but that had now turned back on the party itself.
He said that at a young age he was “obsessed” with the idea of gaining influence in government and improving the world, but he quickly ran into two problems: He was both Jewish and gay.
“There were two things that set me apart from the other guys,” he said. “I’m attracted to politics, and I’m attracted to the other guys.”
He watched President Dwight Eisenhower say that homosexuals should not have security clearance. Over the course of his career, however, he saw both factors slowly become socially acceptable. After World War II, he pointed out, anti-semitism slowly disappeared as an economic, political and social obstacle, to the point where today the Jewish community is actually overrepresented statistically in Congress.
“In 1954, though, I didn’t know that,” Frank said. “I figured I would end up as someone’s assistant.”
The social stigma of being gay, he added, diminished rapidly. To his chagrin, the rise in popularity of LGBTQ rights coincided with an increasingly negative sentiment towards government. By the ’80s, he said, “it was more socially acceptable to be gay than to be a congressman.” He saw polling numbers that said being in a same sex marriage got a higher approval rating than working on Dodd-Frank. This demonization of government, he said, is a self-fulfilling prophecy and the root of a negative spiral that leads to government inefficiency and gridlock.
“It is a moral imperative for us to help people understand that government is a positive force in the world,” he said, “and to stop demonizing government.”
The problem, he said, is that the very people who believe government should “do something” become angry when they believe that the government doesn’t do enough, such as in the face of economic forces that have shifted money into the hands of the wealthy. These people then “punish” the government by voting for anti-government candidates. In turn, these elected representatives make it less likely that the government will be constructive, furthering the negative spiral.
According to Frank, the “key political variable” of the last eight years has been the decision of people who would like to see change to not vote. He said that disappointment after President Barak Obama’s election in 2008 led to Obama’s voters abstaining from the 2010 election and the Republican takeover of the House, and subsequently of the Senate as well. Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party both emerged during this time, made up of people unhappy with the status quo. Except, as Frank put it, “The Tea Party responded by voting and mobilizing voters. Occupy had drum circles.”
Frank posited that real change doesn’t come from drum circles but from using the vote, first, and then tirelessly lobbying elected officials.
“I have a very strong wish,” he said of lobbying, “that every left group in the United States behaved like the [National Rifle Association].”
As he turned to the subject of leadership, he asked the audience not to be impressed with politicians who boasted about defying their enemies, which he calls the easy part of politics. The hardest thing in politics, he said, is standing up to your friends, and telling people whose ideas you agree with that their tactics are wrong. Frank still sees government as a protector, of him and others.
“Government at its best is the protector of minorities against popular mistreatment and private discrimination,” he said. In his view, government bashing and denigration just adds to the self-fulfilling prophecy. The cynicism of the media, and its focus on government shortcomings and disregard for positive government stories, only adds to the problem.
The solution, he said, is to persuade people to fight for change even with the understanding that it will not be enough. After that, it is important to persuade people “that we need more change and, simultaneously, that we are capable of achieving it.”