The left marches, the right votes, and voting matters more, says a Washington veteran. Excerpted from “Barney Frank,” April 1, 2015.
BARNEY FRANK, Former U.S. Representative (D-MA); Author, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage
JOSH RICHMAN, State and National Political Reporter, Bay Area News Group – Moderator
JOSH RICHMAN: You describe the book as “a personal history of two seismic shifts in American life: the sharp drop in prejudice against LGBT people, and the equally sharp increase of anti-government opinion.” How did you come to marry these narratives in this sort of book?
BARNEY FRANK: It’s the story of my life. I began, when I was a teenager, thinking about getting into politics and motivated by a desire to get society to shape up. I wanted to make things better. But I had this problem. I wanted to be influential in government, but I’m a homosexual, so I thought I probably never would be. But I thought I’d try; if I repressed my sexual orientation and personality, I could become influential in government and then be able to do some things. In fact, as time went on, Stonewall came; we began to make real progress. I was part of the movement, and I was able to become influential in government. The problem was, by that time, government was no longer influential in society. I had governmental power, but the government couldn’t accomplish what I wanted.
People have asked me if discrimination and public perception toward government are correlated. No, they aren’t, but that in and of itself is a very important point. Ten years ago, there was a view that the reason white working-class men were not voting for Democrats anymore – the way they were for Harry Truman – was their alienation because of the social issues: God, guns and gays and abortion. They were turned off by the cultural liberalism. But that clearly turns out to be untrue. The fact is that support across the country for treating LGBT people fairly has gone up as support for government in general has gone down. If one was the cause of the other, that couldn’t happen.?
RICHMAN: I was struck [by] what you wrote about the advantages of taking a political movement to the streets versus working through the process to achieve anything, and where the balance is.?
FRANK: I have been a firm believer that my friends on the left make a mistake by not thoroughly taking advantage of the political process. Pound for pound, the NRA [National Rifle Association] is the most influential organization in America, and it has nothing to do with demonstrations. You have never seen a “shoot-in” by the NRA. They vote. They get all their people registered, and when a bill comes up, they call everybody – the city council, the senator, the supervisor, their representative. They have a lot of impact. Unfortunately, too many on the left find expressive politics more satisfying. Best example: contrast Occupy [Wall Street] and the Tea Party. In general, I was very disappointed because the Tea Party has been so much more effective than Occupy, not because they represent more people, but because they are smarter about how to do it. In summary, when the left gets mad, they tend to march. When the right gets mad, they tend to vote, and voting beats marching.
RICHMAN: We have a few questions from the audience: “How can we get money out of the dominant role in our electoral process?”
FRANK: That’s a central issue we have. From 1787 into this century, it was considered that you had a right to constrict money. Then, we had a right-wing Supreme Court majority that announced that if you have a democracy, you have to have unlimited use of campaign money by anybody. If that is the case, by the way, we should feel pretty good because that makes us, in the last 15 years, the only democracy in the world because no other functioning democracy has ever played by those rules.
We have two systems. We have a capitalist system, which does a good job of generating wealth if it’s properly regulated. In that system, the principle is inequality. The more money you have, the more influence you have. We also have a political system that is supposed to be independent of that, where the principle is one person, one vote; where we are not supposed to have inequality. What the Supreme Court has done is tear down the separation between those two, so that the inequality principle of capitalism floods the equality principle of the political situation.
There is one thing we can do about it. This is a partisan response: We can elect a Democratic president, so that she can appoint a Supreme Court justice and get this overturned, so we can get back to where we were.?
RICHMAN: A question from the audience, “How much longer do you think it will be before we see a GOP presidential nominee who is pro-same-sex marriage??
FRANK: Probably 12 years or so. It’s a generational thing. The problem is, as the country moves, the people who vote in the Republican primaries have become a very hardline conservative group. They evolved to a point where they don’t want to bring it up, but they are entrapped by their political base. You know what most Republicans are hoping for now? That the Supreme Court decision will declare same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Then when you ask them, they can say “The Supreme Court said it’s a right. Let’s move on.”
RICHMAN: Recently the Democrats have lost the alliance of white, working men. Can anything be done to counteract this trend?
FRANK: As I said earlier, there was this view that it was because the Democrats went left on cultural issues. I think that white working class men are against us not because they are philosophically opposed to government, but for the opposite [reason]. Beginning in the ’70s, worldwide economic trends have worked to their disadvantage. In the immediate post-war period, if you were an American [man], you didn’t have to have a high degree of skill or technical degree. You went to work at a factory, and you made a lot of money. Then the economy shifted to the disadvantage [of workers], so that increasingly, the wealth we created went to highend people, etc. These [men] are now angry, because they think that if the government really cared, they would not be so badly off.
This is where the social issues come in. It’s not that they are anti-women or anti-gay. It is that they think the reason we abandoned them is that we are paying attention to these side issues. I think that if we were able to expand those programs that alleviate the economic distress of white working-class people, [we could counteract that perception].
The problem is a vicious cycle. We don’t have the money. People are angry. They won’t vote to let us have the money, certainly not to raise taxes. Where do you get the money? There are two ways. You cut back on this massive over-expenditure on military, and in particular you curtail these interventions. If we had not gone to Iraq, we’d have a trillion dollars. We could have used half a trillion to cut the deficit and half a trillion to do a whole lot of good things. Secondly, you stop treating people as criminals because they use recreational drugs we don’t like, unless it’s a drug that caused you to harm other people. Heroin does not cause you to harm other people; needing the money to buy heroin causes you to harm other people. If we legalized this, I’d want to discourage [drug use] through the same way we discourage smoking. I want to offer treatment for anybody, but locking people up is a great mistake.
If we were able to free up a lot of money from those two things, we could then do things that would make this a fairer society and reverse this alienation of white working class people who are legitimately angry that they are being mistreated.
RICHMAN: How do you think the pop culture of politics has affected people’s view of government over the course of your career, from “The West Wing” to “House of Cards”??
FRANK: Negatively, and I’m glad you mentioned it. “West Wing” was excellent. It was a thoughtful portrayal of people grappling with problems. “House of Cards” is an unremitting disaster.
We have two kinds of voter suppression in this country. We have the vicious and outrageous voter suppression that Republicans enact that physically keeps people from voting. On the other hand, we have intellectual suppression from the left. If you tell young people in particular that they are all fools, that [no one] cares what [they] think, that only big money counts, that [no one] pays any attention to them, why would they vote?