Barney Frank on Occupy Wall Street

Barney Frank, who recently announced that he won’t run for re-election, is widely viewed by Occupy Wall Street folks and others as a tool of Wall Street, but his critique of Occupy Wall Street to George Packer and Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker’s Political Scene podcast is very close to what I hear from a lot of people who were once supporters of Occupy Oakland but have since become disillusioned with its tactics and uncompromising stance against the existing political system:

Packer: What affect is Occupy Wall Street having in Washington, if any?

Frank: Unfortunately, not nearly as much as I wish it would have, and it’s becoming somewhat negative. I don’t understand why people think that simply being in a physical place does much. I have a rule that I have tried to propogate among my friends on the left: If you care deeply about a cause, and you are then engaged on behalf of that cause in an activity that makes you feel very good, and very brave, and you’re really in solidarity with all your friends and you’re enjoying it, you’re probably not advancing the cause very much because you’re spending all your time with the people you agree with, cheering each other on, and not engaging. I’ve seen a lot of things about Occupy Wall Street. I haven’t noticed any voter registration tables. I haven’t seen people saying, look, send your representative and your senators an email saying confirm a Director, or don’t deregulate, or pass the millionaire’s tax, so—

Packer: But that’s because a lot of them, I’ve been down there quite a bit and have asked that very question and a lot of them say, “That doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked for 30 years, we’ve seen these trends for 30 years, and that hasn’t worked.”

Frank: Well that’s just, I’m sorry, I know I get accused of being rude, but that’s just stupid. What do you mean, it either worked or didn’t work? Have we had no gains? No elections have ever been won? Nothing good has ever happened? That’s simply not true, it’s more or less that it didn’t work. And by the way, what works better, standing in a park? How does that help? So what you’re telling me, their answer is, “Well, we’re not going to try to influence the political process. We’re not going to try to elect people who agree with us. We’re not going to try to get the people who are in office to adopt good public policies.” Well, that’s a confection of defeat. If you announce that you are not going to participate in the political process, then when you ask what impact it’s having on the Congress, I guess the answer is obvious. You know, in general I would think that if you are a vegetarian and you write an essay about what you like to eat, very few butchers are going to read it.

I don’t entirely agree with him—I think “standing in a park” has actually been a fairly fruitful tactic in these early weeks and months of the movement—but I think he’s right that if OWS determinedly remains outside the conventional political process, it will not end up amounting to anything more than a marginalized, interesting historical curiosity.

(Most of the podcast except the passage I transcribed above is about partisanship and politics in Washington and the presidential race, but for those curious, you can download or listen to it here.)

6 Responses to “Barney Frank on Occupy Wall Street”

  1. Tonya says:

    I believe strategic camping is a good idea.

    I think camping in FOG was a good idea at the time. If #oo could have proven they abidded by city ‘rules’, participated more in the established political process (as frustrating as it is), done more to get small business on their side, and did as much as they could to denounce random violence, communicated their intentions to the general public better, I think they would have gotten more support to stay at FOG.

    Now I think #oo is just camping places willy nilly and they are not only annoying the city govt, but it’s Oakland residents as well. I can see occupying banks, foreclosed homes and schools..I can even understand the Port (they should have worked with the unions more..but bygones). The Lake? Really? What’s the message there? Are we mad at the ducks now?

  2. David says:

    As a clever, attention-getting strategy, I think the “Aquapation” was actually pretty good, although it’s probably just as well that it didn’t go on forever. I’m all for dispersed, culture-jamming type actions which don’t really harm anyone, to keep up spirits and momentum while people work on the more long-term serious goals. Without an actual encampment anymore, there’s a real danger that the whole thing will just kind of fizzle away, and the lake rafts seemed to help keep people engaged and interested.

  3. Wordnerd says:

    Barney is a little short-sighted when he says that there wasn’t/isn’t much effect in Washington. Is there any doubt that income inequality is a mainstream topic in a way that it wasn’t before? If Democratic candidates take advantage, that’s going to help them just like voter registration tables can.

  4. eric says:

    Barney is mostly wrong on this one, I’d say–I’m with wordnerd. The conversations in Washington and the media and most importantly at workplace water coolers everywhere (well, at least at my own) has been dramatically different this year. In fact one of my colleagues just wrote and recorded a song about it (your classmate Kenny Kozol, actually:, and I have distributed many 99% buttons at work, and I have had many people comment approvingly on the button I’ve been wearing. People like me have many good reasons to be a bit disillusioned with things like voter registration and so on: I worked fairly hard to elect our current president, who undermines the 99% nearly every day by doing things like offering to cut social security, etc. There is something noble, in certain situations, for doing what the original Occupier of Wall Street did, and not tying your protest to anything in particular, but just sitting there and saying calmly: “I would prefer not to.” The frustration of people like Barney and a lot of pundits is not unlike the frustration of Bartleby’s employer, who keeps saying, Well, what about being a clerk in a dry-good store? What about traveling Europe as a gentleman’s companion and providing amusing conversation? No, we would prefer not to, and we are just going to sit here until you see that things are really screwed up. No doubt OO is really annoying, but the whole Occupy/99% phenomenon has been the first glimmer of light we’ve seen in years. I’m hoping it will evolve and find ways to grow. David’s right: the main thing is that some spark is kept alive.

  5. John A. Abel says:

    I worked at Mass board of higher education as one of my co-op jobs for Northeastern back in the late 70’s and one of the guys there introduced me to Barney one day near the Statehouse.I had no idea who he was at the time and he was in the early stages of his career but I was impressed by his being sincere and really being in touch with what was going on.This was when Ed King was gov .Fun time to be the brutal fixer the board sent to the Statehouse to request things.

  6. Jim Burgardt says:

    Whether the Occupy movement has had any effect or not depends on a person’s perspective. Did it have an effect on the public conscience by raising issues of inequality, inequity, and iniquity? The answer to that is a resounding YES! However,it has not had much of an effect on changing things in Washington. So far, there has been a whole lot of talk, but no meaningful action or results.

    We have seen many bills introduced in Congress that may have been triggered by the Occupy movement, but most of them are aimed only at reversing the effect of the Citizens United ruling regarding corporate personhood and equating money to free speech. These bills are now all languishing in committee, and we don’t know if they will ever see the light of day on the floor of Congress. Even if they did and one of them got passed, this doesn’t even scratch the surface of what needs to be done. I view this as tossing a bone at a dog to keep him from barking (or biting). These proposals are little more than a temporary appeasement and returns the subject of excessive private money in politics back to the corrupting business as usual that existed before the CU ruling.

    The Occupy demonstrations have succeeded in attracting attention (both positive and negative), but that is about all. Unfortunately, the attention the Occupy movement has been getting recently has been quite negative, and their message is now being drowned out by the actions and influence of Black Bloc anarchists who favor and promote insurrection to peaceful demonstrations.

    The demonstrations should not be confused with getting results that attack the root of the problems in our country.

    I still favor resolving the problems and injustices raised by the Occupy movement, but I no longer support their tactics. I have addressed this and many other related issues in my own blog at, if anybody is interested in perusing them.

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