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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.)