Former Congressman Barney Frank Defends Pragmatism in Politics

By Jackie Ogburn

Former Congressman Barney Frank’s talk at the Sanford School on Oct. 24 was a defense of the embattled art of political compromise.

“No unrealized ideal ever fed a child, or provided medical care to someone who needs it,” he said. “The issue is when and how to be pragmatic.”

Frank served in Congress as a U.S Representative from Massachusetts for 32 years. As Democratic chair of the House Financial Services Committee, he was the principal co-sponsor of the Dodd-Frank Act, which reformed the financial industry in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. He was the first openly gay Congressman after coming out in 1987.

Public office holders need to have a clear set of values, Frank said.

“The more deeply you are committed to your ideals, the more you should be committed to implementing them,” Frank said. “People use pragmatic and idealistic as opposites, and that is something I wish they would not say.” To create change through the political process, both are necessary, he added.

Frank said he finds the current level of political polarization very troubling. Increasingly, people live in “parallel universes,” where conservatives watch Fox New, and liberals watch MSNBC. Not only do they get their news from different sources, but they live in politically segregated neighborhoods, with people who agree with them.

“They think their views are the majority, that everybody thinks this way,” he said.

He gave the example of trying to include the public option in the Affordable Care Act. There were not enough votes to have a public option included in the ACA, which only passed by one vote in both the House and in the Senate. Yet he would meet with people who were surprised by this, because “everybody they knew was for it.”

This leads people to see political compromise as a betrayal instead of the means necessary to create change. There is an attitude that to “accept less — if you accept less than your full desire — you will never get anything better.”

Frank pointed out that progress on many civil rights issues was a matter of incremental changes. Thurgood Marshall won some of his first cases by arguing that while “separate but equal” was the law, the facilities were not equal, an argument that helped pave the way toward integration.

“Getting part of what you want helps diffuse the argument that what you want is disruptive,” he said.

Related: Barney Frank spoke with Sanford’s dean, Kelly Brownell, for the Policy 360 podcast

LGBTQ Rights

Frank admitted that in his work on LGBTQ rights, he accepted compromises. He worked with Nancy Pelosi and Tammy Baldwin to pass legislation barring discrimination based on sexual orientation, but it did not include gender.

“Every social advance has come from compromise,” Frank said.

He cited the Pareto optimization rule that the best solution is one that makes people better off without making anyone worse off. He held that the moral standard is to do what improves lives for some people, even if others are still left behind.

When criticized as self-serving when pushing for LGBTQ rights, Frank pointed to his long history of supporting “laws that didn’t affect me, on race, gender, disability, age – well, that one caught up with me.”

Now people see their views as “a holy cause,” and are offended by compromise. “People want the psychic income, not real-world solutions,” Frank said.

He thinks this is part of the appeal of Donald Trump. Many of his supporters are people who are hurting because of trade policy and globalization. Trump says to them, liberals use government to hurt you. So liberals are bad and government is bad.

“He is the insulter-in-chief. He insults the people his supporters don’t like.” Frank said.

One possible advantage in Trump’s problematic approach to governance, Frank said, is that Trump is making functional government look better. He pointed to the effort to repeal the ACA, which made the health care law more popular.

The financial crisis and economic disruption caused by free-trade agreements led to the rise of resistance on both the left and right, with the Occupy movement and the Tea Party. While the Tea Party took over the Republican Party, Occupy “had drum circles,” he said.

Then in 2009, when the Democrats took over the federal government, the Republicans “were freed from responsibility, and that is corrupting,” he said.

On the issue of free speech on university campuses, Frank said that when students seek to be protected from speech that makes them uncomfortable, they should “be careful.”

“The ones with the least political power are most likely to be shut up,” Frank said.

Frank was in residence at Duke from October 23-26, meeting with students, faculty and staff, as well as giving the public talk.

“Congressman Frank spoke to one of the fundamental challenges of today’s politics: the sharp rise in polarization that has led to a refusal to compromise on both sides of the political aisle. Good governance requires compromise, and it was Congressman Frank’s recognition of that fact that allowed him to be a highly skilled, highly effective legislator during his 32 years in Congress,” said Mayer, director of POLIS and associate dean for strategy and innovation for the Sanford School.

The event was made possible by the Samuel & Ronnie Heyman Center for Ethics, Public Policy and the Professions, along with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Sanford School, and POLIS: Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service.