Monday, November 28, 2011

Lessons From Meeting Barney Frank

Barney Frank announced today that he will be retiring at the end of this term. He was my Congressman for a couple years when I lived in Southeastern Massachusetts out of college, and I met him at a couple volunteer events. And I have to say about the time I spoke with him: he really wasn't very pleasant. Most people are fully aware that Frank is often crabby with right-wing conspiracy theorists and with the press, but he could also be a little cranky with liberals attending the same volunteer functions he did.

And there's a very important lesson in this: namely, that pleasantness has very little to do with actually being an effective legislator. There definitely are a few issues with Frank's record that you can criticize, but in general he's been a fighter for many of the core issues of the Democratic Party. And whether or not he was "nice" to me had nothing to do with whether or not he was a good representative.

Obviously there's a pretty long list of things wrong with our current political situation. But one that isn't talked about enough in my opinion is the fact that people personalize politicians way too much. We care too much about whether they're warm and friendly and charming and good-looking. Ultimately, I think, that stuff really doesn't matter very much.

The game of politics, quite frequently, is a game of trying to appear to be nice. But appearing to be nice isn't the same thing as actually being nice, and being nice in person isn't the same thing as being good at passing legislation that's in the best interests of the constituents. And, when it comes down to it, when the game is about appearances or personal favors rather than actual policy, Republicans can play it just as well as Democrats.

So, in general, I think we need to do a much better job of confronting stupid media narratives about "likability" or "being a good guy to have a beer with." What matters are things like improving the economy, dealing with the climate change crisis, and fixing a system rigged in favor of the 0.1 %. Focusing on the personal stuff, while fun, ultimately just plays into the hands of people P.R. and marketing types who don't care a whit about your actual interests.

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