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Friday, Mar 24, 2023

Barney Frank and John Sununu Discuss Campus Free Speech, Political Climate

Last week, former Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) and former Governor John Sununu (R-NH) and chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, came to campus for a conversation entitled, “Finding Common Ground for Economic Opportunity in the Trump Era.” (For coverage of the event, click here). Following the event, Frank and Sununu sat down with The Campus for an interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

Middlebury Campus (MC): Last March, in the room we were just in, students here protested a speech by Charles Murray, preventing him from speaking. This is something we've seen around the  country—what are your general thoughts on college campuses shutting down speakers?

John Sununu (JS): The biggest problem in America today.

Barney Frank (BF): I don’t think it’s the biggest problem in America, but it’s outrageous. First, from a standpoint of individual rights and civil liberties, it’s wrong, morally wrong—that’s not the way you want a democracy. Secondly, it is particularly disturbing because it intrudes on the function of a university, which should be where people learn. Third, it bothers me politically. I don’t want to make that an important reason, because it’s wrong whether it’s helpful [politically] or not, but it’s totally counterproductive. These are people on the left who could not be giving the right a bigger gift; they could not be doing more to empower right-wingers.

This is an argument I’ve been having with a lot of people for 50 years. In the ‘60s when there was excessive violence in African-American communities and in Vietnam, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew made great hay off of that, so it’s politically counterproductive in that sense. Finally, it’s very shortsighted for people who are members of vulnerable minorities. Yeah, on campus the pro-LGBT position and the pro-African American position might be in the majority. But in the broader society that isn’t always gonna be the case. For LGBT people in particular, to reaffirm the principle that if a conversation upsets people you shouldn’t have it, is an attitude I’ve been fighting all my life about my rights.

JS: The reason I think it’s the biggest problem, or one of the biggest problems, is because it’s producing a generation of young people who are on campus and who will be leaving campus who, in my opinion, are being encouraged by a lot of faculty members to feel that the First Amendment is not an appropriate right in this country. To me, none of the other rights work without First Amendment rights.

MC: What might be the causes of this phenomenon? Is it reflected in our political climate, as exhibited in Congress?

BF: I don’t know. Some of it is because of economic disadvantage, but that’s not the case here—these are not people, on the whole, who are economically disadvantaged. I’m skeptical of my ability to explain why it happened, because if I knew why it happened, maybe I would’ve known it was gonna happen. But I suppose there is one argument that I’ve heard that I totally reject—I’ve heard it from those Antifa people, who are especially obnoxious and who are themselves dangerous—that there is a danger that fascism is gonna take over. That isn’t remotely the case and even if it was, the [proper] targets are not the ones they deal with. So I do not know why we have this outbreak.

JS: I’m not sure I understand it either. Some of it is related to the point I tried to make [during the event]: that technology has permitted people to isolate themselves with others that are completely in accord with them, and give them a feeling that they don’t have to hand shouldn’t exchange ideas with other. We’ll have to see how far this thing does, but I would really urge conservatives, liberals, progressives, everybody of every philosophy, to understand the point the congressman made upstairs: that constructive discourse is necessary in a democracy.

BF: It bothers me too, because I want to make change. I want people to go out and vote and throw out the bad people and put in better people and then put pressure on them to do the right thing. The problem in part is people think, having done that, that they’ve done something for the cause. “Hey, I made America better for LGBT people by shouting down a bigot!” That doesn’t do me a goddamn bit of good. It’s an easy way out. If you really don’t like these people, get out there. Write letters, call talk shows, get on social media and make your arguments with people.

MC: This is a very liberal institution, and a lot of people here come from very liberal places. When you come to an institution that reaffirms the beliefs you’ve held all your life, how do you go about challenging yourself? How do you, as lifelong members of one political party, keep challenging yourself?

JS: Read, read, read. There’s some great authors out there. Read both sides.

BF: Find some people, go listen to them speaking, even if it’s not on campus. I wouldn’t recommend watching TV—with rare exceptions, TV people promote fighting and squabbling.

MC: Here at the college, many folks with conservative views feel silenced, as though if they express their viewpoints, other students will attack them. What would your advice be to young conservative students?

BF: Get over it. Do people still say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me?” Call me a name, so what? Sununu and I have been getting called names for a living for a very long time. I would say just don’t take it to heart, don’t take these people seriously.

JS: It’s hard to do that, especially if you’re afraid of retribution from faculty. But Barney’s right—either believe in what you believe in enough to not hide it, or go somewhere else. If enough go somewhere else, maybe the institution will learn something’s wrong. Institutions have a responsibility, and in a constructive way, [students should] urge more of the kind of stuff we had tonight.

MC: Congressman Frank, during the talk, you referenced the lack of political participation in the U.S., especially in primaries. This plagues the Democratic Party in particular. Aside from reminding people of the value of voting, what kind of role does the party have in maximizing turnout?

BF: [The party] can’t take sides, but what it can do and has done is fight very hard against voter suppression. There’s a task force headed by Eric Holder, to fight at the local level against restrictive rules.

JS: Obviously I don’t agree with the congressman on that. To answer your question about what the party can do: it’s hard for the party in primaries because it doesn’t want to be perceived as favoring somebody and it doesn’t take much of a nuance or slip for that to happen. But there are ways it can fund phonebooks saying to go out and vote; door-knocking, dropping off literature about every candidate in the party. That’s what the party can do. But in primaries it’s really up to the candidates—they’re the ones receiving the contributions, they’re the ones urging people to get out, and it’s up to them to get support.

BF: You can have much more influence with your peers than we can, when you’re of that age. There are advocacy groups—part of their work is to make a list of everyone and tell them to go vote. People should not exaggerate the role of the parties. I’ve had people complain to me that “The Democratic National Committee rigged the nomination for Hillary Clinton.” My answer is, the Democratic National Committee couldn’t put out a fire in a bathtub. They just don’t have that kind of power.

MC: You talked about the role of the party; do you think there’s a need for a 3rd, 4th, 5th party?

BF: You know that story, there’s a guy next to a girl, he has his hands around her, and he says, “I wish I was an octopus so I could put 8 arms around you.” And she says, “You ain’t using the two you got!” You’re not doing what you want with what you have! The parties are not monoliths.

JS: You don’t want to get European, where you give leverage to some group that—

BF: And why would you want to start a new party? If you have enough votes to win in a new party, go vote in primaries and take over an existing one. The parties are not monoliths. And a third party, what would it be for?

MC: Well, thinking of the divide between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton—

BF: So you think it would be better to have two parties? In terms of what is achievable in the U.S. Congress in the foreseeable future, there’s no practical difference. Neither one of them could give you all of what you want; people are fighting about unrealism. So let me put it this way: if people want to start a third party to the left, the Republicans would be delighted; if the Republicans wanted to start one to the right, the Democrats would be delighted.

JS: I just think a two-party system serves the country well. You may think it’s broke, but it ain’t broke.