Liberals should welcome the new senator from New Jersey.
On Wednesday voters in New Jersey handed Newark mayor and internet celebrity Cory Booker a decisive win in the special election to choose the replacement for senator Frank Lautenberg, who died in office back in the summer. This is no small event. It is the capstone of a remarkable political rise for the 44 year old mayor and a historic win as only three other African American have been elected to the Senate in American history.
Unfortunately for Booker a lot of prominent liberals have reacted coldly, or with outright scorn, to Booker’s rise from obscure reformer on Newark’s city council to United States Senator. But rather than scorning him as a secret moderate or tool of Wall Street, liberals would do well to welcome him to the national stage, as he represents a lot more than star power or a very big Twitter account. In fact, Booker has the potential to bring much needed attention to important issues that a lot of liberals have been ignoring as well as address where Democratic politics will go in the post-Obama era.
Booker has been at the receiving end of some pretty harsh criticism from liberals recently. Salon’s commentator Alex Pareene has criticized Booker as a tool of special interests like Wall Street and even went so far as to devote a whole column the day of New Jersey’s primary election to asking his readers not to vote for Booker. As he put it, “He will, in short, be the worst kind of senator. The kind that has no power and no real desire to exercise power on behalf of the people the senator ostensibly represents…” Other liberals like Cliff Schecter have said things like he “is no progressive” and some commentators have questioned Booker’s political skills as a leader. In fact the idea of Booker as a turncoat liberal has seeped out of the liberal blogosphere and into the analysis of people like Slate’s David Weigel, a self-described libertarian, who also argued in the summer that Booker was a poor choice for the liberal agenda.
To be sure, these criticisms are not entirely without merit. Booker has been close to big financial firms in the past and Newark remains a city with deep rooted problems. But these facts are hardly unique to Booker. Basically every nationally prominent Democrat from New York or New Jersey has close ties to Wall Street, for the same reasons that big-time California Democrats have close links to the technology sector. Whatever it sins, the financial industry remains hugely important in that part of the country and politicians in New York and New Jersey simply act accordingly. If you are going to make disowning Wall Street a litmus test for membership on Team Liberal, then you are going to have to kick out Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senator Chuck Schumer as well.
The most frustrating thing here is that while many liberals heap scorn on Booker for not donning an occupy Guy Fawkes mask, they are ignoring the important issues where he really is leading the charge. Cory Booker has consistently highlighted the need to tackle the issue of child poverty, which is an incredibly important issue that liberals haven’t been talking a whole lot about recently. In addition, Booker has also been calling for criminal justice reform, another cause that’s moved down the priority list as of late.
So how is a liberal supposed to reconcile Booker’s ties with the financial industry and his support for dealing with child poverty? Well to begin with, liberals would do well to recognize that there is no universal holy writ of liberalism that determines who is a good liberal and who is not. Liberalism, like any social movement, is a coalition of like-minded individuals and groups who will have different priorities and views on issues but work with each other because they know they can achieve more together than they could on their own. The fact that there are conflicting takes on issues or priorities in politics is not a sign of weakness or betrayal, but something inherent in politics in a democracy. Tolerating a diverse spectrum of viewpoints represents political strength for a political party or social movement, not a weakness.
In addition, Booker is part of an emerging generation of minority politicians that will be major figures in the Democratic Party after President Obama leaves the stage. The fact remains that minorities are a major and growing part of the liberal coalition that’s been winning elections as of late. In fact, African American voters turning out was a key part of why President Obama was reelected. If liberals want to be able to count on that level of electoral loyalty they shouldn’t be burning bridges with major figures from these communities without good reason.
Cory Booker may turn out to be a great Senator, or he may be a flop. Only time will tell. But dismissing him before he has even has had a chance to show liberals what he can do won’t help their cause. In fact, it might even hurt it in the long run.
Photo by Mel Evans/AP