Like the young Obama, Booker has made a point of burnishing bipartisan credentials by enjoying a cordial public relationship with New Jersey’s bombastic and popular governor, Chris Christie. Painfully aware that a public rift with the governor might damage his statewide hopes and national ambitions, Booker has formed a working alliance that included signing on to the governor’s pledge never to raise property taxes.
Bookerism is incapable of speaking truth to power. Instead, it seeks a place at the table of power interests, whose ambitions often conflict with the hopes and dreams of the poor, since they have nothing to do with the wealth redistribution that America so desperately needs. Trickle-down economics, even when peddled as public-private partnerships aimed at alleviating poverty and failing schools, do not work in the long run. However, in the short term they provide the kind of dazzling political optics and publicity that can help a black politician win national office.
For all of America’s talk of racial progress and the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we live in a nation with one black governor (Massachusetts’ Deval Patrick, whose term ends next year) and one senator (South Carolina Republican Tim Scott). Booker’s election will double the latter number but should be more cause for national shame than pride.
Born in 1969, four years after the conclusion of the civil rights movement’s heroic period, Booker came of age in an era of neo-liberal politics. It was an age in which Democratic President Bill Clinton favored “triangulation” and compromise over the unfettered liberalism that marked the New Deal and the Great Society.
Welfare reform and crime policy utilized the poor and black as mostly props in a political drama that gave even more power to the rich through policy (including ending financial regulation that led to the Great Recession) and a rhetoric that fetishized the “greed is good” ethos of the cinematic icon Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas in the classic film Wall Street.
Cory Booker, New Jersey’s soon-to-be-elected senator, must have been paying attention. The muted response to his meteoric rise from a black community that, in its bones, realizes something is amiss is a testament not only to how far we have come since the civil rights era but also to how far we have fallen.
Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.