Sen. Cory Booker is down in the 2020 polls — and yet has long seemed poised for a breakout moment. He is more qualified than some frontrunners, quite popular among Democratic activists, and the last black candidate with a decent shot after Sen. Kamala Harris’s withdrawal. He’s an acceptable choice to many people across the party’s big ideological divide.
He’s also been somewhat difficult to peg on the ideological spectrum. Slate’s Jordan Weissman, who plans to vote for either Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, recently called him “the best moderate in the field.” But is calling him a moderate right? It’s true that Booker has a record of centrism on some economic issues, particularly relating to education and finance, but he also co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution. He’s the most progressive candidate in the field on criminal justice, and a vegan who recently proposed legislation aimed at shuttering factory farms.
I decided to call up Booker and find out what he really believes. But instead of talking about policy specifics, I engaged Booker on his big-picture view of the world. Does he think liberal democracy is under threat in America? What does he make of the rise of “socialism” on the American left? Are critics right that Democrats are focusing on identity politics too much? How does his veganism fit into his broader worldview?
Booker described a vision centered on the political value of “justice,” drawing on both Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential run and Obama’s 2008 victory as models. Booker emphasized what he terms “the intersectionality of all life”: the idea that humans of all backgrounds, as well as non-human animals, are bound up in webs of mutual interdependence.
“We share a common destiny,” Booker says. “You cannot have one sector of our country held down without the whole country being lowered as a result.”
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, which ranges from problems of short-termism in American capitalism to W.E.B. DuBois’s “psychological wage” to philosopher Peter Singer’s theory of the expanding moral circle. It’s been edited for length and clarity.
I want to start with a question that’s been bothering me for a while: Can we talk about the GOP as a party that’s committed to core basic values like democracy, individual rights, and the rule of law?
I have been very confused by the modern Republican Party, especially now in the time of Donald Trump, where a lot of the values that they speak to seem to be being butchered by the policies that are coming out, and even the rhetoric now that’s coming out. It is very difficult for me to even think of the Republican Party as having any kind of governing philosophy that is informing policy and decisions, when in the time of Trump, it just seems to be more transactional and corrupted by the interests of large concentrations of wealth.
The problem is that this kind of thing tends toward some kind of autocratization, right? Look at a country like Hungary, where you have institutionalized corruption as a means of propping up a ruling elite. How should we think about similar threats to American democracy?
I have deep, deep concerns about the shifting toward oligarchic power, especially after decisions like Citizens United that are allowing even more exertion of power and corruption within our political system. We see that these corrupting forces are already having a pretty significant effect on our democracy.
The powerful corporate interests now are actually undermining the very ideals of capitalism and entrepreneurship. New business starts are going down in our country; short-termism within our [economy] is allowing forces of greed to even undermine the interests of capital allocation.
We have now seen an economy where someone who is being born now has less of a chance to make it. Ninety percent of baby boomers did better economically than their parents. Now it’s down to 50-50 for a millennial.
So can you see why a lot of people in my generation are starting to become more sympathetic to socialism?
Gosh, I know that — and we could discuss the word “socialism” if you want.
As a guy that lives in a black and brown community, the framing from my culture and my community is just one of justice.
From my perspective, one of the biggest economic instruments of suppression in our country has been the criminal justice system that Michelle Alexander rightfully calls the new Jim Crow. Blacks are stunningly disempowered in the electoral system. And voting rights and criminal justice issues, all of these things are also wound into economic rights. Villanova researchers did a study about America having 20 percent less poverty [had mass incarceration not occurred].
These are justice issues [more] than the issues that often are bandied about by political elites.
These are issues of economic justice, of environmental injustice, of criminal injustice, of equal access to health care, to education, disparate treatment in everything from school discipline to hiring practices in this country.
This justice framing is really interesting to me, especially as a counterpoint to language like “socialism.” It seems to sidestep or play into — depending on who you’re talking to — a style of politics that’s been derisively referred to as “identity politics” by critics on both the left and the right.
What do you make of the discourse surrounding “identity politics” and its role in the current Democratic coalition?
My talking about justice is not in any way a politics of identity. It’s a politics of trying to create again this understanding that we’re all in this together — that you cannot have a nation that’s [divided] along racial lines and think that you are going to have a nation of strength economically, morally, and competitively on a global context. We’re a nation that does best when we tear down walls of division or inequity and build larger coalitions.
The Democratic Party is a party that does best when it revives what Jesse Jackson called the Rainbow Coalition, what many people now call the Obama Coalition.
So you reject the argument that focusing on and highlighting the marginalization of minority groups is divisive in any way? Because a lot of the critics say, “Well, you can’t have the shared politics of national unity that you’re describing so long as you continue to talk about specific groups through the lens of their particular, non-universal experiences.”
Well, I think that the capacity of our country to understand that addressing injustice and inequity in certain racial groups is a national cause. I just think we underestimate that, and our history speaks to a different understanding. You had the abolitionist movement based upon this ideal that the dignity and humanity of black Americans who were slaves cannot be denied without it somehow affecting the humanity of white Americans. You had incredible sacrifices by Quakers who were willing to put their very lives at risk to help build coalitions with black slaves and escaped slaves to build the Underground Railroad.
We’re not defined by the wretchedness and bigotry and hate that we’ve seen in every chapter of our politics. We are always defined, I think, by the willingness and ability of our country to create coalitions to overcome that. I think that you do not make this a better America when you try to sweep injustices, whether they be racial or religious injustices or gender-based injustice, under the rug. I think you actually weaken America when you don’t speak to that truth.
I think a lot about W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of the “psychological wage” of whiteness. You know, the theory that people derive psychological satisfaction and benefits from being members of the dominant group. How do you deal with that as a problem out there among the electorate? Or do you think that’s the wrong way to think about things?
I think it’s just too simplistic of a description of our society as a whole. It seals people within permanent boxes of judgment, as opposed to understanding that we are all people in evolution.
You and I, right now, are two men having this conversation. [One could] say the totality of our being is binary, either we are sexist or we are not. That’s opposed to recognizing that you and I must wrestle with the sexism that is within the larger society consistently, or we are contributing to it, or complacent in the face of it.
People are not binary. People are all always in development, always in struggle. We are a nation always struggling to manifest the best of our ideals.
[House representative and civil rights icon] John Lewis once told me the story of a man who actually beat him up during the civil rights movement coming to his office with his child and asking him for forgiveness. Lewis told me that he did so, and how important it is to extend to people forgiveness in a recognition of their humanity and their ability when they are willing to own up to their injustice, their ability to grow — and how, in many ways, his humanity and that man’s humanity were interwoven and interdependent.
This is why I caution the Democratic Party, who wants to put every Trump voter in some kind of binary box and cast a condemnation upon them, as opposed to recognizing not just their dignity and humanity, but how our well-being as a country is interdependent, and how we need each other. As we descend as a culture into deeper and deeper tribalism, where we hate each other just because we vote differently, that in itself could be our demise — unless we start finding ways to reignite in our culture those ideals of grace and forgiveness and truth telling. That is ultimately the pathway for our salvation.
When you talk about that, I actually think of a concept developed by one of your constituents, the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer and his idea of the expanding moral circle, that over the course of time we can open and broaden our minds through moral improvement as not just individuals, but as a collective, to giving status and standing to different groups.
Now, you’re a vegan. Do you think, as Singer does, that the next frontier in our fight for equality is the moral status of animals and improving them on a social level?
Your animal question is so ... God, I would love to do a whole [interview] on this.
I don’t think people understand how destructive corporate multinational animal agriculture is to our environment. It’s the main reason for rainforest destruction and the poisoning of our water systems. The way we are doing it is so divorced from our heritage of animal agriculture in this country.
It’s not just these massive CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations, a.k.a. factory farms] and the treatment of animals, which would shock the [conscience] of anybody in our country. But it’s also our own survival as a species being deeply compromised by the way that animal agriculture has now evolved into corporate culture, affecting everything from fast fashion all the way to the corporate monopolies that are driving down relative wages in this country.
I believe that our food systems can be made more robust, that farmers can be the pathway out of climate crisis — that there’s so many ways to do this right that can elevate human well-being with a consciousness toward our treatment of animals and our treatment of the environment as a whole.
There are two issues here that are sort of connected because they’re about the moral frontiers of our politics. One is about the way that we treat each other and the way that hostile partisanship has taken hold over our minds, and the other about how we can expand our circle of moral concern to nonhuman animals.
What can we do concretely as a polity to deal with these kinds of issues of moral status and consideration for each other and other beings? Is it just a rhetorical thing? From our leaders, I mean, not just civic organizations. Or are there policies that can change the very way that we think about our moral world?
It’s not either-or, it’s all of the above. I’ve seen this on multiple occasions: The more we know, the better we do.
[Think of] the concept of bycatch in the world of fishing, these massive nets picking, killing, and casting back into the sea 50 percent of what they pick up. The CAFOs right now in places like Duplin County [in North Carolina], which are causing out-of-control respiratory diseases and cancers in low-income communities. I mean, the more we know, the more these practices are exposed, the better we will do. So yeah, leaders that can help to expand understanding are often the leaders that help better motivate change.
I just think that all of the things that you talked about really keep speaking towards not just the intersectionality of humans, but the intersectionality of every aspect of our planet. If we are going to sustain ourselves as a species — and this is both our economic prosperity as well as our very lives and existence — we have to start having policies that are far more conscious to that intersectionality of life itself.