Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Some Thoughts On Cory Booker

So Cory Booker won the primary special election and is now the Democratic nominee for Frank Launtenberg's old Senate seat. He was of course the favorite to win it. He has a national media brand, a huge fundraising network and a million followers on Twitter. Beating him was of course going to be a long shot. Interestingly enough though, a number of progressive leaders took it upon themselves to try and stop the Booker juggernaut. Alex Pareene argued that he's a product of Wall Street and Silicon Valley and so is not to be trusted. Non-progressive Dave Weigel argued (indirectly) that Booker will be bad for progressives because he doesn't support, "neither a carbon tax, nor a new Glass-Steagall, nor a ban on NSA snooping." If you cruise around the internet you can find a lot of this stuff.

I guess I'd have to agree with Pareene and Weigel, but would add, so what? Yes Booker isn't a fire breathing class warrior, but I'd challenge you to find more than a handful (or even one) of them in the United States Senate, a body composed of millionaires. And yes Booker isn't leading the charge on global warming, but considering that the Republicans will likely control the House of Representatives through 2016, it's not like cap and trade (or Glass-Steagall reloaded for that matter) is going to need a tie-breaker vote in the Senate to become law anytime soon.

Matt Yglesias rose to Booker's defense to point out that while Booker might not be Glenn Greenwald when it comes to NSA leaks, he does appear to care a lot about child poverty. Which is something that in our rush to focus on defending Snowden, we sometimes forget about. As Yglesias explains:
Booker's campaign website does feature a 15-page policy paper on ending child poverty and I think it's pretty smart. He cites Harry Holzer's research on the macroeconomic impact of child poverty, and manages to acknowledge the obvious-but-weirdly-controversial truth that better schools are an important part of the solution to poverty but that direct financial assistance is also needed. The plan calls for smart interventions like Nurse Family Partnerships and the use of Medicaid to promote overall child health and not just narrowly deliver health care services. There's stuff about higher minimum wage and more generous EITC and the need to fight cuts in SNAP and a call to expand Section 8 housing vouchers. Lurking in the affordable housing section there's an intriguing reference to how "New Jersey's more affluent towns" ought to have "greener, denser, more vibrant downtowns."
This might not be the platform of MoveOn but it is highlighting an issue that's often ignored. And an issue that should be of vital importance to progressives. In addition, for someone like me who is interested in density and how we can promote it, the more obscure reference certainly makes up for a lack of zeal on NSA leaks.

One of the more frustrating thing about the whole discussion over the purity of Booker's immortal soul is that it seems to operate in a world unencumbered by the reality of our politics in right now. Rush Holt might have led the charge more on NSA leaks and cap and trade, but the voting records of hypothetical Senators Holt or Booker won't be that different. Both will be against ending food stamps, against impeaching Obama, for the constitutionality of the minimum wage etc. In short, both would be Democratic senators well within the mainstream of their party. And while they might emphasize different issues, their is no progressive holy writ that says that child poverty is less important than reigning in the NSA.

On a larger note, even if he does turn out to be a disappointment Cory Booker doesn't strike me as being some kind of disappointment for progressives. Rather, if he is a disappointment, he's more of a representation of how we as progressives have failed. The fact remains that Booker won almost 60 percent of the vote while Rush Holt came in third with 17 percent. If Booker turns out to be the turncloak we've been warned of, that's not an evidence of Booker being a bad guy, it's evidence that we as progressives aren't don't a good job of advancing our movement. I guess I'm going to look like a neoliberal sell out by doing this, but I think its really important to link to a post from Matt Yglesias back in 2011 about politics in general.  Matt was responding to a self described, “well-educated, politically literate, 30-something person with a job and a kid" who felt that while she did know a lot about politics, she was doing nothing to influence it. As Matt explained, "She wants to know what she should actually be doing to try to create change, since '[w]atching Jon Stewart tell me things I already know in funny voices is starting to seem hollow.'" Yglesias went on to lay out a brilliant internal critique of the progressive movement:
If you’re a progressive and you feel that the political system isn’t doing what you want, it’s misguided to look at this as a personal failure of elected officials. It’s, if anything, a personal failure of you and people like you. Justice and equality doesn’t just happen because it’s nice, people need to make it happen. If it’s not happening, then its advocates are failing. And I do think there’s a lot of wisdom to the old Le Tigre song “Get Off The Internet.” Reading and talking to like-minded people about how powerful people are failing can seem like action, but it really isn’t.
Exactly. Posting on Firedoglake (or longwalkdownlyndale) can be fun and fulfilling, but it almost certainly won't influence the next vote in Congress.

After Matt posted that Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a great follow-up, entitled "Liberal Sorcery." As he sees it the progressive critiques of things like Obama's job plan get you only half way there:
The other day Tavis Smiley made the point that president's job plan didn't go far enough. I'd bet a lot of progressives concur and I think pushing the point is healthy, legitimate, essential and fair. But it's also healthy, legitimate, essential and fair to then ask, "What would make more progressive legislation possible?" That line of thinking has to confront the kind of statements and action by Democratic Senators who evidently feel little or no pressure from their progressive base.
Coates then went on to put it in a blunter way, "Somehow we got in our head that the Civil Rights movement happened because Martin Luther King was a really nice guy. We don't really talk about the movement as an actual force, as applying force." I would argue that politicians respond to incentives, show them that their progressive stands will help them and they will be embolden by their progressiveism. Show them that support for mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws and foreign wars will be punished, and they will respond accordingly. Conservative activists have known this for quite some time.

In the end our politics will be what we make of them. That doesn't mean Booker will be a great Senator (if he wins) or Alex Pareene or the whole crew at Firedoglake is wrong either. It means that rather than lamenting about our politics we have to go out and change them. Booker knew this, back in the dawn of time.

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