Cory Booker Is Damned If He Does, Damned If He Doesn’t

For a black candidate, expressing anger is risky. But in the post-Obama Democratic Party, not expressing anger is risky, too.

Cory Booker
Yuri Gripas / Reuters

There are important differences—and even more important similarities—between Barack Obama’s announcement for president in 2007 and Cory Booker’s announcement last week. The similarities could sink Booker’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination.

One obvious difference is that Obama downplayed his ties to the African American community. Obama launched his campaign in Springfield, Illinois, which is almost 75 percent white, rather than Chicago, where he actually lived. After initially inviting his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, to deliver the invocation, Obama at the last minute disinvited him. And Obama described his experience in Chicago in largely race-neutral terms. He talked about working with “pastors and laypeople to deal with communities that had been ravaged by plant closings” and learning that “the decisions to close a steel mill was made by distant executives, that the lack of textbooks and computers in a school could be traced to skewed priorities of politicians a thousand miles away.” Obama did not see fit to mention that he had moved to Chicago because he wanted to work in a black community and was inspired by the election of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington.

In this regard, Booker’s announcement video could not be more different. It begins and ends with, and is repeatedly punctuated by, images and sounds of young black men in marching bands. It depicts Booker walking through city streets, past graffiti-covered walls, while explaining that he moved “into the central ward of Newark to flight slumlords.” While showing Booker in a black barbershop, it declares that he’s “the only senator who goes home to a low-income, inner-city community.”

Booker is stressing his links to the black community, at least in part, because for the first time, a major party primary will feature two strong African American candidates (the other, Kamala Harris, followed her presidential announcement with speeches at Howard University and the African American sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha). This constitutes progress.

But if Booker is more willing to emphasize his ties to the black community than Obama was, he’s equally reluctant to discuss racism in ways that make whites uncomfortable. Speaking from Springfield, the home of Abraham Lincoln, Obama in his announcement invoked America’s 16th president five times. He never mentioned Jefferson Davis, slave owners, or the Confederacy. By ignoring Lincoln’s pro-slavery antagonists, Obama cast the Civil War president not as the wildly divisive figure he actually was, but as the man who unearthed America’s hidden moral consensus. Obama promised to do the same. He declared, “It was here, in Springfield, where North, South, East, and West come together, that I was reminded of the essential decency of the American people … And that is why, in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a house divided to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still live, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America.”

Essential decency sounds lovely. But is it true? Again and again during Obama’s presidency, Ta-Nehisi Coates accused him of prioritizing white comfort over historical reality. Obama, he argued, peddled a myth of “white innocence” that “ascribed the country’s historical errors more to misunderstanding and the work of a small cabal than to any deliberate malevolence or widespread racism.” Obama’s “need to talk in dulcet tones, to never be angry regardless of the offense,” Coates argued, “bespeaks a strange and compromised integration indeed, revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.”

Booker’s announcement video—for all its African American sights and sounds—contains traces of Rokerism. “When I was a baby,” Booker declares, “my parents tried to move us into a neighborhood with great public schools, but Realtors wouldn’t sell us a home because of the color of our skin. A group of white lawyers who had watched the courage of civil-rights activists were inspired to help black families in their own community, including mine.”

It’s not just that Booker—like Obama with Lincoln—foregrounds white heroes in his story of racial progress. He also pushes white villains to the background. One of the white lawyers who assisted Booker’s family is portrayed on-screen. The real-estate agents are not. Booker makes his family’s experience a parable for American history: “We are better when we help each other. The history of our nation is defined by collective action, by interwoven destinies of slaves and abolitionists.” Left unsaid is that slave owners and Confederates defined the nation, too.

All of this reflects Booker’s broader persona, which, in Franklin Foer’s words, is “stridently conciliatory” and not just about race. In his Atlantic interview with Foer in December, Booker went out of his way to declare that “millions and millions of good Americans, good, decent Americans, voted for Donald Trump.” When Booker, in his announcement video, imagines an America in which “we see the faces of our leaders on television and feel pride, not shame,” Trump’s image never appears. In fact, no political adversary is personified in the entire video.

A decade ago, the political wisdom underlying this strategy was clear. Coates and other prominent black journalists observed that it was dangerous for black politicians not merely to express anger at white racism, but to express anger at almost anything. When pundits chided Obama for not displaying more fury at BP after its massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb warned that Obama’s fury would have backfired: “It would have fed deeply into a pre-existing set of narratives about the angry black man … He would have frightened off white voters.”

But since Obama left office, the demands among Democratic activists that Democratic politicians express fury have grown. The Democratic Party has grown more populist. And ever since their emergence in the late 19th century, American populists have defined politics as a struggle between “the people” and the forces that oppose them, which must be named and defeated, not soothed. The original Populist, or People’s, Party declared in its 1892 platform, “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few … From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.” Politics, declared “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, a Populist Party member of Congress from Kansas, is a “struggle between the robbers and the robbed.”

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders talk that way now. In her announcement video, Warren declares, “America’s middle class is under attack. How did we get here? Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie.” Government, she asserts, has become “a tool for the wealthy and well connected.” And in true populist style, Warren names names. While describing America’s pillaging, her video serves up image after image of those responsible: Ronald Reagan, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Steve Mnuchin, Tom DeLay, Sean Hannity, Kellyanne Conway, Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Laura Ingraham, and, of course, Trump.

Progressive activists chide Booker for not similarly chastising the other side. In a 2013 Atlantic essay titled “Why Do Liberals Hate Cory Booker?” Molly Ball noted, “The case against Booker seems to rest chiefly on tone and approach. Like Obama, he has positioned himself as a conciliator willing to work across the aisle.” But, like Obama, Booker may have good reason not to heed his leftist critics: A black candidate who depicts politics as a fierce struggle between us and them may alarm white voters in ways a white candidate would not. There’s academic evidence that blacks are more likely than whites to be deemed angry even when they’re not and that black men are perceived as more threatening when they display the same facial expressions as whites.

It’s impossible to know for sure how such research would translate into a presidential campaign: The universe of black candidates who have competed at the national, or even state, level remains too small for definitive statements. Since the universe of black women candidates is even smaller, it’s even harder to know how white voters will react to Kamala Harris, who has so far trodden a middle path: not as aggressive in calling out economic and political malefactors as Warren, but not as emphatically conciliatory as Booker.

Still, there’s reason to believe that for a black candidate, running as a brash populist is risky. Unfortunately for Booker, in the post-Obama Democratic Party, not running as a brash populist is risky, too.