Cory Booker’s Theory of Love

As he eyes a run for president, the senator from New Jersey remains stridently conciliatory.

Zach Gibson / Getty / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

In 2013, The Atlantic ran a piece titled “Why Do Liberals Hate Cory Booker?” The article searched for the sources of progressive distrust of the senator from New Jersey. It scoured his policy positions to find his transgressions of party orthodoxy—and it couldn’t find any substantive deviation. It concluded, “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.”

When I met with Booker this month, he reminded me several times that he had recently returned from New Hampshire. His barely concealed preparations for a presidential run have included the unveiling of large-scale, creative policy proposals that should put to rest any questions about where he resides ideologically. He has crafted a piece of legislation to provide low-income kids with a nest egg of $50,000, what he calls “baby bonds.” Another Booker bill would guarantee a job to anyone who wants one. Earlier this fall, he spoke passionately about the problem of economic concentration.

Despite all this aggressive legislation, his tone remains stridently conciliatory. A recurring theme in his speeches is love—or as he once put it, “unreasonable, irrational, impractical love.” I met him in his office, where he sat on a sofa underneath a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. We spoke at length about, well, love. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Franklin Foer: You don’t often hear politicians talk about love.

Cory Booker: We may not use the word, but the things that we revere most about American history are often incredible acts of love. I mean, [Andrew] Goodman, [James] Chaney, and [Michael] Schwerner dying together. So here you have two Jewish Americans who are not directly affected by the injustices going on in Mississippi, but [they] went down there to stand for their principles, side by side.

Foer: But why have you decided to elevate love at this precise moment?

Booker: I was almost going to try to challenge your presupposition, but I think you might be right. I find myself leaning even more into it now. We are heading toward a point in my lifetime where I haven’t seen a level of tribalism like this. I was reminding people in New Hampshire this past weekend that commercials ran in their state against Chris Christie for the singular sin of hugging Barack Obama. I mean, it’s gotten so bad that touching another American is considered a betrayal of tribe. We’re at a point in American history where when I hugged John McCain on the floor, literally after he got his cancer diagnosis, I get home and I’m getting pilloried on Twitter.

Foer: A lot of politicians talk about bipartisanship and restoring civility. But love is a very different way of explaining the problem.

Booker: My heroes have been not afraid to talk about love. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the “beloved community.” He talked about the Greeks, who separated love into three categories: eros, philia, and agape love. I think patriotism, by its very definition, is love of country. But we seem to have become a country where the highest thing we’re reaching for is tolerance. When you say “bipartisan,” you’re really saying, “Hey we’re going to tolerate each other.” Go home and tell somebody that you live with, or your neighbor, “I tolerate you.” That’s not a high aspiration.

Foer: So to pose the obvious …

Booker: Let me just finish this point, because it’s one that I think is really important. Let’s spin the globe right now and put our finger down. Go to, say, the Middle East. You’re going to see tribal connections. But we said we were going to found a country where we’re not connected by those things. We’re connected by ideals. I think about those words at the end of the Declaration of Independence, our declaration of interdependence, our declaration of love. If we’re going to succeed, we must mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. That is not just about tolerance, isn’t just bipartisanship. We are at our best when we give the ultimate sacrifice of putting other people, putting the country, putting our communities ahead of ourselves. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

Foer: As I was thinking about your descriptions of love, I went back and read some King.

Booker: By the way, this year I decided to go back to King myself. I’ve read The Radical King and King’s collection of speeches on labor, a really great compendium. But you could also take Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the great civil-rights leaders, whose whole house was bombed numerous times, whose wife was stabbed. I mean, he embodied and preached the same idea of beloved community, the debt we owe each other.

Foer: The hard part of it is the loving of your oppressor, loving the one who hates you.

Booker: Yes, but isn’t that the call? I had this interesting experience in the Midwest when I was visiting farms. Someone called up the guy that was giving me the tour and said, “I can’t have Cory Booker in my home.” The person said, “Why?” They said, “Well, we’re a Christian household.” My tour guide laughed and said, “Cory’s a Christian, too.” But they had watched something, I think it was from Fox News, and they thought I was just this really bad human being. My host, in a sort of tickled way, just reminded the person of his own faith values. Then when we got together—it’s hard to hate somebody that you sit down with—we ended up having an incredible connection.

Foer: To pose the obvious and vexing question, can you find love for Donald Trump?

Booker: When I gave a speech at the convention, Trump tweeted something really mean about me, veiledly dark. You know, almost a weird kind of attack on me.

Foer: Who would expect that from a Trump tweet?

Booker: Then next morning, I’m out with Chris Cuomo on CNN and he puts up the tweet. I think he was trying to get a rise out of me. He goes, “What do you have to say to Donald Trump?” I said, “I love you Donald Trump. I don’t want you to be my president; I’m going to work very hard against you. But I’m never going to let you twist me and drag me down so low as to hate you.”

Foer: But not hating Donald Trump is different than actually finding love for Donald Trump.

Booker: My faith tradition is love your enemies. It’s not complicated for me, if I aspire to be who I say I am. I am a Christian American. Literally written in the ideals of my faith is to love those who hate you. I don’t see why that’s so shocking. But that doesn’t mean that I will be complicit in oppression. That doesn’t mean I will be tolerant of hatred.

Something I talked about in my New Hampshire speeches and New Hampshire house parties is the example of Lindsey Graham and what he said during the [Brett] Kavanaugh hearings. One side might call it a rant, one side might call it a noble exposition. But I have to say, I was not happy about it. Obviously he made me angry; obviously I disagreed with what he was saying. But just a few weeks later, he and I are on the phone to the White House. He is defending one of the provisions I want in the criminal-justice-reform bill that’s heading to the floor now, effectively ending juvenile solitary confinement. He was a partner with me.

I’m one of the few senators, perhaps ever, that lives in a community in which there are still regular shootings. My mayor is doing a great job lowering violent crime, but I had a guy murdered on my block. I also live in a community where lots of people come home from jail, having done some of those shootings. I see that idea of redemption and unconditional love from people in the community.

Foer: Your speeches seem to almost be exhortations. You’re not just saying, “I believe in love for myself.” You’re exhorting your audience to believe in love.

Booker: Two things. One is anger, let’s not mistake it. Anger is a constructive emotion, and clearly in the five years that I’ve been here, I’ve been angry at times.

Foer: You had your Spartacus moment.

Booker: Look, the reality is what King said so eloquently: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate can’t drive out hate; only love can do that.” Not only do I believe it is an important ideal, I also believe it is the right strategy, the right political strategy.

Foer: But if I listen to Trump talk about, say, immigrants, how could I not let that anger turn, at a certain point, into hatred? Just as love is a human emotion, hate is also extremely human.

Booker: God, my anger as a former athlete gets me into the gym working harder. I think our outrage should get us out working. That fire of rage should be fuel to get us to do the things that make the change. But if we become a party that is about what we’re against, I don’t think that’s a winning strategy. I think if we give all of our energy—psychic, mental—toward Donald Trump, it makes him powerful.

The other thing I want to say is, millions and millions of good Americans, good decent Americans, voted for Donald Trump. As [Abraham] Lincoln said, “The best way to destroy my enemy is to make him my friend.” If you make Trump the subject, then you’re not talking about the shared pain in this country, the shared injustice in this country. The fact is, Donald Trump voters aren’t getting paid a living wage; they’re losing their dignity in their work. There’s common pain in this country, but we’ve lost a sense of common purpose. If you make Donald Trump your central focus, then it’s going to be much harder to get to a sense of common purpose.

Foer: Do you believe love can conquer racism?

Booker: I don’t think the word conquer is right, but I do believe that it can break down all these artificial constraints. I just really do believe that at the end of the day, this country respects and honors people based on their character and the quality of their ideas. I just see so many people who are talking to hearts and heads and not tribalism, and that kind of thing breaking through.

Foer: King talked about how self-righteousness is an enemy of love? It seems like we kind of do live in a world plagued by …

Booker: A world plagued by self-righteousness, by righteous indignation. I think about the profound humility that people had in the face of the likes of Bull Connor. In Birmingham, the first time jails were completely full in the modern civil-rights movement, they were filled with kids. As the kids are on the bus going home, you know what they’re singing? “What do we want? Freedom. When do we want it? Now.” Then they start saying, “What does the governor want? Freedom. When does he want it? Now.” They were literally singing songs not of attack toward the people that were oppressing them and literally shipping them off to jail; they were singing songs about the idea that my liberation and your liberation are interwoven. As King says, “Dignity is indivisible.” I can assault the tactics you’re using, the walls that you’re perpetuating. But as I start attacking your human dignity, I’m diminishing my own.

Foer: We’re in so many ways in a political war of attrition right now. If I look at your program, there’s a way in which power, wealth, and opportunity need to be redistributed. There’s a zero-sum quality to it all. And if you come in preaching love, aren’t you going to be accused of being soft and not having the required temperament to accomplish all of these things you propose?

Booker: Right, a couple things. So one is, Gandhi overthrew the strongest empire on the planet without raising a fist. This idea that we have—that to be tough you’ve got to be cruel and crass; in order to be strong you’ve got to be mean?—doesn’t hold up in human history. I’m a guy who came through a street fight to be elected mayor of a city. You know, I wasn’t mayor of a wealthy city. It was a tough city during a recession, in which inner cities experience depression. What we accomplished, because it definitely wasn’t just me, was the largest economic-development period in our city’s 60-year history, the first time our population was growing again. I mean, I can go through all the things we were able to accomplish that necessitated toughness and strength from a whole lot of folks.

The only thing I do want to take issue with is this idea of redistribution. I don’t really think it is. When you make an investment in a kid’s education, it expands the economy. When you make an investment in every child having wealth, you actually expand the whole. It has a multiplier effect.

Foer: But you’re proposing an estate-tax increase to fund your program, where you are literally taking away …

Booker: I believe in the kind of things that will have a multiplier effect on our economy. That we’ve got to be a nation that gets back to investing in the most valuable natural resource we have in this country, which is the genius of our children.

Foer: I see all that, but why shy away from saying that you’re attacking concentrations of power?

Booker: No, trust me, I don’t shy away from saying the concentrations of economic power and political power in this country have been detrimental to the strength of our economy.

Foer: This is a pretty dark moment. Has it made you more faithful?

Booker: These are things I didn’t think I’d be talking about, but I have been praying more fervently, beginning my days on my knees with a lot more consistency. A lot of it’s just to ground me and keep me focused on my highest ideals, because there are difficult days where you do feel your lesser angels. I want to stay humble and focused. I think that these are practices that have helped me be a better person.

Foer: Don’t you ever see yourself tipping into self-righteousness?

Booker: Absolutely. There are things I’ve said in the last two years I regret. A lot of my prayer, quite literally, is to make me worthy of this moment, and to help me to live in accordance to the ideals that I hold. I love Saint Francis of Assisi’s prayer “Make me an instrument of peace. Where there’s hatred, let me sow love. Where there’s darkness let me sow light.” This is a time for all of us to be humble aspirants.

Foer: How has your thinking about love practically changed you as a politician?

Booker: Yeah, I think there are times where I’ve checked myself. There’s an example popping in my head that I really haven’t shared with anybody. It was a committee hearing, and I found myself lecturing the other side, like senators often do. And some senator who tests me to be the best person I am shot back at me something I found kind of obnoxious. I got mad, and then I reflected upon it. I said, “It’s not for me to lecture people who disagree with me; it’s for me to call myself to exhibit that behavior, not to lecture people on it.”

In one of my favorite stories, I encountered somebody who was homeless. He asked if I had extra socks and I told him, “I don’t have socks, I don’t have socks.” The guy I was with bent over and took off the socks he was wearing and gave them. And I said, “Here I am, this guy that talks about love all the time, but I’ve got this one moment to show it, to be more creative in my moral imagination, and I didn’t demonstrate it.” I think it’s so much more important for us, as leaders right now, to live those values and not preach them.