Cory Booker has just won New Jersey’s Democratic Senate primary in a rout, making him an easy favorite to claim the seat this fall. But even stronger than the pundit consensus that Booker will soon be in Washington is the belief that the camera-savvy Twitter celebrity will be a rabble-rouser once he gets there. “He would be a disruptor,” the pros at NBC’s First Read have predicted. “Someone who wants to shake things up.” A vehicle for bringing “street-level experience to a Senate that often seems disembodied from the whole planet,” is how The New York Times endorsement put it. No less an expert than Booker himself has suggested that agitprop will be his preferred mode of discourse, approvingly citing Ted Cruz and Rand Paul as his senatorial role models.
You might be inclined to conclude from this that Booker intends to be the Senate’s liberal conscience—someone who can channel the progressive id from a perch inside Washington, in the same way that Cruz and Paul function as voices of the Tea Party from deep within the capital. Booker is, after all, an inner-city Democrat from a solidly blue state, whose predecessor was a reliably liberal vote. Who better than him to swing for the fences? But, if you happened to conclude this, you’d be way off the mark. What Booker has in mind when he alludes to being an agitator is agitating for the cause of himself.
I can demonstrate this with almost mathematical precision. After all, as Alex Pareene of Salon has pointed out, Booker shares a worldview with the financial elites who fund his campaigns. If one can deduce from his record and his public statements, he believes the economy functions best when wealthy people are allowed to deploy their capital freely, and that progress ensues when they train some of their gains on society's ills—“the charity of the benevolent elite,” as Pareene labels it. This is why Booker was so affronted by the Obama campaign’s denunciations of the private equity industry back in 2012. And it’s why he apparently sees no conflict in holding public office while making millions from a tech start-up funded by the Silicon-Valley elect. (Booker briefly took a shot at translating this worldview into policy during the campaign—hinting that he’d be open to raising the Social Security retirement age for young people—before backtracking furiously when progressives called him on it.)
This is all fine, of course—subscribing to these beliefs is hardly a crime even if it’s not my cup of tea. But here’s what’s so curious: If there’s one worldview that doesn’t need high-profile agitators to advance its reach, it’s the worldview of the moneyed classes. This is the worldview that already dominates Washington. It funds politicians and think tanks. It clutters the op-ed pages. It pours forth from the characters who fill your television on Sunday morning. (Come to think of it, maybe both kinds of characters who fill your television Sunday mornings…) As a result, it’s hard to believe that what drives Booker is the need to spread the good word.
Now, in fairness, most people bent on playing the role of agitator are motivated by personal ambition, not just ideological commitment. The Ted Cruzes and Rand Pauls of the world want to be president in addition to advancing their right-wing principles. But they clearly do want to advance their principles. By contrast, the principles Booker espouses have been so thoroughly advanced that no sane person could consider them under-represented.
That leaves only the ambition part of the equation. It turns out the only one who needs Cory Booker out there, relentlessly making the case, is Cory Booker.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @noamscheiber
Note: The last three paragraphs have been tweaked slightly to eliminate some redundancy.