Opinion | Cory Booker Finds His Moment

How do you answer hatred? How should you respond when your political opponents assault you with insult, stereotype and contempt? That’s the moral question we all have to answer during this election campaign.

Hatred has become the defining emotion of our political life. As my colleague Thomas B. Edsall reported last week, according to a recent paper, 42 percent of the people in each party regard their opposition as “downright evil.” Nearly 20 percent of both Democrats and Republicans believe that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.” Roughly 20 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans say that the world would be better off if large numbers of the other party died.

Some people believe that fire can be fought only with fire. We’ve got to face the world as it is. If the other side is going after you with full viciousness, you’ve got to find a leader who can do the same to them. This is a knife fight. We need a brawler.

This is the argument white evangelicals made in deciding to back Donald Trump. We’re under siege. He’ll fight for us.

And this is the argument many of the Democratic campaigns are already making. Republicans are irredeemable. Racism is ubiquitous. Capitalist greed is ubiquitous. We need someone who can match Trump blow for blow — the indignation of Bernie Sanders, the confrontational, prosecutorial style of Kamala Harris.

Other people are in the as-they-go-low-we-go-high camp. People in this group argue that if you meet fire with fire all you will do is unleash an inferno that will destroy everything you care about. If you descend to hatred you’ll turn yourself into a mirror image of what you detest.

People in this camp believe that we can change our laws only after we’ve changed our politics. Moreover, they believe that after Trump, Americans yearn for a moral cleansing. You succeed politically when you appeal to voters’ basic decency.

So far, Cory Booker is the candidate who has placed the biggest bet on this latter argument. He agrees with many of his rivals on policy, but he argues that how you behave is just as important as what you propose.

Three emotions run through Booker’s campaign. The first is an unabashed patriotism, and with it the conviction that despite our differences, Americans are still connected by sacred bonds.

“Patriotism is love of country, and you cannot love your country unless you love your fellow countrymen and women,” he told an Iowa audience last month. Republican or Democrat — we are brothers and sisters under the skin.

The second is the dogged but radical hopefulness that he inherited from the black church. Booker uses religious categories more naturally than any other candidate: grace, faith, sacrificial love, the command to love your neighbor as yourself, the awareness that love has a redemptive power to cast out fear. The gospels are pretty clear that the correct response to hate is love.

“Love means that I see you, I see your worth, I see your dignity,” Booker said at that rally last month. “Your destiny is my destiny.”

The third emotion is simple gratitude. Booker had to overcome challenges in life, and he has seen many more, but his family story is a success story. The church raised money for his grandmother to go to school. His parents worked at IBM. He was elected class president in high school before going off to Stanford and Yale Law.

Others see America’s institutions as systems of oppression, but Booker calls the founders “imperfect geniuses.” America needs reform, but our inheritance is a precious one.

The knife fight view is correct if you believe that war is our permanent state — if you believe that our evolutionary roots sentence us to inevitable tribal conflict and the only choice is conqueror be conquered.

But I’d say that Booker has a fuller and more realistic view of our situation. Fanaticism is not the normal human state. Fanaticism is a disease that grows out of existential anxiety. It grows when people fear that they are being delegitimized. It grows when people are isolated and insulated from one another. It grows when you have leaders, like our president, who reduce everything to us/them stereotypes and so poison the public mind.

The disease is in our context and not in our souls. And that context can be changed with better leadership.

I write this to you from Nebraska City, Neb., just over the Iowa line. I just had lunch with 15 locals, many probably Trump supporters and some probably not. But it didn’t come up. The idea that any of these good people are “downright evil” because of some political affiliation is ridiculous and a sign of how deranged our discourse has become.

When you’re in the midst of everyday life, the idea that you can deal with one group or another only through condemnation and attack is absurd. You don’t build a better society by turning yourself into a rotten human being.

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David Brooks has been a columnist with The Times since 2003. He is the author of “The Road to Character” and the forthcoming book, “The Second Mountain.”


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