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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Cornel West’s Presidential Campaign Deserves the Left’s Solidarity

What if we stopped despising people who run outside the two-party system and instead took the opportunity to use Cornel West’s run as part of work to build on an independent working-class movement?

The activist and public intellectual Cornel West has decided to run for president in 2024. Initially, he said he would run with the Movement for a People’s Party, a post-Bernie startup that has been riddled with scandal and dysfunction and that lacks ballot access. West then announced he would be seeking the nomination of the Green Party instead. He faces seven opponents in that race. He is running, he says, “for the least of these.” West is for human uplift at home and abroad. According to his campaign website, he supports cancelling student and medical debt, expanding Social Security, enacting Medicare for All, ending oil and gas subsidies, banning corporate lobbying, and ending wars.

The reception to West’s run has ranged from somewhat hostile to condescending. A piece by Ja’han Jones of MSNBC had the headline: “Cornel West’s ‘leftist’ presidential bid has right-wing DNA.” (The evidence for West being of the right wing was that West went on Russell Brand’s show, West said he thought DeSantis was right that the classics are important to study, and West once criticized the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Not terribly convincing.) In one piece for The Nation, Joan Walsh (already no fan of West) put it bluntly: West has “no business” running for president. Walsh’s reasoning? Mainly bitterness from the “spoiler effect” of Ralph Nader’s 2000 run, which West supported and which Walsh thinks West should have apologized for. (Never mind that the Supreme Court decision to hand Bush the election, and the circumstances around the recount, were more complicated than just Nader took Gore’s votes.) And then there’s the laundry list of complaints: 

  • West was too harsh on the nation’s first Black president. (Not sure what’s so scandalous about a Black person criticizing or critiquing another Black person. Obama’s politics were pretty bad.) 
  • West supports the Classics of Ron DeSantis! (Briahna Joy Gray asked West about this, and I found his answer pretty reasonable. He simply…agrees on the value of the classics.)
  • West is a “narcissist.” 
  • West committed the sin of going on Bill Maher’s and Russell Brand’s shows. (I think we’re past the point of being able to stop people from going on shows whose hosts and audience are members of the opposition. But yes, for the record, Maher and Brand hold some terrible views.) 

These actions, according to Walsh, show West on a “downhill spiral.” And then the clincher: “He will only take votes away from Biden and help elect a Republican.”

A few days later, Ben Burgis wrote for Jacobin, the country’s leading socialist magazine, that West should run as a Democrat (or, at least, as a Green). Burgis was right to call out as “absurd” Walsh’s mention of the classics issue, which implied that “West’s convergence with him [DeSantis] on this relatively minor issue represents some sort of lurch to the right.” Burgis, while acknowledging the problems of the two-party system and rightly pointing out that blaming third-party candidates and voters only lets politicians off the hook for having to earn votes, nonetheless concludes that West’s candidacy is good and that he should thus “grab the biggest megaphone available to him” as a Democrat.

Another recent article in The Nation by D.D. Guttenplan and Bhaskar Sunkara similarly concludes that West needs to run as a Democrat—and that because he’s not running as a Democrat, he’s not “a serious man.” The authors admit that West “could make a terrific—even a historic—president.” But they want him to do it as a Democrat so that his run won’t just be a “sterile exercise”: “On the debate stage, at campaign rallies, and in national media coverage, West, with his prophetic voice and moral clarity—like Sanders in 2016 and 2020—could accomplish a great deal.” 

They also write:

The reason for West’s choice is clear: In our hardly democratic two-party system, acting as a spoiler in a close race is the closest a third-party candidate can come to relevancy. And if Donald Trump remains in serious contention next year, that is a risk no progressive can dismiss.

But we have to contend with a few critical facts here. First, what “debate stage” are they talking about? The DNC already said there would be no debates.

Second, the DNC cheated Bernie, one of the most compelling political figures to emerge from the left in decades, out of the nomination twice, and a court dismissed a lawsuit against the DNC for rigging the primary in 2016. The DNC is in no way accountable to the electorate. Is this not evidence that the Democrats would do the same thing to a candidate like West?

Third, the Democrats will do whatever they must to keep out a truly decent insurgent candidate who might challenge their corporate interests. They’ll call in Obama or whoever else to gaslight people into voting for Joe Biden. And when that doesn’t work—remember, about half of Democratic voters say Biden shouldn’t even be running for reelection—and Biden loses to whichever nightmare GOP candidate is running, Democrats will blame the voters, tell them to vote harder next time, and we’ll be back to where we started. 

Burgis acknowledges “skeptics” who say that in 2020, the Democrats “lined up to stop Bernie Sanders,” but he says that this is an “odd argument.” But is it odd? I think it’s simply evidence that the political establishment will do whatever it takes to stop challengers. For instance, earlier this year, the DNC voted to remove the Iowa Caucus as the first one in the primary, replacing it with South Carolina—a state favorable to Joe Biden. Politico reported that this move “nearly eliminates any path for a potential Democratic primary challenge ahead of 2024 by elevating states that represent the president’s base of support.”

The only way to break this vicious cycle is to de-center the logic of the spoiler effect and the fear of ‘enabling the right’ and organize a movement away from these two-party monsters who don’t care about the interests of ordinary people.

As Briahna Joy Gray once pointed out on Bad Faith podcast in an interview with Chris Hedges, not supporting the Democratic Party is often equated with “enabling [the] fascism” of the right wing. Thus, Vote Democrat or else enable the right is an argument fundamentally based on fear. That’s not to say the fear of harm from the right is not valid, but we need to look closer at the argument to see whether it keeps us from supporting West.

We all know the arguments here. Keeping fascists or other dangerous people out of power requires us to hold our nose and vote for candidates we don’t like. Noam Chomsky has made this argument. Chomsky has called the GOP the “most dangerous organization in human history” because of their refusal to address the climate crisis. To Chomsky, the GOP is “trying to destroy the prospects for organised human existence.” Presumably, we must always vote to keep the GOP out of power because our existence depends on it. 

But what happens when the Democrat in power actually performs worse than the GOP on this issue? Biden, for instance, drilled more fossil fuel than Trump in his first year of office. More drilling means more fossil fuel use, which means more warming, which means a a worsening threat to human existence. So can we still say that the GOP is the most dangerous organization, and therefore we must Vote Blue No Matter Who?

Adolph Reed Jr. has also made a similar argument, telling the story of a coalition that formed to keep former Klansman David Duke out of the governorship of Louisiana in 1991. Every non-racist banded together behind the corrupt governor, Democrat Edwin Edwards, to keep out Duke. In this particular situation, the argument is compelling.

AOC also made this argument in the fall of 2020 on Instagram live, when she urged voters to vote for Biden in order to protect vulnerable people. She said:

Voting for Joe Biden is not about whether you agree with him. It’s a vote to let our democracy live another day. … We need to act in solidarity and protection for the most vulnerable people in our society who have already experienced the violent repercussions of this administration. … That’s why we need to show up. … Because if we don’t show up, those people [immigrants, victims of police violence] don’t get protected.

But again, what about when the Democrats in power are worse than the right on the issue? In 2019, reports noted that Obama, the “Deporter in Chief,” had actually deported more immigrants than Trump. And Joe Biden has continued Trump’s cruel family separation policy at the border. Where is the protection of all the vulnerable people under Biden?

The point is that the GOP bogey man may or may not, in fact, be the Worst Thing to Happen to Us. The Democrats are so terrible and right-leaning themselves. The Vote Blue No Matter Who argument has merits, but it is hardly fool proof. And it is often used by Democrats to trick voters into thinking that real change is coming around the corner.

So I think the question of how to vote in a swing state in the general election is a separate question that people are going to have to figure out. I’m not here to vote shame anyone. But I do wish to point out what an enormous opportunity the left (and indeed anyone sick of the corrupt politics of the two parties) is wasting in not supporting West’s campaign, particularly at the level of organizing. If we’re going to adopt a strict “consequences-focused” analysis, we can’t simply ignore the positive consequences of a left candidacy. 

We know that the Bernie campaigns, even though they failed to result in his election to the presidency, were hugely energizing. They trained organizers. They spread a message. They grew the movement. (I wouldn’t be writing these words now if I hadn’t been radicalized by Bernie’s campaigns.) I think about how Bernie’s “fight for someone you don’t know” message was so much more inspiring than, say, Ron DeSantis’ dystopian horror movie-esque campaign video, which is all about appealing to people’s fears. Of course, Bernie and AOC have both, unfortunately, endorsed Biden, and as Gray put it, they are “tragically out of step w/ the movement & the moment.”

In terms of ‘enabling the right,’ there’s another consideration put forth by Chris Hedges. The argument that not supporting Democrats is enabling fascism is false on moral grounds, he says. Fighting for your values is not enabling fascism. The conditions that create fascism (including the rise of Trump) were created by the corporate two-party system. 

As Hedges said in a 2018 talk:

Our only hope is to organize for the overthrow of the corporate state that vomited up Trump. Our democratic institutions—including the legislative bodies, the courts, and the media—are hostage to corporate power. They are no longer democratic. We must, like liberation movements of the past, engage in acts of sustained mass civil disobedience and noncooperation. By turning our ire on the corporate state, we expose and name the true sources of power and abuse. We expose the absurdity of blaming our demise on demonized groups such as undocumented workers, Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, feminists, gays, and others. We give people an alternative to a Democratic Party that refuses to confront the corporate forces of oppression, a party which cannot be rehabilitated. We make possible the restoration of an open society. If we fail to embrace this militancy—which alone has the ability to destroy cult leaders [such as Trump]—we will continue the march toward tyranny.

There are concerns, of course, about how functional the Green Party is and whether it can obtain sufficient ballot access. (The Democrats, of course, are happy to mount legal challenges to keep them off the ballot. And there have been reports of the GOP working to aid the Green Party’s ballot efforts—but this speaks more to the GOP’s willingness to do whatever they can to win than to a reason not to support the Greens.) But not supporting Cornel West simply because he’s running as a Green seems unwise. If we can all overlook the Democratic Party’s corporate ties and anti-democratic behavior, surely we can support the Greens despite their weaknesses. Anyone who cares about centering the needs of ordinary people through policy has way more in common with the Greens than with the corporate Democrats. Maybe the party would be stronger if more people got involved instead of labeling them as kooks and spoilers. 

It’s also worth pointing out that Vote Blue No Matter Who has not exactly been an effective strategy to win left legislative goals or to advance an independent working-class movement, which should be the goal for leftists and socialists. 

As for legislative goals, the Democrats have betrayed left and progressive voters who propelled them to victory in 2020 by refusing to pass the $15 minimum wage that that Biden said he supported (blame it on the parliamentarian), implementing a student debt cancellation plan that is in legal limbo, and having dropped the ball completely on a public option for healthcare. Joe Biden tweets that healthcare is a “right,” but he’s not doing anything to make that “right” a reality. Never mind that we’re in a pandemic and the movement for Medicare for All has stalled. (AOC recently admitted as much and blamed the influence of the insurance industry.)

Even groups like DSA and Justice Democrats, groups that are heavily invested in running candidates on the Democratic Party “ballot line” (as if the Party is a neutral device that may be used for any ends), say they support building an “independent” movement of ordinary people. Well, when is the time to use electoral politics at the national level to build such a movement? If not now, when?

In 2020, Gray did an interview with AOC. They talked about many things, including having to vote for candidates in elections when there were no good options or voting for the lesser evil. At one point, AOC said, “Fear is designed to get you to run away from something, and it’s not a plan. Fear is not a plan. But courage is a plan. […] Courage is about our future.” She explained that it takes a lot of courage for someone to stand up and do something as the first person, but that people have to take action because it will galvanize others.

What AOC said about fear and courage is, in part, how I think about a third-party presidential run. Somebody has to do it—despite the fact that they will be Nader-ized. And when that person has the charisma necessary to energize people in this moment of deep political cynicism—as well as a record of consistently showing up for progressive values—we need to go for it.

What if we thought of West’s run not as a “sterile exercise” or only in reference to the two corrupt political parties? West himself has said that leaders can act as catalysts for movements—indeed, we saw this with Bernie and with the elections in recent years of democratic socialists all across the country. So what if we thought of West’s run as a chance to catalyze a larger independent working-class movement? What if West’s appeal could be broader than we think? What if we showed as much solidarity for West’s third-party run as we have year after year after year for a Democratic Party that will never serve our interests? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves. 

If we forgo an opportunity to get behind an exciting left campaign, we’re resigning ourselves to Marianne Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as the only alternatives. If we want an alternative to the two parties, here it is. 

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