Cornel West’s Presidential Quest

July 9th, 2023 - by Calder McHugh / POLITICO

Cornel West Wants to Keep on Pushing
Calder McHugh / POLITICO

(July 7, 2023) — Cornel Westphilosopher/actor/political activist/spoken-word artist, is running for president — and his bid already looks markedly different than it did when he launched less than a month ago.

After a brief dalliance with the People’s Party — an upstart progressive organization that’s drawn ire from fellow leftists following an accusation of sexual assault against its founder, as well as their agitating against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — West is now seeking the nomination on the Green Party ticket.

And he’s got some help. Two-time Green Party presidential nominee (and favorite liberal punching bag) Jill Stein is assisting West as a “transition coordinator” in order to help him build campaign infrastructure and secure the Green Party’s nomination at their national convention next summer.

For decades, he’s been a steady and leading force in progressive politics — holding professorships or fellowships at Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Union Theological Seminary, among others — and consistently leading protests around the country and the world; he’s been arrested for peaceful agitating multiple times. He co-hosted a podcast, “The Tightrope,” with Brown University Professor Tricia Rose until 2021, and is still a regular presence on college campuses for speaking engagements.

After supporting former President Barack Obama in 2008, West called him a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface” right after his victory in 2012 and has continued to criticize the 44th president since. For the last two campaign cycles, West was a prominent surrogate of Sanders in the Democratic primary, often introducing him at campaign events.

In 2016, he endorsed Stein in the general election, and in 2020 he backed President Joe Biden, arguing he supported a “mediocre, milquetoast neoliberal centrist because he’s better than fascism, and a fascist catastrophe is worse than a neoliberal disaster.”

Today, West is back to arguing that we can no longer afford either one. “By refusing to speak to the needs of the poor and working people, the Democratic Party helps to facilitate and enable the Trumps and the DeSantises and others,” he says.

Even after a chaotic beginning to an ultra-long-shot campaign, he believes he’s the person to make that case.


Bernie Sanders and Cornell West

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

THE RECAST: You’ve been a public intellectual for decades. Why run for president now?

WEST: From the very beginning, I’ve always tried to engage in the fallible quest for the truth, and seeking of justice, and it shifts from context to context. I’ve been blessed to be in the classroom; I’ve been blessed to be in the streets; I’ve been blessed to be in the jail cell.

And it just seemed to me that electoral politics has reached such a low point that if the only choice is between Trump and Biden, it didn’t bode well for the country or the world. If the legacy that I’ve been wedded to — the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dorothy Day, Fannie Lou Hamer and others — if it spills over into electoral politics, then it might be a stronger force for good than remaining in the classroom.

THE RECAST: You’ve argued in your campaign so far that the Biden administration shouldn’t be supporting war in Ukraine. So broadly, how should the US behave on a global stage, and more narrowly how should they confront the war in Ukraine right now?

WEST: I would go straight to Ukraine and meet with Putin, meet with the Chinese elites, meet with the African leaders and say, “There’s got to be a ceasefire, we’ve got to stop the war, we’ve got to tell the truth about how we got into this war,” and everyone take their responsibility.

America must take its responsibility in terms of reneging on its promises of NATO not moving an inch. America must tell the truth about the ways in which NATO has been used as an arm of US global power. And then, of course, Putin has to take responsibility for criminal invasion and occupation.

America must be a nation among nations that is committed to justice. And deep democracy is what justice looks like in practice, just as justice is what love looks like in public, and so it would be a paradigm shift. The kind of language that I’m talking about is anti-imperial language in order to make America more democratic.

THE RECAST: Other than traveling to Ukraine, what would be your specific plans as president to end American involvement in wars around the world?

WEST: What does it mean to have 800 military units around the world? What does it mean that you have troops in 150 countries when 39 percent of Black children, 23 percent of all children are living in poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world, and we’re spending $1.5 trillion every year on the military budget? … We’re trying to dismantle this American imperial apparatus. … Militarism, a tie to imperial policy, a tie to aggressive policy, is always a dead end. It really is.

I mean, thank God we fought against Hitler, and Nelson Mandela had to fight against apartheid, but you try to opt for war in the most severe, austere circumstances when your back is up against the wall. And that has not been true with American militarism, for the most part.

That’s the triumph of Thrasymachus over Socrates in Plato’s “Republic.” I’m with Socrates. Might does not make right. You might be able to crush Socrates, but his legacy goes on. And the power mongers and the warmongers still think that they’re all mighty. They’re mighty but they’re not Almighty.

THE RECAST: And how about the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action?

WEST: This began with reparations — an attempt to repair some of the damage done by the barbaric slavery and the vicious Jim and Jane Crow. It shifted to diversity, and that became a very narrow criteria to use. And now that’s being called into question.

The question becomes, then, how do you make sure you try to treat all fellow citizens and human beings fairly and at the same time acknowledge the very deep and ugly legacy of white supremacy in the making of the country? That’s a larger issue. I’ve always argued that class and race go hand in hand — you can’t talk about the treatment of discriminated and degraded Black people without talking about poverty, without talking about jobs, without talking about a living wage, without talking about access to health care.

West pauses at a plaque in the sidewalk honoring Michael Brown following a memorial service marking the anniversary of his death Aug. 9, 2015 in Ferguson, Mo. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

I’ve said over and over again: If and when I win I’m not going to the White House until everybody has a house.

THE RECAST: What made you decide to run as a third-party candidate, rather than in the Democratic Party primary, where you’ve backed Bernie Sanders in the past two primary election cycles?

WEST: I have a deep love for Brother Bernie. He really is a brother, and brothers agree and disagree. I think he was treated so unjustly and so unfairly by the Democratic Party. The lesson that I learned was that the Democratic Party, for the most part, is a corporate-dominated party that uses its progressives often as window dressing. Bernie was not given the kind of chance that he deserved, which is to say our efforts were not given the kind of fair chance that they deserved.

By refusing to speak to the needs of the poor and working people, the Democratic Party helps to facilitate and enable the Trumps and the DeSantises and others. So, you end up with neo-fascism being in some ways dependent on neoliberalism and vice versa.

West speaks at a campaign rally for then-Democratic presidential candidate Bernie

That cycle, going around and around, means that we’re going to end up with fascism sooner or later. Every Democratic administration will just be a caretaker and a postponement for fascism to come. I am profoundly anti-fascist, and therefore I am trying to get at the roots of fascism.

THE RECAST: What was it about the People’s Party that attracted them to you in the first place?

WEST: I give them credit, they’re the ones who came to me and offered and said, “We would love for you to run for the People’s Party.” After a few days, I discovered lo and behold, they had baggage. That was a distraction more and more, and I’m trying to keep focus on the suffering of poor people.

So now I’ve shifted to the Green Party nomination process, and that makes a big difference — the People’s Party was on the ballot in one or two states, and the Green Party already has at least 17 and will probably have around 40 in a few months.

THE RECAST: Do you wish that you had just sought the Green Party nomination from the beginning?

WEST: It is what it is. As I said before, I wouldn’t be here if the People’s Party hadn’t come forward, and I’m forever grateful in that regard. But it’s in the rearview mirror, though I do have a united front sensibility. So I do want a variety of different free party formations, institutions, parties and organizations to become part of the campaign. Here we are now. Let’s hit it. Let’s keep moving. Curtis Mayfield said, “Keep on pushing,” my brother.

THE RECAST: Did you consult any current or former staff — or anyone else — about your decision to run for president?

WEST: No, not really. Not really. I spoke to my beloved wife, who’s not crazy about it, you can imagine. … I had to consider in terms of the political violence, it’s always potentially there, and could become actual at any moment.

Same is true with my blood brother [Clifton West]. He thought it through and he prayed on it as well — he’s a deacon in the church I grew up in, Shiloh Baptist Church. And he prayed over it, and he said, “‘I think this is consistent with your calling. This is how God can use you.”

With help from Ella Creamer, Rishika Dugyala, Jesse Naranjo and Teresa Wiltz

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.