Cornel West’s candidacy on the Green Party line confuses some of his longtime political allies and friends – while also alarming top Democrats and Black leaders as a potential ticking time bomb for President Joe Biden in next year’s election.
The political philosopher and proud agitator is tapping into his semi-celebrity to attack Biden from the left – where the president has never been fully embraced – and describing his administrations as a mere “postponement of fascism.” And as concerns over Black voter enthusiasm bubble among Democratic operatives, West is also making a deliberately race-based argument, accusing the Democratic establishment of treating the electorate like “a plantation where you got ownership status in terms of which way you vote.”
Most top Democrats remain skeptical West will raise enough money to mount an extensive operation – he jumped from the little-known People’s Party to the Greens after a rocky rollout – and are following the Biden campaign’s lead of deliberately not engaging with him.
But his decision to run on a ballot line which Democrats blame for spoiling both the 2000 and 2016 elections, when Green presidential nominees drew enough votes to help give Republicans key states in the Electoral College, has made his candidacy a running source of angst and, increasingly, a topic of private conversations among multiple Democratic leaders nationally and in battleground states
And while many political insiders have been buzzing about the group No Labels trying to get on the ballot in many states with a presidential candidate, the Greens are already there in 16 – and in 2016, got up to 44, including the most competitive states.
“This is going to sneak up on people,” said David Axelrod, a former Barack Obama adviser who also serves as a CNN political commentator. “I don’t know why alarm bells aren’t going off now, and they should be at a steady drumbeat from now until the election.”
There are no sirens blaring, but top Democrats in swing states have taken notice.
“We should be concerned. I don’t think time’s necessarily on our side. The longer these things hang out there, the worse it tends to get,” said Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, who acknowledged that the conversation about West has, so far, been more among insiders than voters. “We should try to deal with it rather quickly if we can.”
For now, Biden advisers remain hopeful that the president’s record and voters’ memories of 2016, when Jill Stein’s campaign won tens of thousands of votes in battleground states Hillary Clinton lost, will keep supporters from straying to West. It’s an approach much like the one being taken by Michigan Democratic chair Lavora Barnes, who told CNN, “I don’t think Cornel West or the Green Party is something we need to worry about, but it’s absolutely something we need to keep an eye on.”
Barnes has been already begun to talk about what she’s seeing, telling CNN that she recently met with her Black caucus chair about strategies to head off West by stepping up talk about the Biden administration’s accomplishments for Black voters.
Splitting opinion on the left
Personal affection and respect for West, a giant of the American left and pioneering political theorist, has led many to try to avoid discussing their dismay over his run.
At the top of that list, to the frustration of several top Biden supporters who discussed their feelings with CNN: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose two presidential campaigns prominently featured West as a speaker at his rallies and included the professor as part of his traveling inner circle.
Sanders declined multiple requests to discuss West’s campaign, only telling CNN that he did not speak to the candidate before launching. He shut down questions when asked directly about some of West’s comments about Biden.
“Dr. West is one of the most pure, good, and honest souls I have ever encountered,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, a Sanders confidant and one of his deputy campaign managers in 2020. “That can lead someone, even one of the most brilliant minds on the planet, to make incredibly wrong political choices.”
Multiple sources in leadership roles at several new progressive establishment groups told CNN they were surprised by West’s candidacy and their silence has been intentional. Even media outlets and leftist commentators who have held him in high regard for decades are urging West to reconsider and, in some notable cases, run as a Democrat in a primary challenge to Biden. Multiple top former Sanders aides told CNN they opposed the Green Party run and don’t understand what he is trying to accomplish through it.
The most the senator himself has discussed the run was back in April, saying, “People will do what they want to do.”
West was one of the early boosters of the modern Democratic Socialists of America in the early 1980s and later served as an honorary chair. But even two prominent members, asking for anonymity to speak critically about a man they admire, questioned West’s timing and reading of the political moment.
“He’s missing the mark in two ways: He’s either a threat to bringing the GOP back (as a spoiler) or, if you don’t care about that, he’s not doing the right gestures and organizational discipline” to appeal to far-left groups, one of the influential DSA members said.
Some high-profile Sanders supporters, though, are moving West’s way.
Nina Turner, a national co-chair of Sanders 2020 campaign who has remained a consistent Biden critic, described West’s run as a “moral calling,” though she is not currently working with the campaign in any formal capacity.
Another ally from the Sanders’ team, Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, told CNN he had not spoken to West since the campaign began and that he had “no idea” about his friend’s plans but would donate to the campaign. He said he would “see how things are panning out” when the election nears before deciding how to vote.
Tapping into Democratic worries about Black voter turnout
While Biden has consistently registered strong support among Black voters, strategists looking ahead to 2024 are already worried about what those trends may mean for Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin – all of which are critical to the president’s reelection hopes – if Black voters don’t show up for Biden in force. (Though there are fewer Black voters in Arizona, it’s also a state with a long history of left-leaning voters going Green, and where Biden edged out Trump by a little under 13,000 votes.)
Sensing that Black voter engagement will be a problem for them, the Congressional Black Caucus this week already launched a new PAC to fund a wider array of efforts to make the case into 2024. Davis said that will be part of the work he is looking to do, too, citing Black unemployment at the lower rate on record, the high rate of creation for new Black-owned businesses and investments in local projects like bus rapid transit in Pittsburgh and new water lines.
Asked about West’s candidacy, New York Rep. Greg Meeks – the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC – said he is confident the support will be there, citing other elements of Biden’s record, including money to take lead out of pipes, reduced insulin costs and low-cost broadband
“In this election, we’re going to take our case directly to Black voters to ensure our community is not bamboozled by perennial distractions,” Meeks said.
Billy Honor, the director of organizing for the New Georgia Project Action Fund, told CNN his group is also planning a campaign to highlight Democrats’ accomplishments, since Biden, despite enjoying a trusted brand with older Black voters, “is not popular in Atlanta.”
“West has the potential because he is – whether people like it or not, it’s the consequence of having such a long life in public service and in the public eye – he is the most famous Black intellectual of our generation,” Honor said. “There’s W.E.B. Du Bois and then there’s Cornel West.”
That public esteem and name recognition, along with a progressive agenda aligned with many organizers and activists, Honor said, could also add to West’s appeal with younger voters.
The Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee declined comment on West.
West still has to secure the Green nomination, but he insists he will not be a spoiler next November. He disputed that Jill Stein was when she ran on the Green line in 2016 and won more votes than the margin of difference in several states, including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, saying those people otherwise wouldn’t have voted at all.
But Democrats remain traumatized by that and many still blame Stein – also accusing her of being another pawn of Vladimir Putin’s attack on the 2016 elections, by virtue of her attendance at a state-owned “Russia Today” party in Moscow in 2015 and Russian troll farm activity boosting her campaign.
Stein, who is now working as the West campaign’s “interim coordinator” to help build out his team and fortify relationships with other Greens, told CNN in an interview that Democratic backlash to West’s candidacy hardly warranted a mention in their early discussions.
Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager in 2020, who said news of West’s campaign announcement “hit me completely out of the blue,” voiced a concern that is shared by many leaders on the left: “I just hope and pray that he’s not being taken advantage of and not being exploited by others for ulterior motives.”
West bristled at such suggestions.
“When people say, ‘Well, the Green Party’s using West,’ I mean, I don’t look at it that way. I think that we’re all in this movement together,” West added. “We’re trying to do the best that we can to bring some kind of light on the suffering and to bring some kind of vision and organization to try to minimize the suffering.”
Andrew Wilkes, a pastor in Brooklyn, said his longtime friend and ally’s aim was simple.
“At the heart of it,” he said, “is the desire to make sure you have a truly representative and equitable democracy.”
Activism for presidential campaigns before his own
The first Black student ever to get a PhD in philosophy from Princeton University, West will be on sabbatical after finishing the spring semester teaching at the Union Theological Seminary.
But he’s been a force in politics directly since his best-selling 1993 book “Race Matters,” still frequently cited by younger movement progressives as one of the texts that drew them into left-wing politics.
“What makes Dr. Cornel West so formidable is that he does have a relationship across generations,” Turner said. “Because of what’s he’s done in the classroom with four walls – and the classroom with no walls.”
In 2000, he campaigned for Ralph Nader, the Green Party nominee that year. In 2008, he backed Obama, though some Black leaders and older Black voters have never forgiven West for turning into one of the harshest critics of the first Black president.
He says he was just doing what he had always promised in pushing Obama to go harder on Wall Street and in tackling poverty.
“It looked like I was turning on him,” West added. “No, no. I was turning toward the people and he was the one that turned away from the people, poor and working people.”
After supporting Sanders in 2020, West endorsed and even stumped for Biden as part of what he described as an “antifascist coalition” arrayed against Trump.
But he told CNN he could not bring himself to pull the lever for Biden.
“Once I got in there, I thought about mass incarceration, the Crime Bill, thought about the invasion, occupation of Iraq. Those are crimes against humanity, for me,” West said, explaining that because Sanders had asked him not to use his name as a write-in, he “ended up not being able to vote for anybody.”
West’s view of Biden has only grown dimmer.
“Biden will only be a caretaker government against fascism,” West said. “You don’t fight fascism by simply supporting postponement administrations.”
Jeff Weaver, who ran Sanders’ 2016 campaign before becoming a senior adviser four years later, suggested that Biden’s relationships on the left were more durable than many pundits realize.
Weaver said the “respect” with which Biden has treated progressives – coupled with the threat of Trump looming – “goes a long way.”
West still harbors complaints about how he feels Sanders was not treated fairly by the Democratic Party. And though he did not dispute the assessment that Biden has worked collaboratively with progressives, he argued that the partnership was unbalanced.
“When we talk about a coalition, this is not a jazz band where everybody’s got equal voices,” West said. “Not at all. This is one that is hierarchical.”
West doesn’t yet have a campaign website with a list of specific policy prescriptions, though he has been fiercely critical of NATO and the Biden administration’s decision to send cluster bombs to Ukraine.
In a tweet accompanying his campaign launch video last month, West indicated that his campaign’s message would mirror his past work and rhetoric – ending poverty and mass incarceration, pushing for guaranteed housing, health care, education and living wages.
Despite frequent appearances in the media since launching, West still has not held a proper, in-person campaign rally.
That will change toward the end of the summer, he said, when he plans to do a “symbolic kickoff” in Mississippi for an event marking the anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. West says the family invited him, and he decided to make that his first public event as a candidate.
In the run-up to that more traditional launch, West said, he hopes to build his currently bare bones campaign up and raise the money to pay for it.
“We are wrestling with it,” he said, “day-by-day.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Andrew Wilkes’ relationship with Cornel West. The two are longtime allies and friends.