In a surprising, welcome, sacrificial move Cornel West has expressed his intention to seek the U.S. presidency in 2024. At first glance, this seems like an irresponsible distraction from a deadly serious national election by a person who has never been a politician and has no hope of becoming president. Putting his hat in the ring has little prospect of attracting votes except from an alienated fragment of the citizenry. Yet in a close election as seems probable, West as a third party candidate might win enough votes to help a neo-fascist right-wing candidate like Trump or Ron DeSantis march lockstep to a victory disastrous for the U.S. and dangerous for the world. At the same time do not the American people deserve a better choice than Biden v. Trump? And Cornel West with admirable concreteness suggests that this is a not a remote phantasy, but a legally possible alternative if the political will supported such a new beginning.
Such the contrary argument contends that for West to use the pulpit of a presidential candidacy to sound an alarm about the coming of neo-fascism to America may help bring about what he most fears and detests. Granted that this is a serious concern to be pondered, but to give in to such contentions requires maintaining silence in the face of deeply flawed choices given to the electorate. Foregoing a symbolic presidential challenge has the effect of excluding from national debate the vital question of acceptable political leadership in the US on such concerns as systemic racism, predatory capitalism, hyper-militarism, migration/asylum and ecological criminality. These, and some other key issues, have long enjoyed the bipartisan backing of both major political parties causing social unrest at home, destruction abroad, and squandered opportunities to achieve disarmament, ecologically sustainable development, and equity with respect to economic rewards, punishments, and social protection.
More concretely, these underlying realities limit voters to choosing between a war-mongering Biden presidency for another four years or giving the overtly neo-fascist Trump a second chance to steer the country toward becoming an autocratic enclave for the billionaire class and ultra nationalist minorities. Perhaps, if the U.S. was not the first global militarist state in world history, but only one among many middle powers, the choice of Biden would probably make enough of a positive difference in terms of humanistic values as to make West’s diversionary candidacy dismissible as an example of an irresponsible exhibition of narcissism. But this is not the case here.
Biden’s response to the Russian attack on Ukraine was not one that sought an early ceasefire and diplomatic compromise. Rather it opted for send high quality weaponry and abundant economic assistance to Ukraine to enable, as well as persuade its government to maintain the war ‘for as Lon as it takes.’ NATO/US have seemed less motivated by the defense of Ukraine or upholding the Charter norm against aggression than by an overwhelming interest in humiliating Putin, defeating Russia, and warning China. Not only this. Biden added a geopolitical level of encounter to the devastating war on the ground in Ukraine, with the apparent belief that inflicting defeat on Russia would lead China to give up any hope of incorporating Taiwan. This agenda aims above all at extending U.S. unipolar primacy as a permanent feature of the post-Cold War world, effectively a ‘Monroe Doctrine for the entire world.’ Such a provocative course of action was undertaken in the face of risking nuclear escalation and the likelihood of another ‘forever war,’ undoubtedly inflicting upon the people of Ukraine prolonged suffering and accompanying devastation. In the background of such behavior is an apparent cavalier attitude toward the onset of a new cold war, which is already underway in the form of a costly, risky arms race, uncooperative problem-solving in response to an array of global challenges that cannot be successfully addressed on a state-by-state basis.
Above all, Biden’s Cold War style of partisan internationalism seems to imperil the peoples of the world to an even greater extent that does Trump’s determined repudiation of the mainstays of procedural democracy (respect for electoral outcomes and a commitment to peaceful transfer of power; an independent judiciary; and a rule of law with the will and capability to hold the wealthy and powerful accountable as well as the weak and vulnerable.) Trump also threatens gender equality and women’s reproductive rights, LGBT rights, and media independence, and remains an outspoken advocate of the gun lobby and a seeming champion of right-wing militia activism, systemic racism, and white supremacism. Overall, not a pretty picture, but looked at from a longer, detached, planetary perspective, less damaging to the species than what Biden offers.
The so-called two-party system may seem to create a meaningful choice, but it is an illusion fostered by the belief that bipartisanship on the destructive sides of public policy can be reconciled with the imperatives of peace, justice, and ecological sanity at home and in the world. Cornel West is stepping forth to expose the dangerous fallacy lurking beneath the conventional belief that these toxic structures are beyond the realm of political challenge and transformative change. It is not paranoid to conclude that democracy is the U.S. has become more a matter of procedures, funding rivalry, and special interests rather than of substance dedicated to the public good. When was the last time that a mainstream presidential candidate in the U.S. proposed defense cuts, a stronger UN, reevaluating the special relationships of unconditional support accorded Israel and Saudi Arabia, or advocated the repeal of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution affirming the right to bear arms?
There have been prominent third-party candidates in the past, most notably a Texan libertarian business tycoon concerned with the public debt, Ross Perot, an outright Southern segregationist, George Wallace, and most relevantly, Ralph Nader, running on the Green Party in 2000. These candidates were able to deliver dissident messages, but were attacked as spoilers, that is, sham candidates that diverted votes from the real contenders, thus distorting the electoral results and eroding the value of elections as a reflection of citizen preferences, and thus of people power. Let us suppose that just enough North Americans vote for Trump (or an equivalent) to defeat his Democratic opponent, great anger will be directed at West, as was the case in 2000 when Nader’s 97,121 votes in Florida, allowed George W. Bush to win the state by 537 votes, and thereby prevent an Al Gore victory (due to the federalist peculiarities of the US Electoral College system of weighted voting), which effectively disregards majoritarian democracy.
With fall awareness of the possible adverse consequences, I unhesitatingly support Cornel West’s run for the presidency in 2024, fully expecting hostility and incomprehension from my liberal friends. West, a staunch friend from the time we were faculty colleagues at Princeton between 1988 and 1994, won my love and respect then, and ever since. West is North America’s most brilliant public intellectual, a spellbinding speaker who for decades has been unafraid to speak truth to power in a totally subversive, energizing rhetoric. And the truth he speaks combines eloquence, passion, and spiritual wisdom is in the tradition of William Du Bois, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela contra violence and all forms of oppression. Like his predecessors West promises a humanistic assault on predatory capitalism and post-colonial forms of exploitation of workers, migrants, convicts, indigenous peoples, minorities. In Cornel’s words, “Neither party wants to tell the truth about Wall Street, about Ukraine, about the Pentagon, about big tech.” West demands social protection for all at home, an end to geopolitical militarism around the world, and a pervasive commitment to justice, internationalism, and above all the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity.
West for many years a fearless African-American voice of justice, with Christian and socialist overtones, was initially known for his depiction of systemic racism in his influential book Race Matters (1992) followed a decade later by Democracy Matters. Revealingly, West openly attacked Barack Obama for his complicit accommodation with US militarism and hegemonic capitalism, whom he ironically derided as “a Rockefeller Republican in blackface.” West seems closer in his affinities to Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Edward Said and Jean-Paul Sartre, leading white public intellectuals, who spoke as they believed whatever the personal costs. Each was an advocate of transformative politics—‘a socialism to come’—than a politics of feasibility that chose to live with the evils of the system by opting for a politics of ‘the lesser of evils.”
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