Cornel West Should Run as a Democrat

Cornel West is a very serious man.

An intellectual superstar from the moment he graduated from Harvard (where he majored in Near Eastern languages and civilization), West was the first African American to be awarded a PhD in philosophy at Princeton. Though he wrote his doctoral dissertation on “Ethics, Historicism and the Marxist Tradition,” West also came under the influence of Richard Rorty and the American pragmatist revival during his time at Princeton. He has since taught at Yale (where he held a joint appointment with the college and the Divinity School), Harvard (where he taught in both the Department of African and African American Studies and the Divinity School, and was named a University Professor), Princeton (where he helped found the Center for African-American Studies), and the Union Theological Seminary, where since 2021 he has held the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair.

The author of numerous books—including the best-selling Race Matters—West has also recorded his own albums, performed on others with artists ranging from Terence Blanchard to Bootsy Collins, and even appeared in two of the Matrix films. He has also been arrested numerous times—including in Ferguson, Mo., where he was knocked down by the police—as part of a long and distinguished career as a leader in the fight for social justice and human rights. An adviser to Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign in 2000, a supporter of Barack Obama in 2008, and a key surrogate for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020, West has also served as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. Aside from Noam Chomsky, it’s hard to think of another public intellectual with West’s breadth of engagement or political experience. Unlikely though he is to win the White House, we believe West could make a terrific—even a historic—president.

Which makes it all the more unfortunate that instead of waging a campaign designed to push Joe Biden—and the country—in the direction of justice and compassion, West seems not just resigned but determined to remain on the margins.

He announced his campaign as a nominee for the tiny and scandal-plagued People’s Party, which has ballot access only in Florida. Then he moved his candidacy to the Green Party, but the Greens—who seem to have welcomed West with open arms—aren’t much of an improvement, with ballot access in only 15 states. Though the party does have a long history in Europe, the US Green Party reached its peak in 2000, when Ralph Nader won almost 3 million votes for president (and has been blamed by mainstream pundits ever since for the failure of Al Gore’s dismal campaign).

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.

The fact that Biden’s first term has matched every success with disappointment doesn’t change that calculus. He expanded pandemic relief and health coverage with the American Rescue Plan—but then let many of those measures lapse. He advocated climate and industrial policy initiatives with the Inflation Reduction Act—but also approved a massive new drilling project in Alaska. The choice between four more years of Biden or Trump is not difficult. But if ever there was a president in need of a left opposition, it’s the longtime centrist now in the White House.

There is, however, an available arena where West could still provide useful pressure by laying out the left alternative to Bidenism: the Democratic primaries. 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.

Instead of taking his bat and ball and retreating to the margins, we believe West should seek out the truly national stage that running as a Democrat would bring. Instead of letting Robert F. Kennedy Jr. leverage his family name—and his following as an anti-vaccine crusader—into an ersatz challenge from the left, West should mount a real one, offering the radical solutions he’s always championed, including on war and peace, and which we believe this country desperately needs.

Such a campaign would be good for the country—and for the Democratic Party, which, in the absence of such a contest, risks ceding the national spotlight to the Republicans. Running as a Democrat would transform West’s candidacy from a sterile exercise into a vehicle for redeeming our politics from the corporate complacency and soul-crushing cynicism about democratic politics that serves only those already in power. In short, it would be the act of a serious man.

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