Cornel West Should Challenge Biden in the Democratic Primaries

Cornel West has a compelling message. Instead of running a third-party campaign most voters won’t notice, he should grab the spotlight by challenging Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination.

Cornel West speaking at Harvard University on October 22, 2019 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Paul Marotta / Getty Images)

Cornel West is running for president. He announced last Monday in a short video referencing issues including Medicare for All, “decent housing,” abortion rights, the war in Ukraine, and ensuring that everyone has “access to a job with a living wage.”

Dr West has a record of writing and activism on many of these issues that stretches back several decades. And he has a way of talking about them that conveys not just a political perspective but a deeply compelling moral vision. I can hardly think of anyone I’d rather see replace the deeply mediocre Joe Biden as president of the United States — to, as West said in a recent appearance on Democracy Now!, become “the head of Empire to help dismantle it.”

Unfortunately, West is planning to run on the ballot line of an obscure third party. I doubt that as many as 1 percent of American voters even know that the “People’s Party” exists.

That’s a shame. West’s message is important, and if he’s going to spend the next year pouring his considerable energies into a run for the presidency, he should do it in the place where he could bring it to the largest audience that’s realistically available to him. He should challenge Joe Biden in the race for the 2024 Democratic nomination.

Cornel West Is Good, Actually

Writing in the Nation, Joan Walsh recites a litany of familiar liberal objections to West and concludes that it’s a terrible idea for him to run for president.

At one point, Walsh insinuates that West — a lifelong socialist — is becoming friendly to the political right. Her main piece of evidence is that he coauthored a short op-ed praising Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s decision to let high school seniors apply for a state-funded scholarship by submitting their scores from the “Classics Learning Test.” While DeSantis is a deeply odious figure, the idea that West’s convergence with him on this relatively minor issue represents some sort of lurch to the right is absurd.

West has spent decades writing about the value of getting students to read Plato and Aristotle and Thucydides, which explains his support. And he’s very thoroughly on record as disagreeing with most of what DeSantis stands for — as he said to Amy Goodman, he thinks DeSantis is the kind of person who would have sentenced Socrates to death. But he still sees value in the governor encouraging Florida students to read Socrates’s words. It’s a bit much for a supporter of Joe Biden, who just finished working with Republicans to negotiate a bipartisan debt ceiling deal that shrinks the welfare state, to get upset about Cornel West giving a Republican credit-where-credit’s-due for encouraging more Florida students to read Greek philosophy.

Walsh also floats the possibility that West’s turn against Barack Obama after 2008 was motivated by pique at personal sleights, like not being invited to the inauguration. But West’s hostility to Obama’s Wall Street–friendly administration is rooted in a worldview he’d held since at least the 1970s. West was an academic before he was a public figure, and his doctoral dissertation has long since been republished as a book called The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought.

Ultimately, Walsh’s most basic objection to West’s run for president is that he’ll undermine Joe Biden and thus, she thinks, help Republicans.

He will only take votes away from Biden and help elect a Republican.

But even if he were to run as a Democrat, like [Marianne] Williamson and the deeply off Robert F. Kennedy Jr., he would still hurt Biden, because a primary gives the bored, supine media a reason to hype “Dems in disarray” stories.

There’s a tactical discussion to be had about whether socialists who live in states whose electoral votes are meaningfully “up for grabs” should hold their noses and vote for the lesser evil. But blaming third-party candidates or their voters when Democrats lose elections shifts blame away from politicians whose job it is to put forward a message that appeals to those voters. And the argument that even challenging Biden in the primaries is out of bounds because it would lead to news stories embarrassing to the incumbent is deeply antidemocratic.

Breaking the Duopoly?

Some socialists have the opposite objection to the idea of Dr West running as a Democrat. They object to America’s quasi-official “two-party system” and hope that a third-party run would undermine that system.

If that’s the goal, West would be better off running with the Green Party than the People’s Party. The latter is a pretty dubious outfit with a history of scandals and nothing resembling structures of internal democracy. And it has ballot access in far fewer states.

But the larger problem is that the two-party system can’t just be willed out of existence. It’s deeply entrenched. The Green Party got 3 percent of the vote two decades ago when it ran Ralph Nader and neither the Greens nor any other left-wing third party have come anywhere near replicating that result since.

Skeptics about the Democratic-primaries route often point to what happened in 2020, when the Democratic establishment lined up to stop Bernie Sanders from getting the nomination. But this is an odd argument. Bernie was getting about 35 percent of the vote in the primaries. That was enough to carry him to victory in the first three states. He lost because he couldn’t translate it into a majority when Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out and Bernie was facing a two-man race against Biden. If West got 4 percent as a candidate of the People’s Party, on the other hand, that would be little short of miraculous.

I agree that a real multiparty democracy — on the model of countries where it’s common to have a number of different parties jostling for power and occasionally forming coalition governments — would be far preferable to the narrowly constricted choices typically available to American voters. But I see very little evidence that third-party runs under present circumstances add up to any sort of contribution to making that vision a reality. It would probably take deep changes in the way American elections work, some of which would require amending the Constitution.

The last time a new major party came on the scene was Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party, which grew out of the antislavery wing of the Whigs. That was long before many of the current obstacles to new parties, like deeply unfair ballot access laws, were put in place. And even without those obstacles, the most likely scenario for the appearance of a new major party would be the same one that played out in the 1850s — a new party emerging out of a struggle within one of the existing major parties. There’s nothing even remotely resembling a precedent for one emerging from an act of will by a tiny band of activists.

Even if West runs as a Democrat, no one should deceive themselves — we’d still be talking about a very long shot. It’s legitimate to ask whether the Left’s energies would be better invested on other projects.

But West’s message is vitally important to the future of American democracy, and he’s a gifted messenger. If he’s going to do this, he should grab the biggest megaphone available to him. That means taking on Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination.