In announcing that he’s running for president under the auspices of the Movement for a People’s Party (MPP), the distinguished thinker and progressive activist Cornel West has set himself up to be attacked from all sides. For supporters of the Democratic Party, such as my colleague Joan Walsh, West is preparing to act as a spoiler in the mode of Ralph Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016 by running a campaign that can only siphon off votes from Joe Biden at the risk of handing the presidency to a Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis. But there’s a contrary critique made by people who share West’s desire to create a movement that pressures mainstream Democrats such as Biden to move left. These critics think West has the right goal—but has chosen a deeply damaged vehicle in the People’s Party.
Formed in 2017 by activists upset at the treatment Bernie Sanders received from the Democratic Party establishment during his 2016 run for the presidential nomination, the People’s Party has been a fringe, ramshackle, and scandal-ridden operation, with accusations of sexual assault being leveled against founder Nick Brana. The MPP is only on the ballot in Florida, which isn’t close to being a swing state. Far from threatening Biden’s reelection chances, West as People’s Party candidate is more likely to render the left even more marginal.
In 2022, the journalist Eoin Higgins reported that “former MPP member Paula Jean Swearengin claimed that she had witnessed Brana attempting to force himself on the group’s former executive director Zana Day.” This version of events was confirmed by Day in a statement to the journalist Jordan Chariton. Brana denies these allegations.
I asked Higgins what he thought about West’s decision to run as the People’s Party candidate. (Under the opaque rules of the People’s Party, it’s not clear whether there will even be a primary. It appears that West will be nominated by acclamation). He responded, “The People’s Party has had some issues with regard to leadership that are definitely antithetical to progressivism.” Aside from the scandal with Brana, Higgins called attention to the MPP’s ties to the podcaster Jimmy Dore, who has a history of controversial views such as whitewashing the far-right Boogaloo Boys and promoting vaccine skepticism.
The journalist Krystal Ball, speaking on the program she cohosts called Breaking Point, said, “The choice of running in this way with the People’s Party is just confusing to me” given the party’s lack of ballot access. According to Ball, “Effectively you are signing up for what is a write-in campaign.”
A 2021 report in The Vanguard, based on interviews with disaffected party members, described the MPP as riddled with “dysfunction” and “allegations of mistreatment and unprofessional behavior on every level.” That same year, Washington Babylon also ran a profile of the party that quoted multiple former party members expressing anger at the party’s disorganization.
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Writing in The New Republic, Prem Thakker summed up the existing reporting by noting,
While the party began in 2017 with noble roots to form a new political party independent from corporate money and influence, it has been mired in troubling allegations, as well as broader organizational dysfunction. Numerous sources have corroborated sexual harassment allegations against party founder Nick Brana.… Numerous party board members were apparently forced out for encouraging investigations into the allegations and questioning whether Brana was still fit to lead the party.
On Wednesday, Amy Goodman interviewed West on Democracy Now!, where she quoted Thakker’s critique of the People’s Party. West’s response acknowledged the critique, but offered little that would reassure critics of the party.
But in terms of the history of the People’s Party, you know, I was there at the founding. There’s no doubt about that. And I’ve been a kind of honorary member of the board, even though I haven’t participated. So I haven’t followed all of the insides and outsides of what has happened. It strikes me that there’s been some very bad and ugly moments. There’s no doubt about that. But I don’t want to adjudicate as to who actually is guilty or who’s actually innocent, because I just don’t know. But there has to be accountability, and especially when it comes to sexual harassment in terms of sisters of any color. Those are very, very important issues to wrestle with and very serious charges in that regard.
West went on to reiterate the need for a third party to harness progressive energy and offer a challenge to the two-party duopoly.
Answering my queries about the critique she made of the People’s Party on Breaking Point, Ball questioned not just the party but the whole logic of running as a third-party candidate. She noted that the People’s Party “has never elected a candidate and has no proven ability to gain ballot access in the number of states you’d need to be a real threat worth reckoning with. The sexual harassment issues and general disarray give the establishment way too much to work with to dismiss your whole effort.”
Ball suggested that running within the Democratic primaries might be a better option. “I don’t think third-party efforts have proven successful even in pushing the establishment left. In fact, it appears to me they’ve backfired,” Ball observed. “Jill Stein was a credible spoiler. It didn’t push Hillary to the left, or Biden for that matter. Instead of forcing establishment Dems to listen to lefty voters, the Stein campaign led to the entire left being smeared, and dismissed as fascist enablers and Putin puppets etc. Whereas, I do think that the fact Biden had to run against Bernie in the primary forced him to take positions he otherwise would not have. For example, Biden clearly would not have embraced any student debt cancellation were it not for Bernie and others forcing the issue. Once Biden was cornered into an ironclad pledge on the trail, activists were able to pressure him to make good on a portion of this promise. I think you could make a similar case with regards to climate action. It was all wildly insufficient, of course, but led to Biden being significantly more progressive than he had been for the rest of his career.”
It’s unlikely that West will take this suggestion and run a Bernie Sanders–style campaign. But he might be amenable to running for another party that isn’t as troubled as the People’s Party: the Green Party. On Friday, the journalist Christopher Hedges spoke at a Workers Strike Back event. Despite his past involvement with the People’s Party, Hedges said he “shares” the concerns critics have voiced. He also indicated that he had arranged for West to talk to Green Party activists.
Cornel West has several possible paths: running as the People’s Party nominee, running in the Democratic primaries, or running in the Green Party primaries (with possible support from the People’s Party). The decision he makes will reveal what sort of campaign he wants to run: Is it just a purely symbolic campaign to raise the profile of issues he feels are neglected? Or does he want to put real electoral pressure on mainstream Democrats like Joe Biden? If West is serious about the second goal, the People’s Party is definitely not the right vehicle.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the People’s Party was on the ballot in Missouri and Virginia. The party is only on the ballot in Florida.