Cornel West Should Not Be Running for President

Cornel West Should Not Be Running for President

Cornel West Should Not Be Running for President

He doesn’t see a third party playing a spoiler role to Democrats as bad—and that’s inevitable.


This is a great country. Anyone can run for president.

That said, Cornel West has no business running for president, from the left, right, or center.

I loved early Democratic Socialists of America leader Cornel West. I loved author of the 1993 book Race Matters West. I loved everything about West until he supported spoiler Ralph Nader against then–Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

A lot of my political friends supported Ralph Nader back then. And a lot of them have since apologized. Even Michael Moore. The Iraqi people, and the people of the entire globe, are so much the worse since Gore, the climate-change believer and war skeptic, was defeated by George W. Bush that year, with an assist from the Supreme Court. And Nader’s Green Party.

West never apologized. He didn’t see a third party playing a spoiler role to Democrats as bad—obviously, since he’s about to do it again. He did support Barack Obama in 2008, but he turned on him fairly quickly, making criticisms that went way beyond Obama’s political decisions. Then he supported Jill Stein in 2016. More recently, West has gone off the deep end. He promoted his 2024 candidacy, on the fringe People’s Party line, with an appearance on former comedian Russell Brand’s Web show, now frequented by right-wingers. And weeks ago, he praised Florida’s extremist governor, Ron DeSantis, in The Wall Street Journal, “for his revolutionary defense of the classics.”

It turns out his op-ed’s coauthor is the founder and CEO of the Classic Learning Test, a Christian alternative to the SAT DeSantis has been talking up, and West is one of its academic advisers.

This is a downhill spiral even for West, who also spiraled downward after Obama’s victory. He trashed the president he’d endorsed on multiple platforms. Some called it personal: The bellhop at West’s hotel on Inauguration weekend wound up with tickets to the event when West didn’t. Obama stopped returning his calls. I don’t know. But a weird animus seemed to drive his attacks on our first Black president.

West tried to frame his opposition as a universalist defense of poor and working-class people. They didn’t get enough help from Obama’s Wall Street–adjacent administration, I admit. But calling the president “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats” was awful. West went on to claim that Obama was afraid of “free black men” thanks to his white ancestry and Ivy League education. (West was at Princeton then, after stints at Harvard and Yale.)

“[Obama] feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men who consider themselves very smart, very savvy and very effective in getting what they want,” West went on.

Asked about that by The New York Times, West replied:

It’s in no way an attempt to devalue white or Jewish brothers. It’s an objective fact. In his administration, he’s got a significant number of very smart white brothers and very smart Jewish brothers. You think that’s unimportant?

As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote at the time, political critiques—about the size of the stimulus package, about drone attacks in Pakistan, about Obama not fighting hard enough for a public option—are “fair game.” But “I think calling someone a ‘black mascot’ or a ‘black puppet’ because they don’t agree with you is much less so.”

West and Nader then tried to launch a primary attack on Obama. Senator Bernie Sanders thought about it and wisely decided against it. There wasn’t—and my opinion, still isn’t—a Democratic Party constituency for the kind of left-wing policies, or an attack on a Black president, they wanted to launch.

But now West wants to challenge Joe Biden, who is indeed a white president, who nonetheless won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 thanks to overwhelming Black support. Which he will have again.

What does West bring to the race? A roster of legitimate complaints, but without any plan for achievable change. “I am running for truth and justice as a presidential candidate for the People’s Party to reintroduce America to the best of itself—fighting to end poverty, mass incarceration, ending wars and ecological collapse, guaranteeing housing, health care, education, and living wages for all!” Who could disagree? It could all be the sort of idealistic word-collage we get from Marianne Williamson, but in West’s case, running as a third-party candidate poses a far more serious risk to Biden’s reelection and to the fate of the country. Just be clear: He will only take votes away from Biden and help elect a Republican.

But even if he were to run as a Democrat, like 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. Williamson, West, and Kennedy are all, sadly, narcissists looking for the spotlight, with some great policy positions hanging out along either right-wing policies—Kennedy defends guns and hates (many) vaccines. West loves a classics-only curriculum, which has traditionally left out teaching about other cultures as well as the Western world’s racial sins. Williamson… loves everyone, except, apparently, her staff.

West’s campaign video featured an appearance on Bill Maher’s Real Time. Unfortunately, Maher, who has also hosted me three times, has become an anti-woke, anti-Democrat crusader. Maybe that makes a coalition to West? To me, it makes an alliance of privileged yet strangely aggrieved men. Plus Russell Brand. To be fair, Nina Turner also supports West.

Senator Bernie Sanders has already endorsed Biden. West seems to be trolling right-wing venues for support. Criticize Biden all you want, but show me your political and electoral coalition alternative, unless you want to turn the world back over to Trump, or equally bad, DeSantis. I’m sad that West wound up here. I’d like him to find a way out of this destructive political cul de sac. But I don’t know what that would be, and until then, it’s incumbent on everyone who knows his tragic political past to talk about it.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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