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Why is Cornel West Playing a Human Shield for the Democrats – Once Again?

Rosa Clemente, who ran for Vice President with Cynthia McKinney in 2008, reminds us that Cornel West and many other notable left activists and intellectuals who have given lip-service to the need for an independent left politics in the U.S., dutifully lined-up to give their support to Barack Obama. For many of these leftists, the rationale offered to support the Democrat candidate wasn’t even about the traditional “lesser of two evils,” but a strange belief that somehow this individual, selected and pushed by powerful forces within the liberal democrat establishment and some defectors from the Clinton DLC wing of the party, represented a significant break with the neoliberal agenda that both parties had committed themselves to since the late 70s.

Brother West, who claimed that Barack Obama was a “good and decent brother” whose “character and judgement” would overcome his lack of experience, endorsed and campaigned incessantly for the freshmen senator from Illinois. In more than sixty appearances, West assured black and progressive audiences that Obama represented the embodiment of democratic hope to reverse a corrupt and moribund politics in the U.S.

Of course, being the pro-capitalist flim-flam man and opportunist pimp that he had always been for most of his adult life, Barack Obama had no intention of breaking with the corporate neoliberal agenda. Obama’s vigorous support for the bank bailout and the role he played lining up skeptical members of the Democrat party to get behind the Bush bailout in September 2008 should have been a wake-up to his “progressive” supporters that without significant pressure from his “left” all of his “liberal” campaign promises would be jettisoned and he KillingTrayvons1would govern from the right. Surprisingly, after Obama won and it became even more clear with his appointments and advisors that he was in fact going to govern as a neoliberal, many leftists, including West, withheld early criticisms of his policies and even more tragically decided to deploy a strangely passive and disempowering “wait and see” strategy.

Now almost eight years later and brother West is giving his support to Bernie Sanders, another candidate running as a Democrat. West professes a deep love for Sanders and identified Sanders as belonging to a tradition of “prophetic politicians” because according to West, he “ tells the truth about Wall Street, white supremacy, empire, patriarchy and homophobia.”

Prophetic politicians? Not only does this seem on the surface to be an oxymoronic construction, especially when one considers that bourgeois politicians almost by definition are self-creations as opposed to representing prophetic, popular mass-based movements, but his qualifiers for who would fit that category seems to disqualify every politician in the race today, including Sanders, and every mainstream person who ever ran for the presidency of the U.S.

Therefore, I think that it is legitimate to ask what is going on here. To question the politics and strategic reasoning behind what is turning out to be a consistent pattern of sheep-dogging for the Democrat party on the part of our dear brother.

As Bruce Dixon pointed out in Black Agenda Report related to the Sanders campaign:

“Sheepdogs are herders, and the sheepdog candidate is charged with herding activists and voters back into the Democratic fold who might otherwise drift leftward and outside of the Democratic party, either staying home or trying to build something outside the two party box.”

What is being argued here is that sheep-dogging for the democrat party is not reducible to support for this or that candidate, but to the corrupt institution and the anti-people interests represented by the democrat party itself.

I am not making some purist argument against radical participation in electoral politics or a principled opposition to a strategy of contestation within the national Democrat party depending on the objective circumstances at a particular moment.

The Sanders campaign is a fact, the only question for progressives and/or radicals is to determine how they relate or not relate to the campaign and whether or not it can be used for progressive purposes? I for one, am not interested in just attacking the campaign and have, consequently, refrained from the debate on the left around the campaign until now.

But with the endorsement of the campaign by West and the possible impact it might have for progressive and left-leaning African Americans and their attitudes toward the Democrat party and its politics, the principle of accountability that West has mentioned numerous times, demands a further explanation from West related to the politics that he claims to champion.

My position is that within the candidate-centered style of bourgeois politics, if a radical alternative and contestation within the democratic party is not grounded by an independent political structure, or an organized and coordinated radical “social bloc,” the insurgency will not last beyond the election cycle and will only result in expanding the social base of support for the party.

But even more importantly, the struggle to break the grip of the Democrat party has serious implications beyond the national electoral cycle for black politics. The local Democrat party apparatus is the home for the retrograde politics of neoliberal black petit-bourgeois urban regimes across the country. Any politics that further legitimizes the narrow politics and policy options championed by local black Democrats and their party only makes it harder to reconnect black resistance with its radical foundations and history.

To his credit, brother West broke with the liberal-centrist democrat coalition relatively early, compared to the opportunism and tailism of many other black leftist celebrities. And with Obama’s second run in 2012, West informed the public that he didn’t vote at all because he could not bring himself to vote for a “war criminal”.

But with the endorsement of Sanders, we need to ask brother West how the objective necessity for building independent power among the black working class and poor is advanced by support for the Sander’s campaign. What does that endorsement represent in terms of a strategy? Is it part of an inside-outside strategy for contesting power within the Democrat party? And if so, from what social base? Where is the authority derived from for advancing this strategy? What about the question of political independence from the bourgeois parties? Is the Sander’s campaign supposed to represent an independent thrust in U.S. politics?

In response, West might argue that his endorsement of Sanders is related to his belief that 1) Sanders represents a departure from traditional corporate democrat party priorities and that 2) Sanders can win the nomination and thus will be in a position to halt or least slow the right-ward movement of politics in the U.S., and 3) he might argue more clearly that even if Sanders does not win, his candidacy with the issues raised and the public airing of important contradictions reflected in the neoliberal corporate agenda will force the eventual nominee to take on more populist positions in favor of workers and the poor.

Assuming for the sake of argument here, that this is the rationale for West’s endorsement, and it seems to me to be the most logical explanation based on my understanding of his politics and public statements on the matter, the political calculus represented by those points does not avoid the charge of sheep-dogging for the Democrats.

West can reasonably argue that his endorsement is only his and does not represent any standing as a movement leader or the representative of any organized political structure. However, as probably the most visible black public intellectual and activist in the U.S., he understands that his endorsement goes well beyond him as an individual and that is why there must be accountability.

West argues that Sanders’ deserves support because of his positions on Wall Street and by extension the billionaire bankers that Sanders’ condemns. And of course within the context of conservative political culture in the U.S., any criticism of the extreme class contradictions represented by the wealth concentration among the small billionaire class is a welcome contribution to the ongoing ideological battle. But beyond Sander’s focus on wealth concentration and economic inequality, does his campaign utterances really differ substantially from many of the positions taken by Barack Obama in 2007-8?

However, even more damaging question for West who has always ground his politics in a revolutionary ethical framework, is how he squares his endorsement for Sanders with his ethics when it comes to Sander’s foreign policy positions

For West, the most troubling aspect of Sanders’ foreign policy positions is his continued support for the Israeli occupation: “I don’t hear my dear brother Bernie hitting that, and I’m not gonna sell my precious Palestinian brothers and sisters down the river only because of U.S. politics.”

But as morally challenged as West might be regarding Sanders’ support for Israel, it is Sander’s positions on a whole host of other foreign policy positions that should cause some pause for brother West.

Sander’s stakes out a position very similar to many white leftist on the issue of Ukraine, Putin and the destruction of Libya and Syria. And his argument that the reactionary dictatorship of Saudi Arabia should be encouraged to become more militarily involved in the region is just bizarre.

But what should be the most problematic position for West and his endorsement of Sanders and his placement of Sanders in the category of “prophetic politicians, is his recent statement that he would continue Obama’s illegal and immoral drone warfare. And as everyone is aware, it was the issue of drone warfare waged by Obama that West relentlessly condemned.

The Dead-end Politics of Liberal Reformism and Social Democracy

There is blatant dishonesty in claiming to want a changed domestic policy in the United States without also changing foreign policy. The two are linked, and American workers can’t have a living wage or health care as long as imperialism goes unchecked. Liberals can’t claim superiority to followers of Donald Trump if they consent to war crimes and human rights violations. Their only requirement seems to be that Democrats ought to be in charge of the carnage.

Margaret Kimberly

While West identifies the contradictions of neoliberalism and the dominance of finance capital as the source of the economic and moral crisis of Western states, Sanders articulates a mild form of European social democracy that has never been able to fully embrace the politics that would lead to a rupture with capitalism.

Sanders program of economic nationalism from his opposition to TPP to a raising income for working people, is still based on the assumption of the continued disproportionate consumption patterns and income generation guaranteed by the global hegemony of the imperialist/capitalist West. Solidarity with the populations slated for super-exploitation as a result of these neoliberal trade agreements is not even an afterthought.

Where is the prophetic break with empire and white supremacy? Bernie Sander’s policy prescriptions appear to be firmly grounded in the grand tradition of European social democracy, that is, politically and philosophically committed to capitalist reform. His economic program reflects a position that understands the functioning of capitalism as 1) a system that can still be reformed with the right policies, and 2) is predicated on the assumption that the “American” way of life, the middle-class dream, will only be maintained by the continued, brutal suppression and exploitation of the world’s people’s.

And while West claims that he would be upset with Sanders if he just turned his power over to Clinton, are we supposed to believe that he thinks Sanders would do something differently if he didn’t win the nomination?

No brother West, we are not convinced that you and all of the other radicals who support Sanders are not going to give your support to the eventual Democratic nominee if Sanders doesn’t win the nomination.

You revealed from your own actions in 2012 that you are not committed in any way to a national electoral politics outside of the two party system when you decided that instead of voting for the only national third party candidate running in 2012, the Green Party’s Jill Stein, you made a conscious choice not to cast your vote for anyone!

Instead of drawing voters into an independent political alignment representing an authentic attempt to democratize the anti-democratic electoral processes in the U.S., you and Sanders are drawing voters into the corrupt Democratic party with no discernable plans to build anything beyond the activities of the national electoral cycle.

And brother West, you can’t quote King on his stance against militarism and support a candidate that is unable to utter a word against U.S. militarism. You can’t condemn Obama as the “drone president” and give moral cover to a candidate that confesses that he would continue that immoral policy.

You can’t proclaim the value of Black lives and support a candidate that is just as willing as the other imperialist candidates to shed non-European blood from Yemen, Gaza and Syria to the 651 military operations carried out by the U.S. military in Africa last year, in the interests of maintaining Pan-European colonial/capitalist hegemony.

“Every sheepdog candidate surrenders the shreds of his credibility to the Democratic nominee in time for the November election. This is how the Bernie Sanders show ends…”

Brother West, I raise these questions as someone who defended you when the Obama Negroes were calling for your head. You should consider that as black people in the U.S. build a militant, independent resistance movement for liberation and socialism for themselves and the people of the world, you risk your credibility in the “chocolate” cities of the U.S. and the non-white spaces of the world by once again giving your support to a democrat party candidate that is committed to upholding the interests of empire.

Unfortunately, unlike the criticism coming from the blind supporters of Obama, this time my brother, you have been caught in a moral and political contradiction of your own making.

More articles by:

Ajamu Baraka is the national organizer of the Black Alliance for Peace and was the 2016 candidate for vice president on the Green Party ticket. He is an editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report and contributing columnist for Counterpunch magazine. 

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