Instead of Trashing Cornel West, Here’s what Democrats Could Do if they Actually Cared about Social and Economic Justice

Photograph Source: amberdc – CC BY 2.0

Dr. Cornel West is a professor, philosopher, activist, world-renowned public intellectual, and the premiere standard bearer of the black prophetic tradition in the United States. He announced his Presidential bid in early June of 2023. Fed up with endless war and the corrupt corporate duopoly, Dr. West’s presidential platform centers poor and working people, anti-imperialism, social, economic and environmental justice. In a newly released video, West said that his campaign would be centered around health care, a living wage, housing, reproductive rights and “de-escalating the destruction” of democracy and the planet.

Dr. West first announced his presidential launch from the People’s Party, and is now seeking the nomination of the Green Party. He’s intending to build a “broad united front and coalition strategy” by seeking the nomination of various third parties.

In the first two weeks of his campaign, the corporate media and even some progressive media outlets have already run multiple hit pieces against him. MSNBC launched a baseless, frontal attack with “Cornel West’s ‘leftist’ presidential bid has right-wing DNA.” The once progressive magazine,The Nation, published both “Cornel West Should Not Be Running for President” as well as “Cornel West Is the Right Man in the Wrong Party.” And even the supposedly socialist magazine, Jacobin, ironically published “Cornel West Should Challenge Biden in the Democratic Primaries.

As a former advisor to the Bernie Sanders campaign, West deeply understands the futility of running as a Democrat, inside a corporate party that has a track record of derailing independent, progressive candidates in favor of corporate-backed, establishment ones.

And when asked on a recent episode of Bad Faith with Briahna Joy Gray, why he wouldn’t strategically take advantage of running with the Democratic Party for the sake of being a part of public polling, gaining mainstream media access, etc., West replied, “What I like about the third -party strategy… is that it is a clear and unequivocal affirmation of the rot at the center of the Democratic Party, and the corporate wing suffocating the progressive wing. That’s Brother Bernie, the Squad, etc. They forever run up against a stone wall and end up being a kind of cover for Wall Street, the Pentagon, etc…. Neither party wants to tell the truth” about Wall Street, Ukraine, the Pentagon, and Big Tech, West said.

West reports that people come up to him a lot, telling him he needs to be running inside the Democratic Party. His response:

“Have you heard my message? Have you heard my critique of the corporate duopoly? Have you heard the taboo issues that the Democratic Party will not touch at all? Do you know what it means to look at where the American empire is now, and to hear the dysfunctionality of the two-party system when 60 percent of its fellow citizens are struggling to put food on the table everyday, and [the Democratic Party] can still allow for military expansionism?!”

When Reuters announced West’s candidacy, this major news outlet referenced the tired, old political trope that Ralph Nader spoiled the 2000 election for Al Gore– a scapegoating accusation that was discredited long ago, but continues to resurface every single time any candidate (third party or not) runs to the left of the corporate Democratic Party. Even Bernie Sanders was accused of being a spoiler during the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries, which is technically impossible since he ran as a Democrat both times. And corporate Democrats have often blamed third-party candidates for their own political failures, whether those candidates are Green Party candidates, socialists, independents, or even other progressive Democrats.

So when an actual leftist runs for office, whether it’s Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, Cornel West, or anyone else, Nader is once again blamed for George Bush’s presidency, the Iraq War, 9/11, and everything bad that happened under Bush’s tenure since none of those things would have presumably happened, if Gore had won the presidency in 2000. Like Reuters, many in the corporate media use this old Nader trope as a tactic to silence dissent, shame third-party candidates, and suffocate actual democratic options.

What this tired, old trope refuses to acknowledge are many facts, especially around the battleground state of Florida. We know that Gore won Florida in 2000. If a full, fair statewide recount had taken place, Gore would have become president. We also know that Jeb Bush (George Bush’s brother) was in charge of the Florida recount, that there was mass harassment and disenfranchisement of Florida’s black voters– some 14.4 percent who cast ballots and were rejected. And at the end of the day, Al Gore had won the popular vote, but he preemptively surrendered to Bush even though he could have demanded another recount. Unlike Bush, Gore refused to fight with all the tools available to him. US labor organizer, author and campaign strategist, Jane McAlevey, was on the ground in Florida during the recount and has written and spoken about it many times. In her book, “Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell),” she concludes about the 2000 election that “the absolute determination with which the labor elite and the Democratic Party leadership crushed their own constituents’ desire to express their political passions cost us the election.”

But in the eyes of the liberal corporate media establishment as well as our “post-fact” media universe, facts don’t matter, history doesn’t matter, and in-depth election analysis doesn’t matter. The name of the game is fear, hysteria, intimidation and shaming the “likely liberal” voters into always voting for the “lesser evil” corporate candidate (Vote Blue No Matter Who)– no matter how corrupt and ineffective s/he is, in order to avoid a Trumpian-style catastrophe.

Meanwhile, with each presidential cycle, Democrats keep moving further and further to the political right. Today’s leading Democrats have an insatiable appetite for militarism, policing, and fossil fuels. They continually cut funding to the working class and the poor in order to fund the military and fossil-fuel expansion. And in doing so, they make allies with some of the most right-wing, fascistic leaders and authoritarian leaders in the world (Netanyahu of Israel; Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia), while inflicting crushing economic sanctions on small, socialist countries like Cuba, which happens to be providing the world with vaccines and socialized medicine. And the corporate party funders are virtually identical– fossil fuel companies, weapons manufacturers, and Big Pharma. And after years of dark money overwhelmingly boosting Republicans, 2020 marked the first presidential election cycle where dark money benefited Democrats, more than Republicans.

So no wonder the Democrats and their corporate media minions want to silence third-party and independent candidates who reject corrupt electoral politics, when both major parties are making bank at the expense of their constituents.

It’s interesting to note that the same third-party smear tactic is not as utilized by the Republican Party. We don’t often see Republican candidates blaming their failed campaigns on Libertarian candidates or other right-wing, independent candidates. So this one-sided Democratic Party phenomenon begs the question: Why do corporate Democrats feel so entitled to the votes of Independents? What kind of arrogance allows them to think that Democratic votes don’t need to be earned? Why would this corporate party assume that a leftist or independent voter would rather vote for a neoliberal disaster, in place of voting third party, or not voting at all? Why do Democrats feel empowered to trash, slander and eliminate all other progressive or leftist candidates from the electoral playing field, especially when those same candidates poll far better than their corporate-backed counterparts?

In the case of Bernie Sanders, he was by far the most popular candidate in the 2020 presidential primaries, polling far above the rest for most of the primary season – appealing to registered Democrats, Republicans and Independents. Any real democracy would have welcomed his candidacy, given him ample airtime, supported him financially, etc. Instead, the corporate media ran constant hit pieces against Bernie, limited his media exposure, and eventually, DNC operatives sabotaged his campaign in both 2016 and 2020.

In fact, a little secret that the corporate media doesn’t want you to know– according to a 2023 Gallup poll, half of all US voters identify as politically independent. So in a truly representative democracy, half of our candidates should be third-party or independent candidates, with viable, visible and well-funded campaigns. But that democratic vision couldn’t be further from our reality in the United States.

In our corporate duopoly, independent, third-party candidates, and even non-corporate Democrats are systematically blamed, trashed, legally and financially strangled out of our electoral system. If you study the electoral histories of Dennis Kucinich, Ralph Nader, Jill Stein, Bernie Sanders and others, you will see that each time a progressive candidate becomes popular enough to garner mass attention and votes, the corporate media completely trashes them, changes debate rules to forbid their participation, and changes electoral financing laws to make sure that their campaigns are not economically viable.

Speaking of debates, neither corporate party is planning to hold any primary debates for the 2024 presidential election. This hugely impactful decision has been denounced by Democratic candidates Marianne Williamson and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. In a TikTok video, Actor Van Der Beek, best known for his role on “Dawson’s Creek” said:

“I cannot get over the fact that the Democratic National Committee is saying there will not be a debate to decide the nominee for president. Are you f—— kidding me? There’s no debate over an 80-year-old man who, if he lives, would be the oldest sitting president in the history of the country? And if he doesn’t live, has a vice president whose approval rating is worse than his?”

This pattern of silencing any and all dissent against the corporate Democratic Party is extremely noteworthy, especially when public polls reveal very high levels of dissatisfaction with President Biden. Not only are half of all US voters independent, but according to 538, as of June 15, 2023, 54.6% of the electorate disapproves of Biden. His approval rating is a mere 41.4% – this is actually lower than Trump’s average approval rating during his presidency. In fact, Biden’s approval rating is lower than 12 out of 13 most recent presidents, at this point in their presidency. Imagine any “democracy” forbidding debates when a majority of the electorate disapproves of a president’s performance!

But Biden’s low approval ratings are no surprise considering that Biden has failed to deliver on most of his major campaign promises. Compared to the most popular 2020 primary candidate, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden ran on a weak, watered-down platform, but one that still contained many meaningful reforms that could have helped the working class, had the Democrats actually followed through with them. But they passed almost none of these weak reforms, even when Democrats held a majority in the House and the Senate.

There have been many broken campaign promises and major disappointments coming from the Biden presidency: failing to forgive student loan debt; failing to pass a $15 minimum wage, failing to implement a public option for national healthcare; continuing to privatize Medicare, kicking over one million people of Medicaid; kicking some 750,000 off of food stamps after the debt-ceiling deal; fast-tracking some of the most carbon-intensive, oil and gas projects in recent history; and ending COVID provisions and privatizing the COVID response, just to name a few. Many of the nation’s youth have expressed outrage at Biden’s broken promises.

“I’m very disappointed in the President for approving the Willow Project,” January 2023 cover star Congressman Maxwell Frost (D-FL), 26, tweeted on March 14. “Youth voter turnout was at its highest in 2020 and young folks supported him because of commitments such as ‘no more drilling on federal land.’ That commitment has been broken. We deserve a livable future.”

Under Biden, we’ve seen budget increases to military, border patrol and police funding, even in the face of horrible abuses of police power, like the murder of Tortuguita in Cop City, Atlanta. These increases in police and military spending are especially offensive, given the mass voter support Biden received from the street protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Indefinite family detention along the US/Mexico border has received little corporate media attention, unlike the “kids in cages” media coverage we saw under Trump, whose policies Biden has continued.

And the recent “debt-ceiling crisis” of June 2023 resulted in even more cuts to social programs– the bipartisan McCarthy-Biden deal cut food stamps to some 750,000 adults and canceled the multi-year moratorium on student debt repayment from the CARES Act, forcing millions of students into debt repayment this summer. Meanwhile, this bipartisan deal actually increased funding to the military, border patrol, and fast-tracked even more climate-killing, fossil fuel projects like the highly protested Mountain Valley Pipeline.

In addition to all these broken campaign promises, Biden could have passed any number of populist reforms in his first term that would have soothed working-class angst across the red-blue political divide. On the eve of Biden’s presidency, the American Prospect published this “Day One Agenda” list for Biden, outlining what he had the power to do with and without congressional approval. On this list of things he could do without Congressional approval were items such as: legalizing marijuana, canceling nearly all student debt, shutting down oil and gas leases on federal lands, strengthening unions by giving federal contracts to workplaces with collective-bargaining agreements, neutralizing corporate power using existing federal agencies, and remaking agricultural and food policy. For an incredibly politically polarized nation– one that is clearly hungry for populist politics following decades of austerity and neoliberalism, Biden (on his own) could have implemented these kinds of bold policies to support the working-class and drastically increase his own popularity.

But instead, the corporate Democratic Party uses the carrot and the stick approach– dangling a carrot over the heads of the voters, promising forms of social justice and economic relief that it will never deliver, and then beating back the real competition with a stick– shaming and scaring voters, trashing third-party and independent candidates, engineering electoral rules to exclude third-party candidates, and otherwise rigging elections.

Remember, if corporate Democrats actually cared about progressive social change, economic justice, and a sustainable future, they would pass a living wage. They would fund a public health system that would care for this nation’s people and alleviate the leading source of US debt (medical debt). They would forgive not just a few, but all crushing student loans– the second leading source of US debt. They would fund affordable housing in US cities. They would defund prisons and police and fund social justice and welfare projects in their place. They would end fossil fuels immediately and transform our energy infrastructure into green and renewable energy. They would end endless wars and start diverting that money toward the poor, the working-class, and the planet, so that our young people might have a chance at a livable future.

But it’s precisely because Democrats refuse to take seriously the most dire and urgent needs of the people and the planet that a candidate like Dr. Cornel West has decided to run a presidential campaign at all. And because he represents the needs of the poor, the working-class, the most vulnerable, and the planet, he represents an existential threat to the ruling class. And in their eyes, his candidacy must be immediately eliminated, lest he do what he intends to do: build a broad, working-class coalition across political lines that overthrows the corrupt duopoly once and for all.

If we want to learn from US history, instead of blaming progressive third-party candidates for Democratic Party failures, what we should have learned from the Florida election nightmare of 2000 is that we need more democracy, not less; more transparency and accountability, not less; and more enfranchised voters, not fewer. But today’s corporate Democrats want fewer options, no debates, less transparency, and revisionist history when it comes to understanding why Democrats have lost key elections in the past.

And that is why we’re seeing all of these corporate media hit pieces against Dr. Cornel West– one of America’s most soulful, powerful, wise and disciplined activists, professors, philosophers and public intellectuals. This is a man who has spent his entire life and public career dedicated toward defending the nation’s poor and most vulnerable, while criticizing US imperialism, war crimes and environmental destruction. And I would argue that the degree to which a West candidacy has room to breathe and grow in the United States, today, is the yardstick by which we can measure the existence of US democracy.

Erin McCarley is an independent photojournalist, filmmaker and writer based in Denver, Colorado. Her still photography, videos and/or writing have been published by Dissident Voice, CounterPunchCommon DreamsReal Progressives, Yes! MagazineDue Dissidence, The Christian Science Monitor, the WestwordteleSUR EnglishFree Speech TV in Boulder, CO, KLRU TV in Austin, TX, the MIT Press, the Ford FoundationScience DailyThe Daily Texan, and others. She also co-hosts the political podcast Crawdads & Taters: Red State Rebels.