Cornel West: The Primaries Call
Shortly after Cornel West announced his intent to run for president as the candidate of the People’s Party, The Nation’s John Nichols reported encountering some who “expressed sympathy for a third-party run, but suggested that West should forgo a People’s Party bid and, instead, campaign on the ticket of the Green Party—which has secured many state ballot lines across the country and has an established network of backers.” And voila, before the proverbial ink on that article could dry, West had announced his intention to seek that party’s nomination. Where some may see this rapid change as a sign of a poorly thought-out effort, others may applaud the campaign’s flexibility, but either way, here’s hoping this demonstrated malleability can extend to the suggestion of Ben Burgis’s Jacobin article: “Cornel West Should Challenge Biden in the Democratic Primaries.” History, specifically the starkly different experiences of the Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders candidacies – and maybe even that of Eugene Debs – suggests the wisdom of the shift, but it’s the math of the situation that demands it. The unfortunate fact is that a third party campaign in America just won’t add up.
In announcing that “We’re talking about empowering those who have been pushed to the margins because neither political party wants to tell the truth about Wall Street, about Ukraine, about the Pentagon, about Big Tech,” West expresses a quite understandable “plague on both your houses” perspective of the sort that generally underlies third party efforts – and not just in the U.S. But what may be a viable political option in one country might not be one in another; it all depends upon the rules and laws that govern politics in the respective nations. Nothing illustrates the importance of the differences better than the contrasting experiences of the aforementioned Greens, who find themselves continuously embroiled in defending against charges of facilitating Republican presidencies, and that of their German namesake, arguably the foreign “third party” most familiar to Americans, a party that has successfully entered governments – on both the state and national level – on numerous occasions. Put in the most basic terms, we could say that the difference lies in the fact that where Germans operate within an “additive” political system, we Americans live in a “subtractive” one.
In the German system, generally described as “parliamentary,” while there is a president, the office is largely ceremonial, the real head of government being the prime minister who is chosen by a majority of the members of parliament, a majority that may, and usually does require the support of more than one party. So, after running an independent campaign, if the German Greens do not come in first or second – as they never have on the national level – recognizing that their members will consider one of the top two parties to be preferable to the other, or at least not as bad (for most that preference would be the Socialists over the Christian Democrats), they will try to work out a compromise with that party, with Green party leaders playing a minority role in a resulting government coalition, as Joschka Fischer famously did as foreign minister from 1998-2005. So, in the end, the effect will be that the votes cast for the Greens are added to those cast for the Socialists, thereby preventing the outcome least desirable to most of both parties’ voters – the Christian Democrats coming to power.
In our case, on the other hand, should West persist in running a third party presidential campaign, his potential voters will have no such option. Whether West actually considers a second Biden term as bad an outcome as a second for Trump – or a first for DeSantis – I can’t say, but I feel fairly certain that most voters open to his ideas do not. However, under our plurality-winner-take-all system of apportioning a state’s share of the Electoral College, after the voters have cast their votes for different parties there is no way that they can be recombined to block a Trump return. And while a third-party West vote might contribute to an anti-Republican majority in a particular state, it could also contribute to creating a Trump (or DeSantis) plurality in that same time. The system is in that sense “subtractive,” in that a voter who considers Trump (or DeSantis) the worst possible outcome but opts for a third-party subtracts a vote from the only anti-Trump vote count that matters in the end – that of the largest non-Republican party, which will be the Democrats, however welcome or unwelcome that may be to said voter.
And, in the end, should West be on a ballot line in a final election that results in a Republican presidency, the damage done to his reputation – and much more importantly, to the causes he champions – won’t be a matter of anyone proving his culpability. Ralph Nader has found himself embattled and subjected to abuse by people who couldn’t carry his briefcase, lo these last twenty-plus years, not because anyone can actually prove his candidacy enabled George W. Bush’s election. Defeat generally has numerous contributors and in this case the Democrats’ ill-advised Florida recount strategy and the Clinton Administration’s decision to shut down online efforts to match up potential vote swaps between Nader supporters in “battleground” states with Gore supporters in non-battleground states are factors often conveniently forgotten. But as anyone involved knows, or at least should know, in politics, perception counts for a great deal. And just as government employees are prohibited not only from actually having a conflict of interest, but from giving the appearance of conflict of interest as well, the wise political actor will realize that it can be just as important to avoid the appearance of causing an undesirable outcome as it is to avoid actually causing it.
At the same time, while the so-called “two party system” that governs our presidential elections looks like it will be in place for the foreseeable future, the two parties are not themselves immutable. Just a month before the West announcement, Peter Beinart made just that point in a New York Times opinion piece, “Imagine if Another Bernie Sanders Challenges Joe Biden,” arguing that the profound effect of the Sanders candidacy has been a major factor in Biden becoming “the most progressive president since Lyndon Johnson.” Pointing to the joint Biden-Sanders campaign working groups that shaped the 2020 Democratic National Platform, he notes that there was none devoted to foreign policy and that with “rare exceptions, Mr. Biden hasn’t challenged the hawkish conventional wisdom that permeates Washington; he’s embodied it. He’s largely ignored progressives, who, polls suggest, want a fundamentally different approach to the world. And he’ll keep ignoring them until a challenger turns progressive discontent into votes.”
To be sure, as Beinart notes, “A primary opponent would risk the Democratic establishment’s wrath.” And we quickly got a taste of that – in the generally left-wing Nation, no less – where, in her article “Cornel West Should Not Be Running for President,” Joan Walsh argued that even if West “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.” Walsh’s argument unfortunately is the type of thinking that held that Bernie Sanders should have minded his own business in 2016 and leave things to those who had already decided on Hillary Clinton, a nominee whose, shall we say, arms-length relationship with the working class resulted in the Trump presidency.
And, oh yes, there will be character assassination: For Walsh, “Williamson, West, and Kennedy are all, sadly, narcissists looking for the spotlight.” While we can reasonably ask people to be aware enough of the workings of the system so as to avoid possibly unintended outcomes, we cannot reasonably ask them to be silent. Perhaps a West primary candidacy would be useful, perhaps it wouldn’t, but running out new and different ideas is precisely what the primaries are for. Disagreement does not imply narcissism – or any other character flaw.
And what about Debs? Although his presidential efforts are now a hundred years past, the sterling reputation that his name still carries on the American left contributes to a lingering reluctance to engage with the Democratic Party that he left behind in favor of the Socialist Party. In 1912, the year of Debs’s greatest electoral success (his 1920 campaign from a cell in the Atlanta Penitentiary resulted in a greater number of votes, but a lower percentage, as it was the first year women had the vote), the Republicans’ 1856 supplanting of the Whigs in the national political duopoly was an event within the living memory of some. And indeed, that year the Republicans would be pushed out of the duo for the first time, as their former President Theodore Roosevelt ran a third-party challenge to their sitting President William Howard Taft and dropped him to third place. Debs actually beat Taft in three states and Roosevelt in two, and although he only had 6 percent of the total national vote, it was the first race where four different candidates exceeded 5 percent since the first Republican victory in 1860. It seemed that a big electoral shakeup might be on the horizon. It wasn’t. Neither of these anomalies has repeated. The third party impulse is all too understandable: It’s not just foreign policy where there is a serious critique of Biden to be made. The fact that it is legitimate to speak of him as the most pro-labor president since FDR is largely a statement about just how low the bar has been set. And remember, this is a man who said he’d veto a “medicare-for-all” bill if it came to his desk. But we are not living in a parliamentary system and we cannot simply wish one into existence. Hopefully, West’s supporters will prevail upon him to undertake his fight in the most effective arena that currently exists, where the greatest light-to-heat potential lies – the primaries.
Tom Gallagher is the author of The Primary Route: How the 99% Takes on the Military-Industrial Complex, Anti-war activist and community organizer in Boston. He represented Allston Brighton neighborhood of Boston in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. First socialist state representative since the Sacco and Vanzetti era in Massachusetts. Subsequently chaired the Boston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Later relocated to SF where he lives on Bernal Heights, is a substitute teacher in SFUSD and has written about his experiences in a book called Sub. Elected as a Bernie Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic Presidential Nominating Convention. He is a member of the Bernal Heights Democratic Club, the Progressive Democrats of America, and the Democratic Socialists of America.