Is Cornel West a Spoiler?

June 19, 2023

In Blog Uncategorized

It was easily predictable that Dr. Cornel West would stand accused of being a spoiler: taking away votes from President Biden, and consequently ushering in Republican fascism. The question can be approached, first, as a matter of principle and, second, as a practical matter. First, the arguments in favor of a third-party run:


A.   Dr. West says that, dominated as it is by the corporate elite, the Democratic Party will never permit a radical insurgent to reach the finishing line. That was one of the lessons of Bernie’s campaign. Who can forget the thousand and one ways Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz rigged the Democratic primary against Bernie—or, to quote Dr. West, “kneecapped” him. Incidentally, this repellent crook and Israel Lobby hack was handpicked by Saint Obama, who stood by Schultz even after her sordid machinations were publicly exposed—“I want to make sure we have her back.”


B.   If the specter of Republican fascism preempts a third-party candidacy every election cycle, the Left will never be freed up to run a candidate of its choosing. In my opinion, Dr. West’s repartee on this point is persuasive: the Democratic Party alternative—what Dr. West has dubbed “milquetoast neo-liberalism”—might retard the drift towards but will not stop the rise of fascism. To defeat it, Dr. West says, one must get at “the root” of this wild growth. The capitalist system has ceased to function for the overwhelming majority of Americans: it not only doesn’t promise a better future, it doesn’t promise any future for them. In a state of despair, and with no viable or even visible Left alternative, it’s only a matter of time before a majority of Americans opt in desperation for an authoritarian far-right solution. In other words, it is not a third-party candidacy that would facilitate a fascist takeover; it’s the absence of a third-party candidacy that would facilitate it. It is striking in the current fraught moment to revisit the classical Left polemics on the rise of fascism in Germany. Leon Trotsky directed his analytic vitriol (see The Struggle against Fascism in Germany) not at the Nazi party but at the Communist and Social-Democratic parties for not presenting a sufficiently radical alternative so as to embolden the working class to resist the fascist menace before it was too late; for not giving the working class a program for which it was willing to give its all, come what may. It was the “milquetoast” leaders of the German working-class, ever placating the “corporate elite,” that enabled Hitler’s seizure of power. It’s hard not to see the analogy with the current situation.


It is of course possible to make compelling arguments on the other side, not to make a third-party bid, and they no doubt will be made in the weeks and months ahead. This is not a cut-and-dried question. Weighing the arguments on both sides, as he surely did, Dr. West has concluded it’s worth the try. He might be wrong. But, as a matter of democratic principle, he should be allowed to make his case in public, and—dare I utter the platitude?—let the people decide. He shouldn’t be badgered or browbeaten, hectored or heckled from on high to drop out. That reeks of the most obnoxious elitism: We know what’s best for the hoi polloi. Comprehending the spoiler argument doesn’t require a degree in particle physics; it’s basic addition and subtraction. Let the people hear out the most cogent arguments on both sides and then decide, each for themselves, whether voting for Dr. West is worth the admitted gamble.


But second, as a practical matter, would Dr. West’s campaign play a spoiler role? In fact, it will be the exact reverse. If his campaign takes off, there are basically two possibilities:


A. He galvanizes enough popular support to be a viable contender. That’s not impossible. When Bernie Sanders set out on the campaign trail in 2016, neither he nor anyone else remotely anticipated the groundswell of enthusiasm that he quickly generated. An overwhelming majority of Americans do not want Biden or Trump to run and a large percentage have already expressed interest this election cycle in a third-party candidate. It’s conceivable—though, of course, far from certain—that Dr. West can tap into this voter yearning for a better option, not the same old, same old, harness it and carry the day.


B. But let’s suppose that, as election day approaches, the polls show that Dr. West is at best only able to capture 20 percent of the vote. Wouldn’t he then be a spoiler? Not at all. He can condition throwing his support behind Biden if and only if Biden concedes to three planks in his platform. He should choose the planks most popular in his and the Democratic Party’s mass base: say, Medicare for All, doubling the minimum wage, massive investment in public works and decent jobs. The pressure on Biden from below in his own party to accede to these hugely popular demands might prove irresistible. If Biden stubbornly refuses, he—not Dr. West—will be perceived the spoiler. Ironically, if Dr. West doesn’t waver, if he stands firm and the Party capitulates to the demands, the ensuing enthusiasm all around will probably abet Biden’s campaign. Dr. West must be up front with his constituency so as not to leave them yet more cynical and jaded about or alienated from politics; so as to treat them respectfully as mature adults able to understand the complexity of political decisions: I am running to win; but if polls show that I can’t do better than 20 percent of the vote, then I will present Biden with a nonnegotiable ultimatum to take on board these planks in our platform; if he agrees, then I will exhort you to vote for him; if he refuses, he doesn’t get our vote and then—let there be no mistake about this—he’s the spoiler. What happens if Biden says yes and after the election he betrays—as he almost certainly will—his promise. Then, Dr. West can do what Bernie failed or feared to do: call his supporters into the streets to commit massive civil disobedience—blocking traffic, shutting down Washington, going to jail—until Biden fulfills his commitment. Dr. West speaks of the need for a “paradigm shift” in politics. This would mark an important first step. Frederick Douglass famously said that “power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.” What better paradigm shift than educating a new generation that they must—like the disenfranchised and despoiled foot soldiers in the Civil Rights movement—struggle collectively and fearlessly in order to wrest from Power their inalienable right to a future worth living?