Jun 9, 2023, 12:56pm EDT

A conversation with Cornel West, 2024’s surprise third party candidate

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The Subject

Philosopher, academic, author, public intellectual, “Masterclass” teacher, “30 Rock” guest star, “Matrix” character — and now, candidate for president. Cornel West jumped into the 2024 pool this week with a video and a round of interviews, running as the candidate of the People’s Party. Like West, the creators of the five-year old party supported Bernie Sanders for president in 2016; like him, it hoped he would break from the Democratic Party and build a left-wing, populist force outside of it. This is an edited transcript of his conversation with Semafor.

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The Interview

Americana: How would you use the powers of the presidency in ways that Joe Biden or his predecessors haven’t?

Cornel West: Biden’s much more of a thermometer than a thermostat. He’s got to check and see how things are going before he actually moves. We’d come in with priorities. We’d be ensuring that poor peoples’ plight and predicament is at the center of what we do. We’d ensure that living wages are escalated, that trade unions are encouraged, and that the predatory capitalist practices of Wall Street and big tech are pushed back. And we’d create some tremendous foes among the well-to-do.

You don’t get that kind of vision out of Biden, at all. He makes certain symbolic gestures every now and then, just enough for workers, just enough for some black folks, just enough for some brown folks, but not really enough for poor and working people. And we haven’t even got to foreign policy. My God — the militarism of the Biden administration would push Martin Luther King into a near breakdown.

Americana: I was going to ask about that next. How would you actually go about unwinding American empire? Biden made the decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan — there were casualties, there was, eventually, political opposition. Do you give him credit for that? What did you take from it?


Cornel West: Point one is, of course, the unfreezing of $7 billion for precious brothers and sisters in Afghanistan. Twenty million, almost half of them are wrestling with hunger, and to freeze $7 billion? I consider that a crime against humanity, my brother. You don’t have a vision that empowers poor and working people, and then end up freezing that kind of money.

We can certainly bring serious condemnation of the Taliban and so forth and so on. Twenty-year war, trillions of dollars spent, the war profiteers making their way quickly to the banks with tremendous profits. When I think of Afghanistan at the moment, I’m thinking of those precious folk who are wrestling with hunger every day. And it’s their money! Good God almighty!

Americana: So it’s inauguration day, you’re sworn in — where do you start with Ukraine?

Cornel West: The first thing there is to try to tell the truth, in the name of a ceasefire. Putin certainly is a gangster. Russia is a wounded empire. At the same time, Russia was promised that NATO would not move an inch. That’s what Gorbachev was told. Decades later, you got 13, 14 countries, formerly connected to the Soviet Union one way or the other, now part of NATO.

So, you’ve got a wounded Russian Empire, run by a gangster, who feels he’s got his back against the wall. And you’ve got an aggressive US empire that so often uses NATO as an instrument of its own world power. And our precious, priceless Ukrainian brothers and sisters are caught in the middle. We have to be honest about the criminality of this Russian invasion, no doubt. But the United States has very little moral authority in the world when it comes to invasions and occupations. You have to come in with that history and then say: We have got to stop this war. It can easily lead to nuclear disaster. I would sit down with the Chinese leaders to help try to facilitate this.


Americana: You’ve supported a universal basic income for a while. The Biden administration did some direct payments when it took office, and the Child Tax Credit, but that dissipated after inflation started rising. So, how do you implement your idea, and deal with the risk of inflation?

Cornel West: I will credit the Biden administration for cutting child poverty in half. I thought that was beautiful. But as you know, the law expired, and he didn’t follow through on it, and now child poverty is going right back up again. That’s a sign of just how provisional any kind of commitment to poverty is.

I’m an abolitionist, when it comes to poverty. I’m an abolitionist, when it comes to the homeless. So, how does one go about engaging in massive, downward redistribution of wealth downward? We’ve got to have massive cutbacks to the military. We’ve got to have taxes that are higher, much higher.

One of the things that I’m trying to do in this campaign is it goes straight into Trump country and tell those white brothers and sisters: I know how bruised you are economically, but you don’t need to follow a neofascist pied piper, in order to feel good about yourself. I want to satisfy the basic social needs.

Americana: You’ve been involved in the People’s Party from its inception, but can you explain the decision to seek this nomination, and not run with the Green Party, which has much more automatic ballot access?


Cornel West: The People’s Party was the break away from my dear brother Bernie Sanders’s campaign. The Green Party didn’t come to me. I supported my dear brother, Ralph Nader, and my dear sister, Jill Stein. But I’ve never been an organic member of the Green Party at all. I thought it was just the best thing to go with an organization I had been with. When they asked me, I said: Absolutely, yes.

The two-party system is a major impediment for empowering the poor and working people. It creates difficulty trying to tell the truth about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We’re going to be dealing honestly, frankly, with life and death issues that the Democratic Party and Republican Party do not want to talk about.

Americana: Nader and Stein both got blamed for Republican victories in races that Democrats lost by small margins. Did you talk to either of them before launching this campaign? What’s your view of the spoiler issue?

Cornel West: I have not had a chance to talk to brother Ralph Nader, who has a very distinguished career in public service. People like to reduce his great legacy to being a so-called spoiler. I don’t think a third party deserves wholesale credit for that, when you run an Al Gore, who can’t carry his own state of Tennessee, or when you’re run a Hillary Clinton, who refuses to campaign in Wisconsin.

If the Democrats don’t want third party candidates like myself, why don’t you put poor and working people, here and abroad, at the center of your vision? Biden was a caretaker president for four years. Democrats can’t have caretaker presidents forever. If the only alternative to neoliberalism is neofascism, that is a catastrophe, and you’re still going to have fascism sooner or later. You need to confront fascism with vision, with passion; you need to re-channel the insecurities and fears of American citizens. That’s how you undercut fascism, internally.

Americana: Sanders endorsed Biden as soon as he announced re-election — and, obviously, he turned down the People’s Party when it wanted to run him. He stayed in the Democratic Party, and he did move it to the left.

Cornel West: Oh, absolutely. Bernie is my dear brother. I’ll love him forever. And I was hoping that he’d break away from the Democratic Party. I just think this is the moment where we have to begin to break the back of the corporate duopoly, or sooner or later, fascism will come. We have to build alternatives.