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Listen to this Article: "Dr. Cornel West Announces He is Running for President"

Listen to this Article: "Dr. Cornel West Announces He is Running for President"

Dr. Cornel West, in his first interview since deciding to enter the U.S. presidential race, explains why he is a candidate.

Narrated by Eunice Wong

Text originally published: June 5, 2023

Go West - by. Mr. Fish

Dr. Cornel West, the moral philosopher and civil rights activist, will formally announce today he is running for president on the People’s Party ticket. Cornel will be a singular voice for serious social and political change in an electoral system saturated with corporate money and rigged to crush third parties. His decades-long commitment to the oppressed, his fierce opposition to American militarism and empire, his condemnation of the grotesque avarice of the billionaire class, and his determination to halt the ongoing ecocide, will see him contemptuously dismissed by the establishment. For all of these reasons we must support him.

“We’re at such a low point in the American empire,” Cornel said when we spoke about his decision. “Its spiritual decay and its immoral decadence are so profound that we have to begin on the foundational level of a spiritual awakening and a moral reckoning. Organized greed. Institutionalized hatred. Routinized indifference to the lives of poor and working people of all colors. We’ve got to get beyond an analysis of the predatory capitalist processes that have saturated every nook and cranny of the culture. We’ve got to get beyond the ways in which the political system has been colonized by corporate wealth and by monied elite. We’ve got to get beyond that sense of impotence of the citizenry. These are all the signs of an empire in decline. The only thing that we have to add is military overreach, and we see that as well.”

If this campaign becomes a movement, and it will need a lot of organizing to get Cornel on the ballot and build grassroots support, the array of forces that will seek to discredit and sabotage his candidacy will be formidable. The Israel lobby, the war industry, the courtiers in the media, the corporatists, the billionaire class and the Democratic Party leadership, will be as vicious to Cornel as these forces in Britain were to Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. Entrenched power will fight us with every tool in its arsenal. And, as with Corbyn, these assaults — rooted in a mendacious campaign of character assassination — will be relentless. 

Cornel said he seeks “a paradigm shift,” a realignment of “the ideological landscape.” He calls on us to redirect the focus of governing institutions from the demands of markets and corporations, the military machine, empire and the ruling oligarchs, to poor and working people.

“What we need is a recognition that the corporate duopoly, both parties, constitute major obstacles and impediments for the kind of spiritual awakening and moral reckoning that focuses on poor and working people,” Cornel said.

He is calling, in short, for a political revolution and the overthrow of the ruling corporate class.

“Trump is mendacious,” he said. “Everybody knows that he’s a criminal. Everybody knows that he’s a gangster. Yet at the same time, the best that the Democratic Party can put forward is mendacity and hypocrisy. The Democratic Party has an arrogance against working and poor people of all colors. We’re a laughing stock. Is Trump versus Biden the best the country can do?”

He sees the two ruling parties as “parasitical,” playing off each other in a tawdry burlesque act designed to perpetuate corporate dominance. It’s impossible, he points out, in the two party system to vote against the interests of the big banks, the fossil fuel industry, the Israel lobby, the drug and insurance companies, the animal agriculture industry and the arms merchants. The weapons manufacturers, who consume nearly half of the Pentagon budget, look at permanent war, whether in the Middle East, Ukraine or with China, as a business opportunity. These structural evils are sacrosanct. And these are the evils which, if left unchecked,will ultimately kill us.

“It’s not a narrow choice, it’s a preposterous choice,” he said.

“There is a difference in neofascist catastrophe and neoliberal disaster,” he said. “Catastrophes are worse than disasters. Disasters have less scope and range regarding certain kinds of issues. I never want to downplay the least vulnerable in our society — our gay brothers, lesbian sisters, trans, Black poor, brown poor, Indigenous poor. They are more viciously attacked by the neofascists than the neoliberals. But the neoliberals capitulate to the attack. I would never say they’re identical, but I would say poor and working people are still getting crushed over and over again.”

“If we can’t bring together the best of the trade union movement, if we can’t bring the best of the Black freedom movement, the Indigenous people’s movement, the women’s movement, the gay-lesbian movement, the queer movement as a whole, then we’re going under,” he added. 

“And then what’s at stake is, as you know, the utter destruction of the planet, destruction of the species, destruction of American democracy and for me, coming out of the Black prophetic tradition, the destruction of the Black prophetic tradition.”

He sees the rampant militarism, not only abroad but in our internal systems of control, as the enemy within. This militarism must be dismantled if the paradigm shift he seeks is to occur.

“Progressives in the Democratic Party think they can get away with rendering invisible their consensus to extravagant militarism,” he said. “But it goes hand-in-hand with the U.S. imperial policy. It goes hand-in-hand with expansion of NATO. It goes hand-in-hand to lead us in the proxy war with Russia. It goes hand-in-hand with taking money out of programs that have to do with education and healthcare and jobs with a living wage and housing, basic social needs of, not just people in this country, in the empire, but around the world.”

“How many precious Iraqis were killed by the U.S. war machine?” he asked. “Each life is precious. Iraqi lives have the same value as a life anywhere else in the world. How many lives were killed in Afghanistan? And Libya? We can look at all of the different examples. Then you’ve got examples in Haiti, you’ve got examples in Panama, you’ve got examples in Grenada and so forth in the last forty or fifty years. And we’re not even talking about the co-ordinated activities of overthrowing democratic regimes in Iran and in other places. These are the kinds of issues we’re going to have to hit head on my brother, the same is true in terms of the Middle East. The monies we give to Egypt, the monies we give to Israel. How can we render invisible the suffering of our precious Palestinian brothers and sisters given the U.S. complicity and endorsement of these vicious apartheid-like conditions? There’s no way that the Democratic Party can get away with this anymore.” 

“We had the same problem of the Democratic Party deferring to the apartheid regime in South Africa,” he went on. “What did we have to do? We came out with boycotts and sanctions. We came out with divestments. Well, the same is true now in apartheid-like conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. We can do that without in any way falling prey to one of the more vicious ideologies of the last two thousand years, which is the hatred of Jews. We don’t have a minute to engage in any kind of anti-Jewish hatred or anti-Jewish sentiment, but at the same time we don’t have a minute to turn our backs to the suffering of Palestinians tied to U.S. foreign policy that always looks away from their suffering, looks away from their social misery, looks away from the murders taking place, looks away from the houses that are crushed, looks away from the land that is taken, and so forth. Those are the kinds of issues that we have to bring to the public with whatever integrity, honesty and decency that we have and that’s pretty much what the tradition that produced me is all about, from Frederick Douglass to Ella Baker.”

His goal is “the abolition of poverty.”

“We have liberal versions of slavery,” he said. “We have liberal versions of Jim and Jane Crow. We have liberal versions of attacking poverty. No, we want the elimination of poverty, the elimination of homelessness, the elimination of laws that try to crush labor and trade unions. We want affirming jobs with a living wage. We want affirming access of poor people and working people to housing equality.”

He quoted the sociologist Max Weber: “What is possible would never have been achieved if, in this world, people had not repeatedly reached for the impossible.”

“We have to arm ourselves with that staunchness of heart that refuses to be daunted by the collapse of hope,” he said. “That’s the Harriet Tubmans, the Frederick Douglass’, the Sojourner Truths and Lydia Maria Childs. There were different colors who were part of the abolitionist movement. They were trying to achieve the impossible! You can say the same thing about the labor movement of the thirties. You can say the same thing about the Black freedom struggle against American apartheid in the south in 1955 beginning with Rosa Parks. Trying to achieve the impossible! You can only achieve the possible by trying to achieve the impossible. And of course, as Nelson Mandela said, ‘And then when you achieve the impossible, everyone said Oh well that was inevitable.”’

“We’ve got to break the fear inside of us!” he said. “The first fear goes back to Frederick Douglass in that famous struggle he had with Edward Covey, his master. The first fear was the fear of dying. Once you break the back of the fear of dying you’re a free person, you’re a free human being. Frederick Douglass said, ‘Well when I broke that fear I felt for the first time that I was already free, even though I was still a slave.’ And we know that Queen Mother Moore said the same thing. There’s a whole weight of freedom fighters who have acknowledged this kind of thing. You can see it in the works of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. You can see it in Grace Boggs. You can see it in Edward Said. You can see it in Dorothy Day. I mean, these are the figures, and my God, we haven’t got to it, the towering figures amongst Indigenous peoples, Chief Joseph, the towering figures among our Latin American brothers and sisters, José Martí, and others.”

“How do you break that fear?” he asked. “You have to have a movement, a campaign that speaks to the fear amongst poor and working people and breaks the back of fear inside of them to get them to want to straighten their backs up and do things that are outside of the box. Outside of the prevailing framework. Outside of what they have been perceiving themselves as being a part of.”

He said he will take his campaign south and into rural enclaves to address the disenfranchised white workers who support Trump.

“We must go to Trump’s social base,” he said. “We must tell those white brothers and sisters, ‘We know you’re still suffering. We know you’ve been the losers of corporate globalization. We’re going to speak to your needs in such a way that you don’t have to follow a neofascist pied piper.’ We on the left are concerned about working people even when they themselves are xenophobic. We can steal some of the thunder from the neofascists. We’re not in any way putting up with the xenophobia. No way! Not one minute! The anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish, anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim — I have no patience with that whatsoever! But I’ll go straight into Trump country and tell all those white working brothers and sisters that I am deeply concerned about their wounds and their inability to gain access to the resources that they ought to have as citizens. We cannot defeat fascism with glib milquetoast neoliberalism. We’ve got to get at the roots of it.”

“We’re trying to achieve the impossible,” he said. “By trying to achieve the impossible we’re going to do something that people think is not possible. The first thing is to break the back of the two-party system, to break the back of corporate duopoly. If we don’t, everything is at stake — democracy, dignity, the planet.”

I have known Cornel for many years. We drove together, leaving at 3:00 am from our homes in Princeton, New Jersey, to attend the trial at Fort Meade of U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. I was in the visitors room at the prison in Frackville, Pennsylvania, as Cornel gripped the shoulders of the political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and told him “You have Frederick Douglass in you, brother!” Tears streamed down Mumia’s face. Cornel and I held a People’s Hearing of Goldman Sachs in Zuccotti Park during the Occupy movement where those who were evicted and bankrupted by big banks testified against the heartlessness and greed of corporate capitalism. We have spoken together at rallies in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the Israeli-apartheid state. We walked three miles on a sweltering July day in Philadelphia with thousands of homeless people to the Wells Fargo Center during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, because housing is a human right. 

I was with Cornel when Bernie Sanders delegates, disgusted by the machinations of the Democratic National Committee against their candidate and his endorsement of Hillary Clinton, walked out of the convention. Cornel turned to me and said presciently, “Bernie lost his political moment.” 

We have taught classes together in East Jersey State Prison. We have spoken on stages at universities where Cornel has demanded reparations for Black people and called for a guaranteed income for all citizens. I have heard him denounce the prison industrial complex as “a crime against humanity.” I have listened to him call for  universal health care, canceling student debt, free university education, freedom for Julian Assange and heard him thunder against those who deny women access to abortion.

Cornel officiated, along with the theologian Dr. James Cone, at my ordination as a Presbyterian minister. We spoke, and wept, at James’ funeral in 2018 at Riverside Church. James wrote that we must stand, no matter the cost, with the crucified of the earth. 

Cornel, like the Biblical prophets, is driven by an unshakeable belief that our brief sojourn on the planet is validated by what we do for those the world has cast aside. His is not only a political campaign, but a calling. 


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