Cornel West knows what most Democrats think of him. Since he launched his presidential bid four months ago, the progressive, media-savvy academic has heard the accusations that he’ll prove a spoiler and hand the 2024 election to Donald Trump. He doesn’t think that will be the case. But he also can’t imagine four more years of Joe Biden as President would be much better.
“I mean, it's a good question,” West says. “Is World War III better than Civil War II?”
West and I first spoke the day before Hamas launched a stunning attack on Israel that killed more than 1,200 people. In the days since, he has pushed for restraint, and urged Biden and other leaders to avoid retaliatory rhetoric. For West, a charged moment like this is why he's running for president.
“It just reveals the moral bankruptcy of both parties when it comes to foreign policy,” he tells me. “We see that so clearly now.”
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West has long been known as one of the country’s most prominent Black scholars and activists, “the architect of a post-civil rights philosophy of black liberation,” as TIME put it in a 1993 profile. Now, as Biden struggles to inspire the left, Democrats are getting nervous that West could peel off just enough votes to matter in a close election. Lost in much of that discussion is how much West is making foreign policy a centerpiece of his longshot bid.
To be sure, West’s campaign remains a shoestring operation that may never get off the ground. He lacks the movement infrastructure and specific policy platforms that helped past left-wing presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or Bernie Sanders, outperform expectations. Given West’s recent decision to run as an independent, even getting on the ballot in every state will be challenging.
But there’s a reason that West has managed to stay in the public eye for more than three decades. His keen intellect and eloquence mean he stands to draw interest, particularly from voters on the left who remain unexcited about the idea of another Biden term. And as the economic fallout of the pandemic drags on and wars abroad pick up, a distinguished thinker calling for radical change has an opening—if not to win, at least to alter the course of the 2024 race.
“There's still pushing that we need to do, and we have been doing, and we support him in that analysis,” Cliff Albright, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, told me over the summer. “But the strategy that he's chosen is one that has the potential for more harm than good.”
Days before the attack on Israel, I visit Washington, D.C.’s historic True Reformer Building to watch West rally for peace in Ukraine. Many of the roughly 150 people there are wearing fuschia in honor of Code Pink, the anti-war group hosting the event. But I also spot some attendees in "Cornel West '24" T-shirts and hear the room buzzing about him.
I know West has arrived before I see him, because the crowd breaks out in applause. Several attendees give him a standing ovation as he takes a seat in the front row. For the next hour, he listens attentively. When Claudia De La Cruz, who is running for president with a fringe anticapitalist party, demands the dissolution of NATO, West claps. He smiles along with the audience at her comment about threats to national security “sleeping in the White House.” Later, as Code Pink circulates fundraising buckets, co-founder Medea Benjamin observes West putting money in.
Finally, it’s West’s turn, and it’s clear this is the moment many in the room had been waiting for. He steps onstage and launches into something more like a spoken-word poem than a political speech. It’s short on policy prescriptions and long on lyrical demands for peace, justice, and change to a flawed system.
“Anytime everyday people straighten their backs up, they're going somewhere, because the ruling class can’t ride your back unless it’s bent,” he says.
He references groundbreaking Black leaders like W.E.B Dubois and Malcolm X and James Cone. His forehead glistens. When West mentions President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, the crowd boos. His words elicit the kind of response one might hear in a Black church: “Right!” “Yes!” “Come on!”
Elena, a 25-year-old math tutor at the event who asked I not publish her last name, tells me she grew up watching West as a regular pundit on CNN. She says conversations about politics can often feel “very sterile,” but West doesn’t have that problem.
“He makes it more approachable,” she says. “He makes it more humane, more human.”
The whole audience seems to agree. As the event wraps up, Benjamin asks the crowd who will join Code Pink for a day of advocacy in Congress the next morning. A smattering of people raise their hands. She quickly pivots to the biggest attraction on the stage. “Raise your hand if you looovvveee listening to Dr. Cornel West!” All the hands go up and a cheer breaks out. “So you can listen to him again tomorrow,” she says.
West launched his presidential campaign in early June as a member of the People’s Party, which was founded in 2017 by a former Sanders staffer. Less than two weeks later, he decided to seek the Green Party's nomination instead, even bringing on its 2016 presidential nominee, Jill Stein, as an interim campaign manager. Then, at the beginning of October, he changed course again to run as an independent.
He tells me he realized running under a party’s ticket means devoting too much of his time to party activities, instead of speaking directly to the people.
“A lot of people know me and never heard of the Green Party,” he says.
It’s true that a lot of people know West after more than three decades as a public figure. After growing up marching in Civil Rights demonstrations, he went on to teach religion and African American studies at universities like Harvard, Princeton and Union Theological Seminary. He authored more than a dozen books on race and economic inequality. For a time, he was honorary chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Through it all, he exhibited a media savvy rare among academics, becoming a fixture on news programs, as well as appearing in several documentaries and as a character named Councillor West in sequels to The Matrix. Even the 1993 profile in TIME highlighted his ability to cultivate celebrity, noting, “The message on West's answering machine at Princeton refers those interested in arranging a speaking engagement to a high-powered New York booking agency.”
West understands the way his star power bolsters his presidential bid. He says he saw an increase in his fundraising after he announced he was no longer running as the Green Party’s candidate. He held his first fundraiser earlier this month at Washington progressive hub Busboys and Poets and says that he has more on the books. But marshaling the resources to get his name on ballots in every state will be a challenge, as will sustaining a national campaign over the next year.
“I have respect for Dr. West,” Karen Finney, a political consultant who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, told me in August. “But it's unclear to me what he's trying to accomplish with his candidacy, and I say that because he says he wants to win, but I think if we look at the facts, that's extremely unlikely.”
“Let me put it this way,” West says when I ask him if he’d still be running if someone other than Biden were likely to be the Democratic Party’s nominee. “If Martin Luther King Jr. came back from the dead and ran for the Democratic Party ticket, I would not run. But that will never happen in a corporate-dominated Democratic Party.”
Though West has long been critical of the party, there was a time when he operated closer to it. In 2016, he campaigned heavily for Sanders, who tapped West to help draft the Democratic Party’s platform that year. West backed the Vermont independent again in 2020, but ultimately stumped for Biden once he became the party’s nominee.
West says he decided to fully break with the Democratic Party because it has repeatedly failed to embrace its progressive wing like he hoped it would. He would have been happy with the Biden presidency, West says, if the administration had preserved the pandemic-era expanded child tax credit, which studies showed significantly reduced child poverty. Biden had supported maintaining the program past 2021, but could not muster enough support for it in Congress. West expresses frustration that Biden had no such trouble convincing Congress to continue to pour billions into wars abroad.
“I was hoping they cut back massively with military spending, but he has no record of that, so I guess I shouldn't be disappointed,” West says.
The current situation in Israel and Gaza embodies West’s problems with the party.
“You can hardly get a Democrat to say something about the apartheid-like conditions on the West Bank under the ambitious Israeli occupation,” he tells me the day before the Hamas attack. “There's no courage there. Many of them know that that's wrong.”
When we speak again several days later, he stands even firmer in that belief.
“Jewish security and Palestinian security, they have equal weight,” he says. “For those of us who believe that, we find ourselves relatively marginalized and always pushed to the side, and then this major catastrophe comes, and the response is more catastrophe piled on more catastrophe.”
Read more: How the Activist Left Turned On Israel
While he insists that the prospect of inadvertently helping Trump win next year does not worry him, West does concede that it’s hard to think of any ways a Trump presidency would be preferable to a Biden one.
“I'm not saying they're identical,” he says. “At least Biden does believe in transfer of power during election time.”
But voters want more than that. That’s especially true of young voters, and particularly young voters of color, among whom Biden has seen his support soften. Democrats typically need 60% of the youth vote to win elections, and youth enthusiasm has been falling off since 2018, John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, wrote in a Substack post in June. Those troubles are amplified among young Black voters, he noted, with those identifying as Democrats dropping 15% compared to four years ago.
“It's not enough to just present Trump as the boogeyman and expect Black voters to just fall in line because we paint such a dire picture,” says Albright. “That's not enough.”
If Biden is unable to convince young voters he can use another four years in office to improve their lives, West could stand to gain. Elena, the attendee I talked to at the Peace in Ukraine event, says it feels natural for her to be a Democrat, but that the past few years have exposed to her the corruption in the party.
“We thought, once Trump was gone, things could go back to normal,” she says. “Normal wasn't great, but there was a sense where we could kind of press a restart button.” But as Biden’s term wore on, she says she began to understand the problems were much more systematically entrenched. “Oh shit, we can’t actually move on,” she realized.
West’s rejection of the party system coincides with a similar decision by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who last week announced he was leaving the Democratic Party to run for president as an independent. I ask West what he thinks about the move.
“I love my brother and I would want him to do his thing,” West says, noting that he agrees with Kennedy on not letting pharmaceutical companies have undue influence, but that the two have deep disagreements on several issues, including vaccines and Israel.
West doesn’t seem at all worried about competing with Kennedy or Biden or Trump for votes. Instead, he’s reveling in his newfound independence.
"I'm freed up,” West says. “I'm a jazz man getting out of a party band."
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