Cornel West recently decided that the best way for him to advance economic and social justice in the United States would be to mount a quixotic third-party presidential campaign that, if history is any guide, will disproportionately siphon votes from the Democratic nominee, thereby marginally increasing the odds of a second Trump presidency.
Most people to the left of Mitch McConnell disagree with West’s assessment. Various liberals have rehearsed the (banal yet airtight) case for supporting America’s only politically viable coalition against right-wing rule. Many socialists, meanwhile, have insisted that the best way for the left to exert influence over presidential politics is to contest for power within the Democratic Party.
But agreement on these points is not unanimous on the left. One recent poll of a hypothetical 2024 race found West drawing 4 percent support nationally, erasing Joe Biden’s advantage over Donald Trump in the process. Meanwhile, Lily Sánchez published a case for West’s candidacy in the socialist journal Current Affairs this week. Given that the past two presidential elections were decided by tens of thousands of votes between a handful of key states, it seems worth engaging with the pro-West perspective, fringe though it may be. And Sánchez’s article is about as thorough of a brief for West 2024 as you’re likely to find.
Her argument rests on the following claims:
• There is little point in leftists mounting an insurgent primary challenge to Biden since “the DNC cheated Bernie … out of the nomination twice” and would do it again since “the DNC is in no way accountable to the electorate.”
• Relatedly, Democratic political leaders hostile to the far left will do “whatever they must” to defeat an insurgent candidate, going so far as to “call in Obama or whoever else” to endorse that insurgent’s opponent.
• Although West’s candidacy might increase the odds of a Republican presidency, this is not so grave a risk since “the Democrats in power are worse than the right” on climate change and the party has “betrayed left and progressive voters who propelled them to victory in 2020 by refusing to pass the $15 minimum wage that Biden said he supported (blame it on the parliamentarian), implementing a student debt cancellation plan that is in legal limbo, and having dropped the ball completely on a public option for healthcare.”
• Even if one posits that West has no actual chance of winning the presidency, his campaign could catalyze a movement that strengthens the left going forward.
These claims range from delusional to dubious.
In the first column: It is true that members of the Democratic National Committee were biased in favor of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. It does not follow that the reason Bernie Sanders won 1,000 fewer delegates, and nearly 4 million fewer votes, than Clinton was because Donna Brazile gave her campaign advance notice of some questions at a CNN town hall that very few voters watched. Sanders did not lose the 2016 campaign because Democratic primary candidates aren’t “accountable to the electorate” but because they are. A majority of Democratic primary voters preferred Clinton, whether out of a belief that she was more electable, or more aligned with their ideological views, or more well known, or personally appealing.
The basis for asserting that Sanders was “cheated” out of the nomination in 2020 is even harder to comprehend. Vote-tallying at the Iowa caucuses that year was dysfunctional and served to delay a declaration of their winner. On the night of the vote, some Sanders supporters voiced the conspiratorial belief that the delay was intended to diminish media coverage of their candidate’s triumph and sap his momentum heading into New Hampshire. In reality, however, it was Pete Buttigieg who won Iowa and whose campaign was therefore marginally undermined by the delayed results.
It is true that Democratic leaders, including Barack Obama, encouraged the race’s relative moderates to unite behind Biden after his victory in South Carolina so as to avoid splitting the anti-Bernie vote and delivering him the nomination. But there is nothing undemocratic about political figures endorsing their preferred candidates in an election. Nor is it illegitimate for a candidate to drop out of a race and endorse an ideologically aligned competitor so as to prevent a less appealing rival from winning. Indeed, throughout the 2020 campaign, Sanders’s supporters implored Elizabeth Warren to do precisely this.
All this might be interpreted as a case for fatalism about the left’s capacity to win a Democratic presidential primary. And certainly, I do not think West would have a prayer of denying renomination to an incumbent president in 2024, a nearly impossible feat in U.S. politics. But in an open primary, I think many leading players in the Democratic Party would be comfortable supporting a progressive, provided that their poll results and electoral track record indicated that they would make a strong general-election candidate.
That point is immaterial, though. Sánchez is not arguing for leftists to give up on electoral politics but rather to mobilize behind a third-party presidential campaign. And yet if we stipulate that the left is too weak to win over a majority of Democratic primary voters — which is to say an electorate far more left-wing than the general public — then how on earth would it be capable of defeating the Democratic nominee in a general election? Is Obama not going to endorse against the Green Party nominee next year? How exactly is the left going to win the presidency without the Democratic Party’s core constituencies, from African Americans to college-educated liberals to the AFL-CIO? In order for the left to have a prayer of winning an Electoral College majority, it needs the support of most Democrats. If it is capable of winning such support, then it is capable of winning a Democratic primary. And a leftist with the nomination of a major party would obviously be better positioned to win the presidency than one with only the Green Party’s infinitesimal resources at their disposal.
This isn’t to say that Democratic primary voters’ preference for Biden in 2020 emerged ex nihilo from blue America’s popular will. Certainly, much of the mainstream media was hostile to the radical left in general and Sanders’s campaign in particular. But the institutional obstacles to leftists winning power in the U.S. don’t disappear when they cease to engage with the two-party system.
Sánchez’s arguments for why the left should have no great investment in seeing Democrats defeat Republicans are similarly weak. Here, her argument for why concerns about climate change do not compel the left to avoid aiding the GOP nominee in 2024:
Presumably, we must always vote to keep the GOP out of power because our existence depends on it. But what happens when the Democrat in power actually performs worse than the GOP on this issue? Biden, for instance, drilled more fossil fuel than Trump in his first year of office. More drilling means more fossil fuel use, which means more warming, which means a worsening threat to human existence. So can we still say that the GOP is the most dangerous organization, and therefore we must Vote Blue No Matter Who?
There are a few problems with this argument. One is that the number of drilling permits approved depends in part on the number of applications. The notion that Trump’s administration would have treated drilling permits with more skepticism than Biden’s, under the specific economic conditions of 2021, is difficult to square with the former White House’s broader energy policies. A second issue is that the administration’s approvals of drilling permits slowed considerably after 2021. As of this past March, Biden had approved only 67 more drilling permits than Trump had at that point in his presidency (Trump had approved 7,051 to Biden’s 7,118).
It is unclear whether Sánchez actually believes that Trump did more to reduce carbon emissions than Biden since the latter approved 0.95 percent more drilling permits than the former. To believe this, one would need to think that this marginal difference in permit approvals has a bigger impact on carbon emissions than whether the EPA requires fossil-fuel plants to cut emissions, whether Congress allocates hundreds of billions of dollars for green-technology subsidies, whether the government rolls back fuel–efficiency standards, or the myriad other policy questions on which Biden has abetted decarbonization after Trump undermined it. If Sánchez is actually of this opinion, I believe that she stands in opposition to the assessments of every major climate-change advocacy group and scientist in the country.
Sánchez’s complaints with Biden’s legislative record are understandable but do not support her argument that the Democratic Party is incapable of advancing progressive legislative goals. For example, it seems clear that the Democrats’ failure to pass a federal $15 minimum wage has less to do with the party’s implacable hostility to that policy than with its slim congressional majorities. Where the party boasts large legislative majorities, it has typically passed a $15 minimum wage. Thus, it seems like a far shorter route to enacting that policy at the federal level would be “Elect more (and better) Democrats to Congress,” not “Defy more than a century of historical precedent by launching an electorally dominant leftist third party.”
Sánchez’s reference to Biden’s handling of student debt does even less to support her case. For one thing, the president did, of course, try to unilaterally cancel at least $10,000 of student debt for virtually every borrower, and every Supreme Court justice appointed by a Democratic president upheld the policy. It was nevertheless blocked by the majority of justices who were appointed by Republican presidents. How precisely this constitutes an argument for supporters of student-debt relief to not care whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat is difficult to see.
In any event, the administration is still seeking an alternative means of enacting mass student-loan forgiveness. And even if those efforts were to somehow fall through, Biden has already successfully canceled a record $66 billion of student-loan debt for nearly 2.2 million borrowers through smaller programs. Biden’s revisions to the government’s income-driven repayment program, meanwhile, will arguably do more to reduce student-loan burdens in the long run than the onetime cancellation that the Supreme Court blocked.
It is true that Biden did not make much of an effort to enact a public option for health insurance, in part because such a program had little chance of passing the Senate. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how anyone could believe that the Republican and Democratic Parties are equally hostile to public health insurance given that Obama expanded Medicaid coverage while Trump tried to drastically reduce it.
Notably, Sánchez declines to mention the myriad ways that Democrats have advanced progressive economic goals at the federal level in recent years. Congress’s robust response to the COVID recession was in no small part a product of the Democratic Party’s control of the House. It was congressional Democrats who insisted on increasing unemployment benefits to a level that left many laid-off workers with more income than they’d previously earned at their jobs. Under Biden, meanwhile, Democrats enacted a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill on a party-line vote. These measures collectively reduced poverty in the U.S. and triggered one of the fastest labor-market recoveries in history. Biden’s prioritization of full employment has yielded tight labor markets that increase the bargaining power of low-wage workers and abet union organizing. As a result, lower-income workers have recovered roughly 25 percent of the increase in wage inequality that accrued between Ronald Reagan’s election and Biden’s. The employment rate among disabled Americans, meanwhile, is at a record high. This year, the Democratic Party has proven even more amenable to progressive goals at the state level.
Finally, precisely because the Democratic Party does, in fact, deliver legislative gains to its core constituencies, the left cannot hope to build a mass movement for change through campaigns that aid Republicans.
Conscious of the vulnerabilities in her arguments for indifference to the Democratic Party’s success, or the plausibility of West actually winning the presidency, Sánchez suggests that the real point of his candidacy is movement-building: Even if one believes that leftists in swing states should support the Democratic nominee, West’s campaign offers the left an enormous opportunity to build up the progressive movement through organizing. After all, “we know that the Bernie campaigns, even though they failed to result in his election to the presidency, were hugely energizing. They trained organizers. They spread a message. They grew the movement.” (Of course, this cuts directly against Sánchez’s initial argument that the left has little to gain by competing in Democratic primaries.)
The problem here is that growing the radical left’s base of support to a level commensurate with national influence requires, at a minimum, winning over the core constituencies for progressive reform in the United States, among them African American voters and the labor movement. Associating the radical left with a presidential campaign that benefits the Republican Party is antithetical to that aim. It effectively expresses contempt for such voters’ and groups’ political interests and goals, as the radical left understands them. Critically, that understanding is more aligned with the realities of electoral politics in the U.S. than a worldview that entertains the possibilities that Cornel West could win the presidency or that Donald Trump did more to aid decarbonization than Joe Biden.
None of this is to say that the left has no justifiable complaints about the Biden administration or Democratic Party. Left internationalists are rational to worry about the president’s ratcheting up of tensions with China. The White House’s immigration policies leave much to be desired. The Democratic leadership’s decision to recruit Kyrsten Sinema as its candidate for Arizona Senate in 2018 was a costly blunder. The list goes on.
The question, though, is whether the party’s left-wing critics have a better chance of advancing their political ideals by fighting for power within blue America or defecting to a third party. The fact that proponents of the latter strategy cannot seem to articulate a case for their perspective without spouting blatant falsehoods should tell the West-curious what they need to know.
Source : Intelligencer