Politics

It’s Not Me, It’s You: Cornel West’s Messy Breakup


“I do feel freed up, I must say,” he said with a chuckle.

A day earlier, the news had gone public: West was leaving the Green Party to run for president in 2024 as an independent, the second time he’s left a political party in the four months he’s been in the race.

But there’s two sides to every breakup, and on the other end sat Jill Stein, the erstwhile Green Party presidential candidate who was on West’s “emergency transition” team into the Green Party, serving as his acting campaign manager for much of the summer. Her rejoinder: You think you’re going to be better off without us? This separation is going to be much worse for you than for me.

“I see this as a bit of a transition for us as Greens. … I see this as a crisis for Cornel’s campaign,” she said.

The West-Stein pairing was announced in late June, right after another breakup: West leaving the little-known People’s Party ticket after a scant 11 days. The Green Party-Cornel West link-up promised to be a fusion of the largely white environmental movement and the social justice activism of West, author of the foundational tome Race Matters. And for Joe Biden and Democrats, the pairing could have quickly turned into a nightmare, forcing him to protect his left flank from an organized Green Party running a demi-celebrity with decades of progressive bona fides.

But to hear West tell it, any cords holding this relationship together had frayed beyond repair.

West made the decision days before the announcement last week, after asking his campaign manager Peter Daou — who was introduced to West’s camp by Stein — to lay out clearly the pros and cons of leaving the party.

Cons: ballot access headaches; continued questions about his seriousness as a political figure; the destruction of a potentially mutually beneficial coalition. Pros: getting to set your own agenda; removing yourself from some of the intractable and unserious elements of the party; crucially, for West, no more need to kiss any ass.

“The moment of transition became clear, given the internal dynamics of the Green Party,” West said. “The procedures and requirements for debate, you have to go to various Green Party events in a variety of different states. … I said, ‘Oh my God, this is a lot of energy and time and effort.’”

West was never the official Green Party nominee; as he mentioned, he bristled at the need to spend the time and effort necessary to secure the nomination at their convention next year. (It should be noted that running on a major party ticket requires jumping through many more hoops than in the Green Party.) But he had essentially already been ordained as such — with Stein as his guru, the party was dedicated to helping him get on ballots and supporting his candidacy across the country. Some state chapters of the Green Party had already set up dedicated teams aimed at specifically helping West’s campaign. With a few phone calls, all that effort was for naught.

Even though the partnership remained largely on the fringes of American political life, West had the chance to lend to the Greens significant name ID and a message of social and economic justice that appeals to a broader base of people on the left. In return, the Green Party could have given West important infrastructure and a ballot line in many states across the country. And even though both sides have made sure, in this era of celebrity “conscious uncoupling,” to publicly state their continued respect for one another, the breakup has gotten a little messy. That’s not a huge surprise for West, who’s made a career out of — or in spite of — spitting in the face of establishment institutions to which he has ties.

“[The Green Party] has had a whole host of different campaigns,” West said. “It’s still very difficult to see the ways in which the movement has flowed from the campaign. … Young people have not been that tied to the Greens at all. Black people have not been that tied to the Greens at all. Brown people, trade union people, they haven’t been that tied to the Greens at all.”

West thinks the Greens can’t take him where he wants to go. The Greens think West is throwing away movement politics and blowing up his own campaign to boot. With some remove, it’s easy to see the split as the latest example of the narcissism of small differences that’s plagued segments of the modern left in recent years. (Think of liberals attacking Bernie Sanders for his support of American aid to Ukraine, or DSA-backed politicians condemning fringe DSA members supporting the actions of Hamas this week.) West might feel comfortable going his own way, but attempts to build sustainable political power on the left have often been overtaken by internecine fights that feel more like public displays of personal problems.

Can Cornel West for President 3.0 avoid that fate?

On a hot, sunny day at the center of New York City in mid-September, “Brother West,” as he refers to himself on his campaign website, was pressing the flesh. Invited to speak by the nonprofit Greenfaith at the March to End Fossil Fuels, West was in his usual uniform: black suit, black vest, black shoes, black tie. He sported his iconic afro, grizzled beard and a big, ready grin. He strolled in, flanked by two bodyguards, also decked out in black suits and black ties. Peter Daou, who despite having been involved with the campaign for less than a week, somehow got the memo, at least mostly: black suit, black shoes, silver tie.

The group of men looked something like the black-suited agents from The Matrix franchise, in which West played Councillor West in a role specially created for him by the Wachowski siblings. Today, though, they were slashing through mostly adoring crowds, as West was inundated by a series of appreciators, asking for selfies and getting hugs back as well.

Among the audience was a man in a snowman costume, complete with sunglasses and a top hat, some older, mostly white activists greeting each other with familiarity, a younger, more racially diverse group and many Indigenous Americans, some in traditional tribal garb and some without. Other speakers throughout the day included Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Susan Sarandon, who, speaking right after Bowman, slammed him and his liberal Congressional colleagues for not doing enough to push more centrist Democrats to the left.

As West rose to speak, standing in front of a Pret a Manger and a Bank of America — the last in a line of religious leaders of many faiths — the crowd fell hushed. But as he spoke, they quickly began to murmur, and then cry out in agreement.

“The problem of our politicians, they think ecological catastrophe is just a problem because they have managerial mentality,” West intoned in his ministerial cadence, letting loose as only someone practiced at speaking in front of large crowds can.

“Something that they can get their hands around and come up with some incremental response as if we’re not living on the edge of the cliff. This is catastrophe.” He held onto “catastrophe” for a second, letting it sing.

“That’s right!” the audience chanted.

West continued.

“This is the blues all the way down.”

Judging from their enthusiastic response, the cavalcade of characters and fellow marchers constituted the closest thing to West’s base. Multiple people with whom I spoke were his former students. It was a politically engaged group angry enough about climate change — and governmental inertia — that they were willing to show up to a march to hear and cheer West on. One woman wandered around shouting over and over, “Fuck Joe Biden.”

“[West] is a prophet, he sets the world on fire in the best way,” said Gretchen Elmendorf, a former student of West’s who marched behind him.

Would she vote for him?

“No, because we’ve got too much at stake. I hate to say this, because it’s us vs. them thinking, but I don’t want the Republican MAGAs to win.”

It’s a refrain that Elmendorf shared with other climate march attendees. When asked whether she supported the idea of West running for office, Swati Srivastava said “wholeheartedly.” But as far as the reality of him running for president this cycle, she said, “he should have come into the Democratic debate, like Bernie Sanders did. … So no, [I won’t support him].”

The same was true for Steven Latture, who declared, “I love Dr. West. I’ve read a number of his books, and I plan to take a class with him at Union Theological Seminary” [where he last taught a course in Spring 2022]. “But I just don’t want one vote taken away from the majority of votes that I pray and hope will defeat Donald Trump.”

The day wasn’t completely filled with spoiler-cautious voters, though. Stuart Chen-Hayes, who’s voted on the Green Party line in presidential races since Ralph Nader in 2000, approached West with a highlighter yellow sign with a simple message scrawled across it in block letters: “VOTE CORNEL WEST.” West grinned and engaged in a quick, animated chat with Chen-Hayes as he marched, thanking him for his support.

When I reached Chen-Hayes after West’s announcement that he was departing the Green Party, he said, “I think Cornel West is amazing. [But] I wouldn’t rule out shifting my vote to a Green candidate.”

West’s speech was the theory of the case for why his relationship with the Green Party may have worked: ecological catastrophe, though never at the center of West’s scholarship, he argues, is a byproduct of the economic and racial injustice he’s spent a long career studying. By one measure, his four-minute speech was successful: He inspired his audience. He also found the electoral support of historic Green Party voters. But by another, he was running into a roadblock.

Some of the people he needs as his base to mount any sort of serious challenge won’t support him, no matter how much he fires them up — or how he makes them feel.

The vast majority of the political establishment in the United States has long viewed the Green Party on a scale somewhere between bemusement and blind anger. In her book What Happened, Hillary Clinton blamed Stein and the Greens for her loss in 2016 (among other people, including herself). West’s entrance into the race on the Green Party line prompted similar hand-wringing in some circles that he could siphon votes from President Joe Biden in 2024.

The Green Party and West respond by essentially saying the idea of a spoiler candidate is a myth. No candidate is owed any votes. They have to earn them. And moreover, if major parties are afraid of these third-party candidates, that means they’re getting closer to their goal of breaking up the establishment duopoly in the U.S. If anyone’s angry or dismissive, they figure, that means what they’re doing is working.

West is a natural fit for this sort of eye-poking of the establishment. Between 2000 and 2002, West and Harvard President Larry Summers traded escalating public barbs, including West calling Summers “a bull in a china shop and a bully, in a very delicate and dangerous situation,” before defecting from Harvard to teach at Princeton.

In the middle of President Barack Obama’s first term, West called Obama “a war president with a [Nobel] peace prize” and protested that Obama “talked to me like I was a Cub Scout, and he was a pack master,” and that Obama was “a Black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a Black muppet of corporate plutocrats.”

More recently, West has supported Julian Assange and called the Russian invasion of Ukraine “a criminal invasion, provoked by the expansion of NATO,” arguing against U.S. aid to Ukraine. None of these public statements, over decades, have endeared West much to establishment Democrats. But that’s OK, he’s not exactly enamored with them either.

One of Daou’s favorite refrains of late: “The ruling parties are anti-democracy. They don’t want more choices for people. They want fewer choices.”

West argues he can provide more choice. He also says that he can actually, maybe win, though he also takes on the sort of “winning isn’t everything” attitude that befits an erudite youth soccer coach giving a pregame speech to a team that’s headed for an 0-8 season.

“We still want to win,” he says. “But success is measured in terms of being able to both bear witness to the truth that we speak and the justice that we seek. … It’s hard to measure that just in terms of votes.”

No kidding.

But as a political neophyte, the learning curve for West has been steep, as he readily admits. An unaffiliated voter would be forgiven for taking a close look at the infancy of the West campaign and wondering: What the hell is going on?

On June 5, West announced that he would be running for president on the People’s Party line, an organization formed in 2017 by Nick Brana with ballot access in one state: Florida. That same day, West joined Russell Brand on his show “Stay Free” on Rumble in his first interview to promote his campaign. In June, West told me that they recruited him to join their ticket and that his campaign was decidedly ad-hoc; he consulted only his wife and his brother before making the decision to run.

Eleven days later, he was out, pursuing the Green Party nomination.

“After a few days,” he said, “I discovered lo and behold, they had baggage.”

That baggage was, among other things, sexual assault allegations against Brana levied by two former members of the People’s Party, which were made public in 2022, and which Brana has denied. When one googles “Nick Brana,” an accounting of the allegations is the sixth result.

When he joined the Green Party with the help of Stein, the campaign professionalized somewhat, adding some paid staff and volunteers. “I’m very grateful to the Green Party for coming to my rescue,” West said after he had left the Greens. But at the same time, he continued to draw the ire of progressive activists and former friends attempting to build sustainable power within the confines of the Democratic Party. All of these people said that they deeply respected West for his decades of principled agitating, but that they couldn’t countenance his run for a third party while they were doing the hard work to move Democrats left.

Alan Minsky, the executive director of Progressive Democrats of America, an organization that was integral to drafting Bernie Sanders to run as a Democrat in 2016, told West — a former professor of his — as much at the climate march.

“If you want to see social, economic and political change in this country, there are people fighting for it inside the Democratic Party,” Minsky told me. “Contrary to some of Dr. West’s messaging that portrays the Democratic Party as a monolith, there are people fighting very sincerely and strongly, forming progressive caucuses across the country.”

Daou responds that “running in the Democratic primary is not an option for somebody principled like Dr. West, because he’s not going to participate in a sham primary.”

Principles are a funny thing in politics. Everyone’s sure they have them and their opponent has none. In West’s case, his political opponents extend to many of the people he shared the stage with at Bernie rallies. West recently called Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “window dressing, at worst” for the Democratic Party. Both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, for their part, have already endorsed Biden in 2024.

Waleed Shahid, who’s spent the better part of the last decade working for Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Bowman and the progressive PAC and caucus Justice Democrats, called West’s campaign “embarrassing.”

“The naivety and the amateurishness of the campaign is striking. … It’s incredibly hard to get third-party ballot access, and I do not trust the skills of the West campaign to do it,” Shahid said.

“Giving people false hope who might have been inspired by Bernie or AOC is pretty disappointing.”

Shahid, Minsky and much of the U.S. left had problems with West’s campaign from the get-go. As liberal commentator Krystal Ball told The Nation when West announced his run, “I don’t think third-party efforts have proven successful even in pushing the establishment left. In fact, it appears to me they’ve backfired.”

Now, West has devastated the Greens as well.

The messy breakup was far from mutual.

In the minutes after West’s announcement became public, Alfred Molison, a national co-chair of the Green Party from Texas, was still unaware that it had even happened.

“That’s brand new, wow. I’m shocked, I’m very, very shocked,” he said. “Is he still running for president?”

Yes.

“Foolish. Foolish, I think. … The Green Party is organized in many states, and the Green Party has ballot access in quite a few states already. Why withdraw?”

“I’m still kind of processing it,” said Joseph Naham, another national Green Party co-chair (there are seven, along with the Secretary and the Treasurer, who make up the steering committee) who learned the news when it went public. “I’m going to hold the door open if he’d like to return.”

DeAnna Taylor, a state chair of the Utah Green Party, used similar language less than an hour after she found out from a fellow Green Party member. “I’m still kind of processing everything,” she said. “I’m shocked and surprised and disappointed.”

The Secretary of the Green Party, Holly Hart, heard the news the night before the announcement. “My understanding is there was a concern about working closely with the state parties,” she said. “I think a lot of people are going to be very disappointed.”

Various stages of grief were on full display; no one had hit acceptance. Stein had a few more days to process — she had learned four days earlier that West was deciding not to seek the nomination.

On the evening of Monday, Oct. 2, a day after she learned of West’s decision, Stein joined a Zoom call with West and some of his staff.

“It turned out that that meeting was not about revisiting [the decision], and I was just given an opportunity to say my piece,” Stein said. “Which I did.”

Her piece went something like this: I wish you well, but this is a terrible idea. “I’m grateful to him, he really advanced our ballot access,” Stein said. “I don’t think it’s a strategic decision on his part. … It’s hard to see how he’s going to overcome the hurdles he’s just created for himself.”

Most importantly, West is giving up critical ballot access initiatives and a Green Party organized volunteer effort by going independent. Daou has responded publicly, saying on X (formerly known as Twitter), “Cornel West aims to be on the ballot in 50 states. The Green Party has a ballot line in 18 states. The difference between being Independent and Green is 18 states, not 50.”

But he can also admit that there are tradeoffs to West’s decision.

“The Green Party brings a lot, has built infrastructure. … And that’s a positive” he told me. “But there’s also tremendous freedom in Dr. West being able to go directly to the people, with his own platform, on his own terms, in his own time.”

As the campaign sees it, according to West, “We think we can get at least a good 35-38 [states] or so, and usually the Green Party gets a good 40 or 41. And in a number of states, it’s easier to gain access as an independent than a third-party candidate.”

Publicly, presidential campaigns are almost unnaturally optimistic. Admitting defeat — in any way, at any time — is not an option. A relevant example: Daou and West both insist that they can still win the presidency on an independent line. So for West to admit that his campaign is giving up on states they could have expected to compete in with the help of the Green Party suggests the ballot access challenges are enormous.

According to Valdosta State professor Bernard Tamas, who wrote The Demise and Rebirth of American Third Parties in 2018, “for a decently structured party, like libertarians and the Greens, [getting on the ballot] is generally not that bad, [though] they hate doing it. … I’m not sure how exactly [West] is going to pull that off without a party structure.”

But from the beginning, West’s campaign has been quixotic.

“[West] likes to stick to issues, he’s not an organization mediator of various different petty conflicts, personality conflicts,” said Ralph Nader, who ran for president as the Green Party’s nominee in 1996 and 2000, on the Reform Party line in 2004 and as an independent in 2008.

“But when you shed one series of problems, you create another.”

The Green Party currently holds a very small slice of the pie — as of 2022, the party had over 230,000 registered voters, good for 0.19 percent of the electorate. And during the latest FEC filing deadline in July, West reported having raised only just over $70,000, not close to enough for any kind of serious challenge. But combined, the party and West had hoped they could expand that sliver much further, finding votes among the growing percentage of people unhappy with both major political parties.

Cornel West, though, says he wants to improvise.

West is not an ordinary public intellectual. In addition to the spate of professorships and fellowships, influential books and speeches, he’s also released multiple albums that span musical genres, including spoken word. He’s collaborated with Prince and Jill Scott and Andre 3000 and Immortal Technique. In his work for the education subscription platform MasterClass, he included a case study on John Coltrane and his legendary album, A Love Supreme. He performed spoken word with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra this past Juneteenth. Listen to him speak for long enough, and you’ll begin to hear patterns that blend Coltrane and Billie Holiday with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel with Socrates and Plato, for a start.

It follows that he might reach for musical inspiration when considering his political fortunes.

“I’ve always been a jazz man,” West said about his decision to leave the Green Party. “It’s hard to stay in the party band and play your song, brother, if you’re a jazz man. You’ve got some notes, you’ve got some things to do and places to go that go far beyond the constraints of any party.”

Peter Daou, who spent an earlier career as a jazz pianist, was humming the same tune. One might be tempted to call assertions of improvisation the party line — if there was still a party attached.

“He’s a jazz man, and in jazz, you improvise,” Daou said. “As a former professional musician [myself] and also a jazz man, I understand the idea of improvisation. And the way that works is, you learn as you go, you adapt, you’re nimble.”

In presidential politics, though, there’s a fine line between adaptability and self-immolation. Think on your feet but don’t trip over yourself. Choose your arguments carefully, knowing the ones you can win. Consider how an impulsive decision might sway an undecided voter, or frustrate someone who might otherwise be a natural ally.

To that point, it’s worth asking how long a campaign can sustain itself while it’s beset on all sides by former friends. And to take it one step further, when even allies can’t get along, it’s pretty hard to expand your base and build a movement.

West is pivoting on his own to find a new, motivated political base, one filled with unlikely voters. It’s something that has never worked before, but as Nader says, there is one undeniable strategic benefit to running as an independent.

“It’s easier to drop out.”





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