When Cornel West announced his entry into the 2024 presidential campaign on June 5 as the People’s Party candidate, he became the latest African American to do so as head of a third party since 1888.
Six were women: Charlene Mitchell, 1968, Communist Party; Margaret White, 1976, People’s Party; Isabell Masters, every election between 1984 and 2004, Looking Back Party; Lenora Fulani, 1988, New Alliance Party; Monica Moorehead, 1996, 2000, 2016, Workers World Party; and Cynthia McKinney, 2008, Green Party. Four women sought the nomination of the two main parties: Angel Joy Chavis Rocker, Republican, 1999; Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun, and Kamala Harris, Democrat, 1972, 2004 and 2020, respectively.
Fewer men sought the nomination of their parties, including Frederick Douglass, 1888, representing a very different Republican Party then; Jesse Jackson, 1984 and 1988, Democrat; Herman Cain, 2011, Republican; Barack Obama, Democrat, 2008, 2012; and New Jersey Senator Corey Booker, 2020, Democrat.
Obama won the nomination and the presidency – twice. Most of the others were largely unknown nationally, including Harris, whom Joe Biden chose as Vice President.
So far in the 2024 campaign season, two African Americans are seeking the Republican nomination — talk-show host Larry Elder and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott – along with an Indian American, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Biden is almost certain to win the Democratic nomination and former President Donald Trump and Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis are the main candidates for the Republican Party. West will have to face them, along with third party candidates. From a historical perspective, the chances of his emerging as a strong challenger are not great but that has never been an obstacle for little known candidates determined to promote issues of concern to them and their followers.
The late Eugene V. Debs, the country’s staunchest Socialist and hero still a century later to progressives and radical leftists, ran for president ﬁve times. As the Socialist Party candidate, he campaigned from prison while serving three concurrent 10-year terms after a jury convicted him under the Sedition Act of 1918 – for speaking out against American involvement in World War 1. Federal prosecutor Edwin Wertz declared, “No man, even though four times the candidate of his party for the highest ofﬁce in the land, can violate the basic law of this land.” That remark resonates now that a federal grand jury has indicted Trump, alleging he unlawfully possessed classiﬁed material.
The Green Party has also frequently ﬁelded candidates, including Ralph Nader in 2000 who siphoned off two million votes that probably would have gone to Democratic Al Gore, who lost to Republican George W. Bush. Some Democrats fear West could become Nader 2.0 and deny Biden his re-election. That fear could be well-founded because West has a following among progressives, who are a strong part of the Democratic base, as does his ideological colleague Vermont’s Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. Any possible damage in that regard could, however, be limited because Sanders, who ran for president in 2016 and 2020, but under the Democratic banner, is now backing Biden and so, presumably will most of his supporters.
“The last thing this country needs is a Donald Trump or some other right-wing demagogue who is going to try to undermine American democracy or take away a woman’s right to choose or not address the crisis of gun violence or racism, sexism or homophobia,” Sanders told Nation reporter John Nichols in April. “So I’m going to do what I can to make sure that the president is reelected.”
West probably knew that position but it did not stop him from announcing his candidacy in a video in which he said he is “running for truth and justice … to reintroduce America to the best of itself— ﬁghting to end poverty, mass incarceration, ending wars and ecological collapse, guaranteeing housing, health care, education, and living wages for all.”
West included in the announcement a clip of his appearance last year on the television talk show “Real Time with Bill Maher” in which he criticized “neofascists like Brother Trump or milquetoast neoliberals like Brother Biden.”
West told Nichols that his candidacy is merely a continuation of “what I have been doing all of my life. Not talking about hating anybody. We’re talking about loving. We’re talking about afﬁrming. We’re talking about empowering those who have been pushed to the margins because neither political party wants to tell the truth about Wall Street, about Ukraine, about the Pentagon, about Big Tech.”
Nichols predicted that West’s “intellect, and his bluntness, will make him a signiﬁcant ﬁgure in the 2024 race and even if his candidacy suffers the fate of past third-party campaigns, “it will shake up the 2024 competition.”
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, son of an educator mother and a defense department contractor father, West, 70. marched for civil rights at a young age and organized protests demanding black studies courses be taught at his high school, where he served as student body president. He has written that, in his youth, he admired "the sincere black militancy of Malcolm X, the deﬁant rage of the Black Panther Party and the livid black theology of James Cone.” Cone was a theologian who advocated African American theology and African American liberation theology, setting out his ideas in his 1969 book “Black Theology and Black Power.”
West, a faculty member of Union Theological Seminary, credits Harvard University, from where he graduated with highest honors, with widening his ideological horizon, influenced by his professors as well as the Black Panther Party, according to Wikipedia. But he has said that his Christian faith prevented him from joining the Panthers, choosing instead to serve in local breakfast, prison and church programs.
He has published more than 15 books, including “Race Matters” in 1993, “Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America” in 1994 and “The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century” (with Henry Louis Gates Jr.), in 2000. Perhaps less known is that West has appeared in nine movies, including two of the “Matrix” ﬁlms. And he has released three albums.
Still, it is likely that he will have to be satisﬁed with what Debs did more than 100 years ago: using the presidential campaign to spread his message. “There was virtually no chance that a Socialist (or any third-party candidate) would ever get the votes needed to break through the electoral college, so at best the party’s national ticket for president and vice president was always a way to raise awareness and encourage further organizing of working-class people,” Wesley Bishop, a historian at the Indiana-based Eugene V. Debs Foundation, told The Washington Post. That is very likely true of West today.
But, author and journalist Benjamin Wallace-Wells commented in the June 5 New Yorker, “Democrats, during their long post-Cold War neoliberal phase, adopted some libertarian ideas and took up market logic, too. The imprint has lasted. The Democratic Party of today, with its base of support among the wealthiest and most successful of voters and its optimism about winning votes in the suburbs, would be hard to imagine if it hadn’t embraced wealth and capitalism. Late-twentieth-century libertarianism reshaped not just the right but mainstream liberalism, too.”
West has “repeatedly criticized what he describes as a neoliberal establishment that dominates politics, and described himself as a democratic socialist,” Nick Robins-Early wrote in The Guardian.
Can he, with his hard left ideology, gain an opening in the perceived libertarianism of the Democratic Party? Perhaps, but it would be a very small one indeed and would depend on how successful he is in attracting Sanders supporters. It is doubtful that many Americans are engaged in the ideological struggle, certainly not as much as they have been mobilized on the culture front. But it is worth a try, right?