Cornel West’s presidential candidacy is ‘for the least of these’
Chris Hedges with Cornel West | Jun 16, 2023
Cornel West is running for president. In a wide-ranging conversation on The Chris Hedges Report, West lays out a political vision centering “the least of these.” Rejecting the corporate duopoly and its two wings—a neofascist Republican party, and the neoliberal Democrats—West calls for a multiracial alliance of poor and working people against militarism, corporatism, racism, and all other forms of bigotry and oppression.Editor’s Note: Since the time this interview was recorded, Dr. Cornel West has announced his intention to seek the Green Party nomination for presidential candidate, rather than running under the People’s Party.
Technical Director: David Hebden
Studio Production: David Hebden, Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Adam Coley
Chris Hedges: Dr. Cornel West, the moral philosopher and Civil Rights activist, is running for president on the People’s Party ticket. Dr. West 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. He calls for a paradigm shift, a realignment of the ideological landscape, demanding that we redirect the focus of governing institutions from the demands of markets and corporations, the military machine empire, and the ruling oligarchs to the poor and working people. 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.
If this campaign becomes a movement – And it will need a lot of organizing to get Dr. West 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 Dr. West as these forces in Britain were to Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.
What hope third party candidates have of achieving victory in our current political system remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: short of a political revolution that overthrows the ruling corporate duopoly, we are headed not only for corporate tyranny, but ultimately the extinction of the human species, along with most other species.
Joining me to discuss his candidacy is Dr. Cornel West. Cornel, I want to ask you first, you campaigned for Obama. I think you did over 60 campaign events for Barack Obama. You campaigned for Bernie Sanders. So you certainly were embedded within the Democratic Party machine. What changed?
Cornel West: Well first, let me just start off saying it’s always a blessing to be in conversation with you, brother. These decades have been ones in which it’s hard to imagine myself without the joy of having your brotherhood and our friendship. And your piece on Substack that made the announcement, set the high standard and the high note. It reminded me of the high-C note by Louis Armstrong in the “West End Blues”, brother. We keep that standard because we always want to be clear what the standards are. It’s the only way we can sustain the courage – And as you know, courage is the enabling virtue. All the other virtues are empty without courage.
For me, I’ve always viewed myself as a jazz man in the world of ideas as well as the jazz man in politics, which means I have to be improvisational. I can’t be dogmatic, I can’t be ossified and petrified in my analysis or in my praxis. So I find myself always going in and out. I’ve worked with my dear brother Bill Bradley, who I have deep love for – We had deep disagreements too. Then I also worked for Ralph Nader, and I believe Ralph Nader’s one of the great figures of the 20th century and 21st century. I want to say that publicly because he’s been mistreated, misperceived, and so forth. Then I went back again with Bernie, then went with Jill Stein, then went back again even with Biden, old warmongering milquetoast Biden, over against Trump. So I’ve tried to be flexible and fluid enough, but it’s always tied to putting precious poor people and priceless working people of all colors at the center of my vision and praxis.
So I’m thoroughly convinced now that, at this historical moment, you can never defeat fascism with milquetoast neoliberalism. Neoliberalism will simply put it off for a while. You’ve got to get at the roots of fascism. And the two-party system, the corporate duopoly impedes and obstructs the empowerment of poor people – Not just in the US, not just in the American empire, but around the world, given the militarism and given the 800 military units that represent the American empire in terms of its military might.
So in this particular moment, I’m just giving all that I can to mount this third-party bid to, on the one hand, be head of the empire and then to win and begin to dismantle the empire in the name of poor and working people here and abroad. So it’s one moment within a much larger movement. That movement, of course, is not just national, it is international. Keeping the focus on those the great Frantz Fanon calls The Wretched of the Earth.
Chris Hedges: Why can’t that be done through the Democratic Party?
Cornel West: The Democratic Party has proven now that its corporate wing will always snuff out the progressives, the Bernie Sanderses. I have great love for Bernie, I’ll always have a love for my brother. And as a jazz person, improvisational, I can love somebody and still have big disagreements. It made it very clear that the progressives will always be window dressing, especially every two years and every four years during elections. Corporate interests, military interest, military-industrial complex, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Big Tech, they’re at the center of the Democratic Party. So it’s the taboo issues: corporate power, surveillance, ecological collapse, fossil fuel industry. We saw it with Manchin in the debt ceiling agreement. Oh, you can make an agreement with him, but you can’t make an agreement when it comes to the needs of poor and working people. Oh, I see. Reveal yourself, Democratic Party. Of course, they’ve been doing that for a while, but at this particular moment, it’s very difficult not to be able to see that.
Then when it comes to militarism, oh my God. Jesus Christ. Ukraine, the Middle East, Israeli-Palestinian situation. It’s very clear that there’s no commitment to the suffering of the least of these, be it Palestinians on the West Bank or be it precious Ukrainians who deserve a central focus but who are bearing such a brunt, in part, not just because of Russian imperialism, but because of American imperialism. So the NATO expansion is a fundamental factor here, and it’s been downplayed by the rationalizers of the war. So we’ve got to bring that war to a stop in the name of the suffering of our precious Ukrainian brothers and sisters. And the acknowledgement – Even though Putin is in fact a gangster, even though the invasion is a crime against humanity – Any empire who’s pushed back against the wall responds like empires. All you gotta do is look at the American empire. If there was missiles in Mexico, or Canada, or Cuba, or Venezuela, the US would blow them to smithereens overnight. Why? Because it’s the mightiest empire.
Russia is a wounded empire, got its own forms of repression. I’m in deep solidarity with the oppression of the Russian brothers and sisters who are going to jail against the invasion. See, that’s a serious moral witness. That speaks deeply to me. So I don’t view Russians in any homogenous way, there’s always a variety of different voices.
Same way in Israel. You’ve got some Jewish brothers and sisters who are in solidarity with the Palestinians – Not their government, but you never view the Jewish community as a homogeneous community. There’s always a variety of different voices. So to keep those moral and spiritual dimensions at the core means everything to my own candidacy, my brother.
Chris Hedges: I want to talk about both domestic and foreign policy. We’ve seen the neoliberals dismantle the New Deal. It started immediately after World War II, all sorts of anti-labor laws, the Taft-Hartley Act accelerated in reaction to the movements of the 1960s, you had the Powell memo to Samuel Huntington called The Excess of Democracy. You probably knew Huntington at Harvard.
Cornel West: Oh, yeah.
Chris Hedges: Talk about what they’ve done and what we have to rebuild domestically.
Cornel West: Yeah, I think that it’s very clear that the powers in the US were frightened by the expansion of a trade union movement that was going to bring power and pressure to bear on the predatory capitalist processes in which profits were to be gained and workers were to be manipulated and subjugated just for profit. The great CLR James makes this point. When he’s in Ellis Island, 1946, 1947. Massive strikes, major challenges to the corporate order, you see. And then boom, as you say, anti-trade union policy tied to Congress and the courts at the same time. Court’s instruments of corporate elites, ruling class. Congress already themselves thoroughly subordinate to corporate elites, ruling class. Trade union movement not just pushed against the wall, but so many of the precious socialists and precious communists with the Smith Act are deported, or thoroughly marginalized, or demeaned, or lied to, and a host of others.
I was thinking of the great Louisa Marino, who’s one of the greatest Latina freedom fighters of the 20th century, was deported from California and had to go to Guatemala. She goes there, then the US has a coup there and overthrows the democratic government. But she holds on the way Claudia Jones was deported but held on. The way Benjamin Davis, the city councilman from Harlem who was taken to jail under the Smith Act. For what? For being a communist. Wait, wait a minute. I’m not myself a communist, but I defend the rights of everybody. Where are the libertarian sensibilities here among the liberals? Oh, highly selective and you always get that kind of hypocrisy from corporate liberals.
What we have is an attempt between 1945 and 1973 to, on the one hand, push the trade union back, but they had to come to terms with Jim Crow. The vicious legacy of white supremacy that had played a fundamental role in shaping the American capitalist order: Indigenous people subjugated, genocidal attacks, immigrants tied to cheap labor, enslaved Africans for almost 100 years, and then Jim Crow. They had to come to terms with Jim Crow because they broke the back of the vicious, indescribably evil Nazi regime in the name of, we are against racism.
So what we got between 1940 to 1973, we broke the back of legal apartheid in America. We broke the back of Jim Crow. But the trade union movement being pushed back, issues of class rendered invisible, or if you touch it you’re going to be thoroughly marginalized. Think of the great W.E.B. Du Bois, think of the great Paul Robeson, among others, who wanted to talk about those class issues. That Black folk then are included within the status quo there, included within an order where it’s difficult then to talk about poverty and class. It’s going to only be talked about race and upward mobility.
So the very litmus test of progress, let’s say, in relation to race, how many middle-class Black folks you got? What kind of representation do you have at the top? So you end up with a more multiracial and even later multicultural status quo that still has contempt for poor people, contempt for working people, militaristic presences abroad, and yet now Black folk are represented and included in an unjust order, but slightly less unjust, because it’s not as racist as it was before.
Chris Hedges: But Cornel, it’s just internal colonialism in the same way that when it became unfeasible to run the Congo, they assassinated Lumumba, who was a real freedom fighter, and put in the corrupt Mobutu to do their bidding. So it’s really just a species of internal colonialism, isn’t it?
Cornel West: No, you’re right. It’s just that you can imagine the impact on my precious Black folk after those years of white supremacist slavery, and years of lynching, and years of Jim and Jane Crow, to finally gain a foothold in the American mainstream. See, in lived experience, that has impact. You know what I mean? You say, oh, my God. It looks as if we’re really now on the way to Black freedom. We’re on the way to liberation and emancipation, and you have to do what? Stop, reflect, tell the truth.
The breakthroughs have been made for the Black middle classes, for the Black bourgeoisie, for the Black professional managerial class. Absolutely unprecedented opportunities. That cannot be denied. You can’t account for Obama without telling that story. But at the same time, when you have the vision that I am concerned about, which is the vision of the plight and the predicament of what the Bible calls “the least of these”: the poor, the working classes, those in the hoods, in the barrios, our poor white brothers and sisters in Appalachia and so many other places still catching hell. The same would be true of women in the patriarchy, our precious trans being viciously attacked, precious gays and lesbians, viciously attacked.
When you look at the world from the vantage point of their plight and predicament, you see all the multiculturalism in the world is still going to generate an unjust status quo. And let us be very clear: when you have your baby crushed or your mother killed on the West Bank, it’s not a big difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
Chris Hedges: Yeah.
Cornel West: Not at all. Not at all.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about what Malcolm X called our internal colonies. I also just want to throw in there, we were both great friends with Glenn Ford. He used to talk about the Black elite as the Black misleadership class, he called it.
Cornel West: Oh, what a great – [inaudible] Margaret Kimberley, and Brother Danny, and the others. And we miss Bruce too, brother Bruce Dixon.
Chris Hedges: Yeah. Bruce Dixon.
Cornel West: My God, yeah.
Chris Hedges: But let’s talk about those internal colonies. We both taught in the prison. We visited Mumia Abu-Jamal together with the great James Cohn. There’s a protean quality to white supremacy and racial suppression that it changes its shape, but we now have militarized police forces functioning as internal armies of occupation with long-barrelled weapons, Kevlar vests, kicking down doors in the middle of the night. There’s not much difference between a night raid in Newark, or Camden, or Oakland or anywhere else and the night raids that are carried out overseas. There’s that tie with imperialism.
But there is a huge section of this country, both white, Black, of all colors, that have been completely written off, and by a corporate media, rendered invisible. The heart of your campaign is to address that huge section of the American population, of all colors, that have been cast aside as human refuse through industrialization, austerity, and everything else.
Cornel West: Absolutely. I think of that farewell tour. Somebody I know wrote a text on that [Hedges laughs], name is brother Chris Hedges, that talked precisely about the precious folk who have been pushed against the wall by corporate globalism, the kind of thing celebrated by the Thomas Friedmans and others. Oh, this is the way for not just liberty and freedom, but democracy across the board. Well let’s look at the evidence. We ain’t got nothing against you, Tom. Let’s look at the evidence.
Well, we noticed that in the US, the point that the great William Barber has been making is that The Poor People’s Campaign with sister Theoharis is what? 60% of Americans are living month to month. 23% of Americans are still living in dire poverty even as food stamps are cut, given the debt ceiling agreement between Biden and McCarthy. What are we talking about in terms of human beings who are unable to flourish because of lack of nourishment, let alone lack of access to serious substantive healthcare, care of quality, even given Obamacare? I know I get that a lot from my neoliberal brothers and sisters. Obamacare came through and made the breakthrough. Oh, it was a deal with big pharmaceutical companies, a deal with the corporate elites in the industry that’s supposedly delivering medical services, but profit at the center, leaving out so many.
I believe in abolition. See, I’m part of the Frederick Douglass school of thought. You see, I don’t want to chip at poverty. I want to eliminate, abolish poverty. I don’t want to chip at homelessness. I want to abolish homelessness. I don’t want to chip at struggle for living wages. I want to abolish unjust wages. I don’t want to chip at mass incarceration reform. I want to abolish forms of injustice that incarcerate people as if they’re animals. There’s ways of dealing with murderers, and rapists, and so forth, things that are criminal. I’d be the first to acknowledge that, but there’s ways of dealing with them. We can learn from Finland. We can learn from Denmark. We can learn from Sweden on how you rehabilitate persons. I want to abolish corporate greed and on, and on, and on.
That kind of abolish mentality and imagination the Ruth Gilmores, the Angela Davises, and others have taught us mean much to me. Because that’s what it means in the end: to really bear witness to the precious humanity of each and every one of us, no matter what color we are, gender, sexual orientation, or national identity.
You’re right. What’s at stake is what? You see it in New York right now, you see it on the East Coast: Ecological catastrophe. The future of the species, the future of the planet. What’s at stake? The destruction of democracy. If the only alternative to fascism we produce is a corporate-driven, milquetoast, neoliberal Democratic Party, fascism will come to America. Let us be very clear. It’s like a Weimar America. You gotta get at the roots of fascism.
That’s why, as you know, I’m going straight into Trump country, man. I’m going to talk to many of those vanilla brothers and sisters. I’m not naïve, but I’m going to say, I know you want it. I know you’re scarred. I know you’re bruised. I know you have not been able to flourish under this corporate globalization, and the arrogance of the professional-managerial class, and the greed of the corporate elites. I want you to be able to become a part of a movement that’s concerned by satisfying your basic social needs. Give up on following neo-fascist pied pipers. Give up on the xenophobia that makes you feel good, yet you still catching hell economically and financially. That’s what is required. I’m not naïve, but I think we have a chance of reaching some of those white brothers and sisters. I don’t give up on them at all. They’re human beings. They just happen to want to come at Black folk, and gays, and lesbians, and Jews, and Arabs, and Muslims at the moment. They can be changed. You go out to reach them, not in arrogance.
Chris Hedges: Well that rage is manipulated and directed by demagogues.
Cornel West: That’s right.
Chris Hedges: Figures like Trump, or DeSantis, and others, and it’s also buttressed by a Democratic Party arrogance and dismissal of Trump supporters, the famous Hillary Clinton line being deplorables. On the one hand, they’re manipulated. On the other hand, by Democratic Party stalwarts, they’re rejected and demonized.
Cornel West: That’s exactly right. Very, very much so. You see, what’s at the center of my campaign is to reintroduce America to the best of itself. That would mean, politically, movements break the back of slavery and Jim and Jane Crow. Movements of workers to try to gain some fairness given the corporate greed at the top. Women having control over their bodies, women respected in the workplace. Any group that’s been marginalized. The least of these, these days, is our precious trans. I keep coming back to that because I have a deep moral and spiritual commitment to the most vulnerable in that regard, you see.
But the best of America has been the Martin Kings, the Ella Bakers, the Rabbi Joshua Heschels, the Edward Saids, the Grace Lee Boggs. I’m talking Louisa Moreno. We could talk about Chief Joseph. All of the various voices that represent movements.
Of course, as you know, so much of the best of the American empire is Black music, man. It’s the greatest artistic breakthrough in the most barbaric century of recorded time, the 20th century. So when you think of gospel and blues, but especially jazz, and rhythm and blues, and the best of hip hop, what you’re talking about is a hated, terrorized, traumatized people who, with artistic creativity and spiritual fortitude and moral courage, provide a vision of a better world and provide a conception of time that’s connected to a future that people are trying to cut us off from. That future is one in which all of our humanity, if affirmed, all of our sense of possibility is affirmed. That’s John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.
Chris Hedges: I remember Richard Wright writing about the blues, “That’s what we had in place of freedom.”
Cornel West: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Chris Hedges: I want to ask you about foreign policy and Israel. As you know, I spent seven years in the Middle East. I spent 20 years abroad. For me, the empire was always the external expression of white supremacy. I was with the US Marine Corps, went into 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, went into Kuwait. The way they spoke about Arabs, sand, the N-word, there was… It is the subjugation of Frantz Fanon, who we both admire, The Wretched of the Earth. But that quality, that racist quality is as endemic in the outer reaches of empire as it is within the racist. I think they mirror each other. And I know you’ve been very outspoken about Palestinian rights, but talk about empire and talk about US foreign policy.
Cornel West: One, being with the Monroe Doctrine. After the imperial expansion of the United States from 13 colonies to a continental social experiment, it was clear that you had imperial subjugation of Indigenous peoples and others. The Mexican War, Ulysses S. Grant himself says, phony war, immoral war. He was one of the leaders of the war, but he knew there was no moral ground. Half of Mexico is now part of the USA. So we have to keep track of that story if we’re concerned about the truth. Condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. To keep those suffering voices that are resisting. They’re not just victims. They’re resisting. Monroe Doctrine says what? All of the hemisphere is our backyard. No one else can ever intervene.
Then you’ve got the Philippines in the 1890s, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. Now, you got six million people of color under US imperial aegis outside of the continent. You already reconstituted American empire within the continent beginning with 13 states. People need to be able to keep track of that story, keep track of that narrative.
Why? Precisely because when you get to US foreign policy, it’s going to be so deeply shaped by the settler colonial experience of the Europeans who arrived. They’re just now going beyond national borders. So they carry that white supremacy with them. Look what’s going on in Uganda right now. You’ve got Indigenous hatred of precious gays and lesbians and trans, but also you have American Evangelicals –
Chris Hedges: Right.
Cornel West: …Who have been fanning and fueling the hatred of gay brothers and lesbian sisters. Of course as a Christian, I’m saying all these fellow Christians in their dominant form, they are as dangerous as they can be. Your text on American Christian fascists many, many years ago laid that out. Again, US foreign policy, imperial like any empire. I mean I want to be honest. I want to be candid about that. If people think, well, brother West must be anti-American. No, no. I want to introduce America to the best of itself.
Mark Twain was anti-imperialist. He’s the greatest comic writer we ever had. William James, the most adorable of all public philosophers, vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League, talking about our vicious treatment of the Filipinos, he’s part of the best that we’ve had. We can go on and on. When Martin King came out against the war in Vietnam, he’s part of the best. A baby in Vietnam has the same value as a baby in America. I believe that as a human being, as a Christian, as a free Black man, and as a fellow citizen in this American experiment given its imperial backdrop and democratic possibility.
Chris Hedges: And you, like I, support the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement against the apartheid state of Israel. That’s a very contentious point and certainly one the Israel lobby will pick up on. I just want you to explain why. Of course you were very involved in the campaign to bring down the apartheid state of South Africa.
Cornel West: That’s exactly right.
Chris Hedges: I just want to say that South Africa’s apartheid state, one of their closest allies was Israel.
Cornel West: And the United States.
Chris Hedges: And the United States.
Cornel West: But thank God we had Jewish voices in Israel who were critical of their own government, critical of the apartheid regime. Again, we have a solidarity connection that goes much deeper than just the elites who are running things. But no, I think it’s fairly clear and this is one of the litmus tests of the Democratic Party. You see, the plight of the Palestinians, that’s a taboo issue in the Democratic Party. They can never ever come to truth, come to terms with the truth of the suffering of precious Palestinians. But the point is this: if there were a Palestinian domination and occupation of precious Jewish brothers and sisters, then divestment, sanction, boycott of a Palestinian occupation of Jews would make you a moral hero.
Chris Hedges: Yeah.
Cornel West: Now, I would be part of that movement too. I’d be in solidarity with my precious Jewish brothers and sisters. It’s a moral and spiritual issue. But what we have now is the rationalizing of crimes against humanity when it comes to our precious Palestinian brothers and sisters. A giant like Roger Waters, what does he get? Trashed. They lying on the brother, lying on him. He’s been doing that performance for many, many years. Doing it for what? To resist fascism, to resist Nazism, to resist any form of domination that’s crushing innocent people. People say, well you can’t even begin to compare Israeli occupation to Nazi Germany. Well it’s true, there’s no doubt that they’re in no way identical in terms of scope and range, but apartheid-like conditions are on a continuum with fascist treatment of people, and they are crimes against humanity. That’s what brother Roger Waters is talking about, and it’s sad he has to undergo this kind of vicious attack.
I know I’ll be viciously attacked. I’ve been viciously attacked before, but I just look them in the eye and tell them that my calling is not one that can ever be deterred when folk are simply trying to tell lies on me. If you detect in my practice, in my work, my downplaying of Jewish suffering, I need to hear that. I do believe Jewish security is crucial. 2000 years of being hated with pogroms, leaving for the Holocaust, absolutely no doubt about that. It should never ever be massive massacres of precious Jewish brothers and sisters. I say exactly the same thing about Palestinians, about Dalits in India, about Muslims in China, about landless peasants in Brazil, anywhere that kind of thing is taking place, and of course it begins with me at home.
Chris Hedges: I want to thank The Real News Network, its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivera. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.
© 2023 FM Media Enterprises, Ltd.