Progressive lawmakers are voicing concerns over Cornel West’s third-party bid, worried that a figure they respect could cripple President Biden’s prospects in 2024.
West launched a Green Party campaign earlier this year to inject more leftism into the election cycle. He’s challenging both the Democratic and Republican establishments, raging against them in equal measure and raising the stakes of being a spoiler in the fall.
Now, with the Republican nomination of former President Trump seeming more and more plausible, progressives are becoming more outspoken about their worries.
“I think he has a very long record of service and academic thought leadership,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told The Hill last week. “I think just right now, given the Electoral College, it's very difficult to square the very real threat of a Republican presidency … [with] the risk of giving up the very small margin of electoral votes needed to ensure that President Biden wins.”
Until recently, lawmakers on the left didn’t feel much need to voice any reservations they had about West. When he first announced he was running for president in early June, he did so under the grassroots People’s Party, without much fanfare. Democrats weren’t really applauding him but weren’t criticizing his bid, either; there seemed little cause for concern on Capitol Hill.
The shift happened after West changed his affiliation to the Green Party just a few weeks later. The move promoted bad recollections for Democrats of 2016, when third-party nominee Jill Stein captured enough votes that election analysts said helped contribute to Trump’s edge in certain states.
The difference now is that West, unlike Stein, is a revered part of the progressive movement who has garnered goodwill from sitting members of Congress for his activism on behalf of working-class people.
“I care about the quality of your life. I care about whether you have access to a job with a living wage, decent housing, women having control over their bodies, health care for all, de-escalating the destruction of the planet,” West said in his launch video this summer.
Some liberal lawmakers also personally know and like him, having crossed paths with him over the years. He worked as one of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) top surrogates in 2020. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who served as a campaign co-chairman for Sanders, has expressed kind sentiments about him despite publicly supporting Biden this cycle.
Biden has earned overwhelming support from the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), and no elected progressive has primaried him. Even Ocasio-Cortez, who has at times been critical of the president’s policy decisions, officially endorsed his reelection bid. And Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the left-leaning CPC, threw her support behind a Biden reelection effort even before he formally announced, despite initially backing Sanders in the Democratic primary last election.
The progressives coalescing around Biden are starting to share their concerns about the damage West’s bid may cause to the president’s reelection effort.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass), a prominent member of the CPC, credited West as a “thoughtful guy.” McGovern has had close proximity to West over the years in Massachusetts, where the philosopher and historian taught at Harvard University.
But McGovern didn’t mince words about his third-party bid.
“The stakes are too high this year, especially if Trump is the nominee,” he said. “I think everybody, including the most progressive elements of our country, need to protect our democracy by stopping Donald Trump and supporting Joe Biden.”
McGovern said he was worried about a scenario in which West gained enough traction to help the GOP nominee win again.
“I worry about those things because Cornel West is a very effective speaker and can be very persuasive,” he said. “I am not here to question his motives or bash him, because I've followed him for many, many years, but I just wish he wasn't doing it.”
Moderate Democrats have been quick to paint West as a potential spoiler running a glorified vanity campaign. They’ve been the most publicly against possible challengers to Biden and third-party bids, including from their own centrist flank No Labels, a group that wants to recruit a credible third-party rival.
Progressives, on the flip side, are often critical of the country’s two-party system and have been hesitant to outwardly dissuade West or other progressives from competing for the White House. Their wing proudly embraces intraparty primaries and outside bids when necessary to push a progressive agenda. Many believe that’s often better than the status quo, and it’s how several prominent progressive lawmakers rose to power themselves.
One Squad member, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), is personally familiar with the power of insurgent campaigns. She was elected to the House in 2018 after ousting longtime Democratic Rep. Michael Capuano (Mass.) by running on a more liberal platform.
While Pressley is still a staunch progressive, she’s more measured in her approach to the presidential election. Asked about West’s bid, she tiptoed around the issue but noted the popularity of his ideas.
“The CPC is the largest ideological caucus in Congress, which I think proves that, as the caucus continues to grow, their progressive ideas are popular,” Pressley said.
“As much as they try to fringe and marginalize them, people want transformational change like universal basic income, like unionization, like reparations,” she said, careful not to criticize the platform that liberal candidates have run on each cycle.
The anxiety around West is also illustrative of the broader concerns Democrats have about Biden. They understand that his approval rating isn’t where they’d like it to be, and that Trump still has a firm grip on the Republican Party. They also see poll after poll indicating that at least some percentage of voters want someone else as the Democratic nominee. In another sign of the frustrations surrounding Biden, moderate Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) has been eyeing a possible primary challenge against him.
Defenders of West’s candidacy, however, feel strongly that it’s important to let voters decide whom they prefer in an open election.
“To progressive lawmakers who prefer to name-call and to label him as a spoiler candidate, please take a moment to remember that votes are always earned and never given,” said Cullen Tiernan, a progressive activist based in New Hampshire who has been critical of the party’s establishment class. “Too many of these lawmakers have changed from, ‘We will push Biden left,’ to now, ‘We will endorse anything he does.’”
“As Dr. West says, ‘You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people,’ and I ask: Who are you serving by trying to eliminate voices from a democratic process?”
Cheyanne M. Daniels contributed.