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Cornel West’s Improvisational Run for President: ‘It’s Jazz All the Way Down’

Cornel West, the left-wing public intellectual and independent presidential candidate, stood on a rainy stretch of suburban highway in New York’s Rockland County. “Watch that truck!” he called out, holding up a United Auto Workers sign.

A dump truck blew past, the spray from its wheels momentarily knocking Mr. West back on his feet and further soaking his already damp suit.

It was not supposed to be like this. The week before, on Sept. 20, Mr. West had announced he was going to Michigan, the epicenter of a strike against the three unionized American auto manufacturers over wage increases. But then President Biden announced that he, too, would be going to Michigan, a crucial swing state, on the same day. Soon, Mr. West said, union officials urged him to delay his Michigan trip and in the meantime join workers picketing a local auto parts distribution center in Tappan, N.Y., instead.

(A U.A.W. spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.)

Still, Mr. West seemed determined to make the best of this Siberia of solidarity. “That’s it!” he shouted, fist raised, after the dump truck driver let out a low blast on his horn. “Now you know!”

Even by the standards of outsider politics, Mr. West’s presidential campaign has been uncommonly chaotic. He has embraced and discarded political parties the way other people try on outfits before going to work. He has predictably infuriated Democrats, who fear that his campaign could draw a decisive number of voters away from Mr. Biden in 2024. But he has also irked activists from the Green Party, whose nomination he sought before announcing this month that he would run as an independent instead.

That latest move is perhaps the most perplexing. Independent candidacies face far more hurdles than third-party runs. Mr. West’s decision threatens to transform his candidacy from a wild variable in the 2024 contest into a minor curiosity.

That has fueled suspicions that his bid is an improvisational performance as much as it is a political campaign. Asked about these suspicions, Mr. West emphatically agreed.

“It’s jazz all the way down, brother,” he said.

Putting His Theory Into Practice

Mr. West, who trained at Princeton as a philosopher and has taught at several Ivy League universities, was an influential figure in the still-young field of African American studies in the 1980s. A prolific writer and public speaker, Mr. West in his early work ranged fluently across theology, philosophy, history, and music and literary criticism.

His best-selling 1993 book “Race Matters” brought him a celebrity uncommon for academics. He visited the Clinton White House, shared a stage with Jay-Z and became a fixture of talk shows like “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Former President Barack Obama once called him an “oracle.” He played a small part in two “Matrix” sequels.

He also drew criticism. Mr. West left Harvard for Princeton in 2002 after clashing with its president then, Lawrence H. Summers, who reportedly urged him to produce more scholarly work after he recorded a spoken word album. In a scathing 2015 essay, Michael Eric Dyson, a longtime friend of Mr. West, wrote that he “has squandered his intellectual gift in exchange for celebrity.”

Mr. West on the Princeton campus in 1994. He has called for cease-fires in the Mideast and Ukraine, and his platform includes disbanding NATO.Credit…Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

Gerald Horne, a historian at the University of Houston, said Mr. West’s campaign was a logical extension of his previous work. “I think for many intellectuals, like Cornel, there’s a desire to try to take theory and put it into practice, to take words and put them into a political platform,” he said. “I’m just surprised it took him so long.”

But with a very few exceptions like Mr. Horne, Mr. West’s academic peers have said little publicly about his candidacy.

“It’s so controversial,” Mr. West conceded. “It might take a lot of people far outside of their comfort zone.”

Democrats See Danger

Mr. West’s campaign platform offers a list of sweeping left-wing ambitions, from abolishing poverty and homelessness to nationalizing the fossil fuel industry. “If there’s one fundamental overarching theme,” he said, “it would be the intimate relation between the U.S. foreign policy and U.S. domestic policy.”

He describes Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip as a “genocide” and has called for a cease-fire. He has also called for a cease-fire in Ukraine, and his platform includes disbanding NATO.

When he declared his run in June, Mr. West did so as a candidate for the obscure People’s Party. But he was soon recruited to run for the Green Party nomination by Chris Hedges, a former New York Times foreign correspondent and activist who until last year hosted a program on the Russian government-controlled network RT America. (Mr. Hedges did not respond to requests for comment.)

Mr. West’s Green Party candidacy alarmed Democrats, who have been acutely aware of the party’s potential to swing outcomes ever since 2000, when Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, won more than 97,000 votes in the decisive Florida contest. In 2016, Jill Stein received enough votes in three swing states to make up Hillary Clinton’s deficit to Donald J. Trump, her Republican opponent — although an exit poll in one state, Michigan, found that many of those voters would have stayed home if Ms. Stein had not been on the ballot.

Credit…Bill Pugliano/Newsmakers, via Getty Images
Green Party candidates have frustrated Democrats since Ralph Nader’s run in 2000 and Jill Stein’s bid 2016.Credit…Christopher Dolan/The Citizens’ Voice, via Associated Press

“I have a great personal affinity for Dr. West,” said Jeff Weaver, who ran a Democratic super PAC in 2020 after serving for years as a political strategist for Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont. “I think most of his critique of the current political and economic system is right on. But the difficulty is, we’re in a very dangerous situation. It’s a lot like Germany in 1932. I don’t want to see the center-left and left split up and let the far right get in.”

Republican operatives have occasionally supported Green Party candidacies in hopes of siphoning off Democratic votes, and Mr. West was criticized this month when campaign filings showed that Harlan Crow, the Dallas real estate magnate and Republican donor, had donated $3,300 to his candidacy.

Mr. West wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, to defend the contribution, noting that he and Mr. Crow have been friends for years. “I came out swinging a bit,” he said. “That was a little Muhammad Ali right there.”

Some of Mr. West’s views on foreign policy have also raised concern among allies on the left. Howie Hawkins, a Green Party founder and its 2020 presidential candidate, said Mr. West’s views on the war in Ukraine — he is critical of Russia’s role but blames NATO for having “provoked” the conflict — prompted him to arrange a briefing for Mr. West with Denys Pilash, a left-wing Ukrainian political scientist and activist, to provide him with a Ukrainian perspective.

Mr. Hawkins pointed to Mr. West’s recent appearance at an event in Washington opposing military aid to Ukraine, alongside former hosts from RT America and Radio Sputnik, another Kremlin-backed English-language media outlet.

“They are very much in the position that anything Russia can do to weaken U.S. imperialism is good, and the Ukrainians are kind of an afterthought,” Mr. Hawkins said of the event’s speakers. “I wouldn’t put that position on the left.”

A Free-Form Bid

Green Party activists working with Mr. West say they were surprised by his decision to go independent. Mr. West has since said that he did not want to be bound by any party’s platform.

“There was a frustration trying to operate inside the Green Party, inside that apparatus,” said Tavis Smiley, a talk-show host and longtime friend.

In September, Mr. West hired as his campaign manager Peter Daou, a former Democratic operative best known for his efforts on behalf of Hillary Clinton in 2016. Mr. Daou left the Democratic Party in 2020 out of disgust with Mr. Biden’s candidacy and now considers himself an “independent leftist.”

Mr. West’s campaign platform offers a list of sweeping left-wing ambitions, from abolishing poverty and homelessness to nationalizing the fossil fuel industry.Credit…Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images

Mr. Daou and Mr. West said they weighed the pros and cons of a Green Party candidacy, and opted to avoid the task of campaigning for the nomination of the party’s state-level affiliates.

Green Party veterans and ballot access experts argue that Mr. Daou and Mr. West are underestimating the hurdles to an independent bid.

Because of differing state-level rules for third-party and independent candidates, qualifying for the ballot in all 50 states would require Mr. West’s campaign to gather more than 900,000 signatures, nearly four times more than he would have needed as a Green Party candidate, according to Richard Winger, the founder and co-editor of Ballot Access News.

Mr. West said he was unlikely to try to qualify in every state. “We’re shooting for about 35,” he said.

He said those will most likely include swing states, where Democratic organizations have already signaled they will legally challenge third-party and independent candidates.

The Democratic super PAC American Bridge has enlisted the services of Marc Elias, a prominent Democratic elections lawyer, who has sued the Green Party in past elections.

“I cautioned him about that,” said Mr. Nader, whose 2004 run as an independent presidential candidate faced numerous lawsuits. “It can get pretty bad.”

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