Fear has a name in the Democratic Party, and that name is Cornel West. The former Harvard professor is one of the nation’s most prominent progressive intellectuals, and he’s seeking the Green Party nomination for president. If he gets it, polls say West will take enough votes from Joe Biden to hand the White House to the GOP.
West notched only 2 percent in a Wall Street Journal poll late last month, but that was still enough to tip a three-way contest, giving Donald Trump a one-point lead in a race between him, West, and Biden. Two Emerson polls showed the same: West spoils the election for Biden. Democrats get a sick sense of deja vu from this.
It’s a replay of what they think happened in 2000 when another renowned progressive, Ralph Nader, was the Green nominee and cost Al Gore victory in November. Although Nader received fewer than 3 million votes—just 2.74 percent of ballots cast nationwide—the 97,488 he got in Florida was far more than the 537-vote margin by which Gore ultimately lost the state, and with it the presidency. Biden’s winning margins in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin in 2020 were all well below 2 percent.
Despite its name, the Democratic Party is not altogether comfortable with democracy. Its leaders fear giving voters more choices, even though Republicans also lose votes to third-party contenders, notably Libertarians.
If the Democrats are more at risk from defections next year—despite the odds that Republicans will renominate Trump—that’s a damning verdict on Biden’s party from one of its core constituencies. That constituency backed Bernie Sanders in 2016 and made him the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2020, until Biden resurrected his candidacy with a win in South Carolina that he owed to crucial support from black leaders.
The Biden and Clinton campaigns both used race against Sanders, insinuating his focus on class was insufficiently anti-racist. That won’t work against Cornel West; his appeal to progressives is also largely economic, but West is black. He’s an outspoken Christian socialist, just as Sanders was proud to call himself a democratic socialist.
Establishment Democrats can’t say they weren’t warned for decades that the left was dissatisfied with the likes of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden. Occupy Wall Street protests in the middle of the Obama years sent the signal loud and clear. So did the Bernie insurgencies within the party and the Nader challenge from outside.
Republicans faced a similar problem with their ideological base, which was more populist and socially conservative than the GOP elite. Having ignored insurgencies by Pat Buchanan in the 1990s and the surprisingly strong primary showings by candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum—who adopted populist messages in 2008 and 2012—the Republican establishment succumbed to Trump in 2016 and now watches in helpless dismay as he marches to next year’s nomination. Yet as traumatic as the Trump experience has been for Republicans, it’s also been clarifying; today the party recognizes that it must be populist, whether or not that means being wholly Trumpian.
The Democrats are in a worse position; they haven’t been able to resolve their class conflicts, and identity politics only papers over the cracks. The result is a self-conflicted party, radical in its support for transgender ideology and always tempted to demonize and defund police, yet at the same time too timid to satisfy, or even placate, the hard economic left.
Just how fragile Biden’s coalition is can be seen from the fact that West isn’t the only threat to its unity; another comes from the opposite direction. As terrified as Democrats are of what West represents, they also fear a third-party or independent challenge from the center. That might come from the “No Labels” movement, which has recently held discussions with Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Trump critic, about plans for November 2024.
Why wouldn’t a Republican like Cassidy running against the Republican nominee (assuming that’s Trump) do more damage to the Republican ticket than to Biden? Because the GOP has greater unity at the popular level, despite the rift between its old elite and Trump. Democrats, on the other hand, have a unified elite and a fragmented electorate.
Even Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have rushed to defend Biden against the peril posed by West. But West speaks for progressives by the hundreds of thousands or millions when he says the Democrats are “beyond redemption.”
Negative partisanship, voting against the party you dislike more, is a mighty force in presidential elections. Yet it isn’t all-powerful. If Biden can’t give even the traditional left a reason to vote for him, and not simply against Trump, when he loses next year, the fault will be all his own—not Cornel West’s.
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