For more than a generation after World War II, Democratic presidential candidates kicked off their general election campaigns with a Labor Day rally in Detroit’s Cadillac Square, firing up the union workers who were the backbone of the party’s coalition.
According to exit polls, President Joe Biden won only 57% of union members in 2020, far behind his showing with Black, Latino, and college-educated voters. Hoping to shore that up, the man who calls himself “Union Joe” effectively kicked off his 2024 reelection campaign early, making an unprecedented appearance on a picket line in the Detroit suburb of Belleville, Michigan, Sept. 25, showing support for the United Auto Workers. Wearing a UAW baseball cap, Biden spoke through a bullhorn, telling strikers, “Stick with it. You deserve the significant raise you need and other benefits.”
A day later, Princeton Professor Emeritus Cornel West *80 also walked a UAW picket line in Wayne, Michigan. Clad in his signature black suit and tie, with a scarf around his neck despite the warm September weather, West, who is now running as an independent, damned Biden along with the automakers saying, “Symbolic gestures are empty if you don’t follow through.”
West is a footnote to this particular story, as he may be in this year’s presidential election. But he might not be. Four years ago, Biden carried Michigan by more than 150,000 votes, his best margin in the industrial swing states. Still, concerns about his age, persistent inflation, and his support for Israel have hurt him, especially among younger voters and Arab Americans, of which Michigan has a large number.
Polls this far out should be taken with shovelfuls of salt, political analysts warn, but those that have included third-party candidates show no candidate winning a majority. Many also have former President Donald Trump ahead, with West taking anywhere from 1% to 5%, far behind another independent candidate, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is mostly between 7% and 15%. West does not currently have a lot of support, but in the swing states, even a little could be enough to make a difference.
West is trying to articulate a different view for the country, but as in Michigan, he is also targeting states and voting blocs that are critical to Biden’s reelection. That could have the effect of putting Trump back in the White House, a prospect many believe could be disastrous to American democracy. West, who campaigned against Trump four years ago, now says he will take that risk, criticizing Biden as another tool of the military-industrial complex.
“Is World War III better than Civil War II?” West asked rhetorically in Time magazine recently. Those, he suggests, are the country’s only alternatives for the next four years.
No third-party candidate has ever been elected president; none has won even a single electoral vote in more than half a century. A few, such as Robert LaFollette in 1924 and Ross Perot in 1992, have shifted the public debate. Others have been spoilers. Most are simply ignored. At their best, American third parties flash for a moment to bring neglected issues into the public debate. Historian Richard Hofstadter famously compared them to bees, saying “Once they have stung, they die.”
Will West, like his hero Muhammad Ali, sting like a bee? Or just buzz like a housefly? A lot rides on the answer.
It is usually not hard to get West, a prolific lecturer and author, to go on the record. But neither he nor his campaign responded to numerous interview requests from PAW. Some of his former colleagues in the Department of African American Studies also begged off. Even his close friend Professor Robert P. George, a noted West-whisperer, declined to comment for this story, although he did say in a June interview with the Catholic website Our Sunday Visitor, “Brother Cornel’s decision ... is not motivated in the slightest degree by personal ambition or the desire for attention or applause. It is not about him. It is all about the things he believes in.”
So far, West’s presidential campaign has been erratic. On June 5, he announced that he was seeking the People’s Party nomination, switched to the Green Party nine days later, then decided in early October that he would run as an independent, saying that he did not want to be hampered by party rules and platforms. His campaign manager has already resigned, replaced by four co-managers, and when West does travel, he reportedly does so without a fixed itinerary. West touts his improvisational style saying, “It’s jazz all the way down, brother.”
Like a good jazz concert, however, the campaign’s merch game is on point. Visit the CornelWest2024.com website and there are several broad policy positions and a bare-bones schedule, but also lots of hats, hoodies, T-shirts, posters, magnets, and yard signs for sale. What is his main objective here?
“It’s obviously not a serious campaign in that he’s not going to be president,” says Josh Marshall ’91, founder of the political website Talking Points Memo. “But it is serious in that it could deny Biden the presidency and give it to Trump.” Fearing such an outcome, West’s former allies Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have called on him to stay out. West has rejected their advice, calling them “window dressing” and adding that the Democratic Party “is beyond redemption at this point when it comes to seriously speaking to the needs of poor and working people.”
West, who served on the Princeton faculty for 16 years and is currently on leave from Union Theological Seminary, has followed a political path similar to many on the far left. He advised Sen. Bill Bradley ’65’s campaign in 2000 and was a surrogate for Barack Obama in 2008 before publicly denouncing him as a centrist sellout. In 2016, he was a key adviser to the Sanders campaign. Four years ago, despite calling Biden a “neoliberal disaster,” he urged voters to support him in order to stop Trump’s reelection.
West’s current platform is broad and ambitious, calling for, among many other things, abolishing poverty and homelessness, nationalizing oil companies, providing both racial and climate reparations, ending mass incarceration, ending “global patriarchy,” and “dismantl[ing] the U.S. empire.” Like Trump, he blames the West for provoking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Without NATO,” West argues, “the world would be a safer place.”
According to the Federal Election Commission, West raised nearly $322,000 in the third quarter of 2023. By comparison, the Biden-Harris campaign raised more than $71 million and Trump raised $45.5 million. In 2016, Green Party nominee Jill Stein raised about $3.7 million to earn just 1.07% of the vote, which gives an idea of the mountain West must climb. Though he has forsworn PAC money in favor of small donors, his biggest single donor so far has been billionaire real estate developer Harlan Crow, a longtime GOP megadonor and benefactor of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who gave $3,300. West initially defended the contribution, noting that he and Crow are longtime friends, but later said he returned the money.
Princeton, which has produced two major-party presidential nominees (Woodrow Wilson 1879 and Adlai Stevenson 1922) since the dawn of the party system, has turned out three other candidates who have run on third-party tickets. They offer competing views of the paths West’s campaign might broadly take.
John C. Breckinridge *1839 has a rather tenuous claim to being an alumnus; he attended Princeton’s then-small graduate program but did not earn a degree. In 1856, at age 36, he was elected as James Buchanan’s vice president, the youngest vice president in U.S. history. Four years later, the Democratic Party, like the rest of the country, broke apart, and Breckinridge headed a splinter ticket of Southern Democrats against Republican Abraham Lincoln.
The election degenerated into a regional contest: Lincoln fought Stephen A. Douglas in the North, while Breckinridge and a fourth candidate, John Bell, battled in the South. Although Breckinridge himself opposed secession, most of his supporters did not. Douglas declared, “There is not a disunionist in America who is not a Breckinridge man.”
Breckinridge, of course, lost to Lincoln, finishing third with 18.1% of the popular vote, but second in the Electoral College, where he carried nine states in the deep South plus Maryland and Delaware. Elected to the U.S. Senate at the same time he was running for president, Breckinridge resigned to join the Southern army. He became Confederate secretary of war in the final weeks of the war, fled the country after Appomattox, and did not return to the United States until President Andrew Johnson declared a general amnesty in 1868.
Norman Thomas 1905 offers a happier counterpoint. The son and grandson of ministers, Thomas planned to join the clergy after Princeton, but time spent working in the New York City tenements converted him to socialism and politics instead. He headed the Socialist party ticket in six consecutive presidential elections from 1928 through 1948, running before that for numerous offices in New York state, everything from alderman to U.S. Senate. He never won once.
Thomas’ best showing came during the depths of the Depression, in 1932, when he won nearly 885,000 votes (2.23%) running against Franklin Roosevelt. With capitalism seemingly on the verge of collapse, writes Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “many intellectuals ... felt that the only intelligent vote was one for Thomas.” Thomas, who feared that Roosevelt was too cautious, urged his followers to vote their hopes rather than their fears. “Don’t vote for what you won’t want and get it.” That might serve as the third-party motto.
Few third-party bees ever stung like Thomas, much of whose platform, including unemployment insurance, health care for seniors, old age pensions, and civil rights protections, Roosevelt and subsequent Democratic presidents eventually enacted into law. As FDR once tweaked him, “You know, Norman, I think I’m a better politician than you are.”
Regarded by admirers as a prophet, an “American Isaiah,” Thomas continued to advocate for progressive causes long after he quit electoral politics. “I am not the champion of lost causes,” he once said, “but the champion of causes not yet won.” During the early 1950s, he lectured at Princeton and was escorted back to his hotel by a student, Ralph Nader ’55, who asked Thomas what he regarded as his greatest success.
“My greatest success,” Thomas replied, “was having the Democrats steal a lot of my agenda.”
Nader still tells that story with affection. Like Thomas, he has run several forgettable third-party races (such as winning 0.56% of the vote against Obama in 2008), but as the Green Party nominee in 2000, Nader may well have cost Al Gore the presidency. Many Democrats still have not forgiven him for it.
Nader ran in 2000 on essentially the same platform that had made him famous as a consumer advocate: attacks on corporate greed and militarism and on expanding the social safety net. He received 2.9 million votes nationwide (2.74% of the total) but critically, 97,421 votes in Florida, which Gore lost by just 537 votes.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Nader declines to accept responsibility for making George W. Bush president, noting that if Gore had managed to carry his own home state of Tennessee or Bill Clinton’s Arkansas, he would have won anyway. “The Democratic Party doesn’t ‘own’ any votes. The Republicans don’t ‘own’ any votes,” he says now in an interview with PAW. “They have to earn them.”
Nader, who has spoken with West and encourages his campaign, believes the best way for Biden to win West’s voters is to co-opt his platform. “What [Democrats] should do is concentrate on a people’s agenda for workers, consumers, and communities, [and] expose the Republicans for who they are,” he says. He vehemently rejects the notion that he or any other third-party candidate deserves to be called a spoiler.
“The voters who wanted to vote for the Liberty Party in 1840 against slavery, would you have called them spoilers?” he asks. “How about the voters who wanted to vote for the Equal Rights Party in 1872, would you have called them spoilers? I call it political bigotry.”
Marshall believes that third-party candidates such as West and RFK Jr. are central to Trump’s hopes of returning to the White House. “Trump can’t win 50% of the vote. What he needs are one or two third-party candidates to pull the Democratic share into the mid-40s, and then he can win.”
By running as an independent, West may have freed himself from party platforms, but only at the expense of a lot of other headaches. He will need to collect millions of signatures to get on the ballot — West says he hopes to qualify in 35 states — and will have to fight legal challenges the Democrats will launch to keep him off.
David Byler ’14, a former political columnist for The Washington Post and now chief of research at Noble Predictive Insights, counsels putting things in perspective. For one thing, polls this far from Election Day tend to overstate the appeal of third-party candidates. While the public clearly is unhappy with the choice of Biden or Trump, many may tell a pollster now that they will vote for West but do something different come November.
Strategic voting is also likely, Byler suggests. In other words, West may do better in states such as California or Oklahoma where the winner is not in doubt, than in Michigan and other swing states where voters will recognize the cost of a protest vote.
“The voters who wanted to vote for the Liberty Party in 1850 against slavery, would you have called them spoilers? How about the voters who wanted to vote for the Equal Rights Party in 1872, would you have called them spoilers? I call it political bigotry.”
— Ralph Nader ’55
Still another possibility, which Nader also touts, is that third-party candidates like himself and West don’t pull votes from either of the two major parties, but instead draw people who otherwise would not have voted at all. Exit polls in Michigan in 2016, for example, suggested that only a quarter of Jill Stein’s voters would have supported Hillary Clinton. Most would just have stayed home.
West also makes this point, insisting that he is not trying to be a spoiler, but trying to entice non-voters into the electoral process while articulating a different vision for the country. “So, if there is some taking from both parties, it’s going to be very, very small,” he told The Guardian in October.
To be fair, West acknowledges that Biden and Trump are not identical, that Biden’s tax-and-spending policies, climate change program, support for reproductive rights, and judicial nominees would be closer to his own views. “At least Biden does believe in the transfer of power during election time,” he added to Time.
Still, to West it is not enough. “The alternative to fascism can never be just a mediocre, milquetoast caretaker Democratic administration that’s just postponing fascism,” he said in a recent interview. “If we can’t create an alternative vision … and in the end, a movement, then fascism is coming to our place sooner or later.”
That phrase, “sooner or later,” carries a lot of weight in West’s assessment. Democrats, and many Republicans, argue that postponing fascism until later is much preferable to getting it sooner. Unless the country, and West, are careful, they fear it may come very soon indeed.
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.