This is the second in a Truthdig series of 2024 presidential candidate interviews. The first featured Democratic candidate Marianne Williamson here.

Author, academic and public intellectual Dr. Cornel West has long been a fiery fixture of America’s political discourse. Proselytizing and pronouncing in the Biblical prophetic tradition, the Tulsa-born West has written numerous books, notably 2005’s “Democracy Matters,” a bestselling clarion call to revitalize American democracy. He describes himself a number of ways — revolutionary Christian, radical democrat, internationalist, democratic socialist — but his message, philosophy and mode of delivery never wavers. Whether he is addressing a group of university students, national TV audiences or presidential campaign rallies for independent and Democratic candidates — he has stumped for Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader, Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders — West’s forceful advocacy for economic democracy, social justice and restraint in foreign policy has provided sharp counterpoints to the centrism that has defined the Democratic Party since his rise as a national figure in the 1990s. 

This summer, West became a candidate himself, announcing on June 5 his candidacy for president on the People’s Party ticket. Shortly afterwards, the 70-year-old contender switched course and announced he would seek the Green Party nomination, followed by yet another course correction. Improvising like the “jazzman” he calls himself, West declared on Oct. 5 that he would run for president as an independent.  

West spoke with Truthdig by phone in Los Angeles on Oct. 27. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Truthdig: You recently issued a blistering video statement denouncing President Biden’s speech about the Israel-Gaza crisis. Why did you feel compelled to make such a strong response?

Cornel West: It’s important in these dim and grim times to be fundamentally committed to the claim that a human life anywhere in the world has the same value. We have to be very critical of any double standards, of any attempt to downplay one group over another group. A Palestinian baby has the same value as an Israeli baby. A Jewish baby has the same value as a Palestinian baby. When you look at the world through those lenses, I’d say that his statement was too one-sided.

This is not just Biden, it’s U.S. foreign policy for the last 50 years or so. It just doesn’t take seriously the humanity of Palestinians in the same way it takes seriously the humanity of Israelis.

Of course, we want to condemn and denounce the killing of innocent folk in Israel. There’s no doubt about that. But we have to have the same kind of intensity [in response to] any killing of innocent people in Gaza or the West Bank. We have to tell the truth about the history, how we find ourselves in a situation in which, under occupation, these Palestinians are undergoing such suffering — and at the same time critique Hamas. A war crime is a war crime is a war crime. And a war crime is the killing of innocent people. 

Collective punishment is wrong, no matter who does it. We have to be morally consistent. This is not just Biden, it’s U.S. foreign policy for the last 50 years or so. It just doesn’t take seriously the humanity of Palestinians in the same way it takes seriously the humanity of Israelis. That’s why I said what I said, my brother.

You have to have a ceasefire. You have to have an exchange of hostages. You have to have a diplomatic process leading towards a just peace. You have to have an end to the siege. You have to have an end to the occupation. If you don’t get to those issues, then we’re going to be right back where we are now, ten, 20 years [from now], and our children and our children’s children will deal with these catastrophic situations.   

Truthdig: What do you think about the calls to punish college students and others, including Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, for speaking in favor of Palestinian [rights]?

CW: McCarthyism, the hysteria and paranoia against communists, socialists, the Left, Black freedom fighters like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois — who were both confined to their homes and deprived of their livelihoods, demonized and degraded — well, it’s a human proclivity. We’re seeing the same thing now against those who speak out on behalf of Palestinians. We have to fight it.

Related All Politics Are Spiritual: An Interview with Marianne Williamson 

In many ways, we shouldn’t be surprised, because we’re human beings. We can be wonderful in certain contexts, we can be wretched in others. And this is one of our wretched moments. People are appealing to fear, tribalism, exclusiveness, dogmatism, parochialism. And those of us who try to be internationalists and embrace all of humanity, no matter what color, no matter what gender, sexual orientation, religion and no matter what nation — we will be blacklisted, brown-listed, white-listed, whatever language you want to use, marginalized and put down because we cut against the grain.

Thank god we’ve got a new wave of very courageous and visionary Jewish students you’re seeing in Washington, D.C., who are going to jail — 100 of them going to jail last week, another 100 the week before that— who have taken a moral stance, a spiritual stance. As Jewish brothers and sisters, they do not want to be complicit with any kind of Israeli atrocity or barbarity. We’ve [also] got Palestinians who speak very clearly and say our Jewish brothers and sisters have the same values as Palestinians. That’s a small group, a significant small group that we’ve got to highlight, too, because in the end they are the hope of the future. 

Truthdig: Let’s discuss other points on your platform. What could we expect from the economic policies of a West administration?

CW: I’m an abolitionist — I want to abolish poverty. I want to abolish homelessness. I want to ensure that workers have access to a living wage. That’s why I spend so much time with the UAW strike and [UAW president] brother Shawn [Fain] and the others. We’ve got now an agreement with Ford; we’ll see what happens to the other two.

I’m concerned about getting a handle on the fossil fuel industry — I want to nationalize it. I want public oversight, because the fossil fuel industry with its corporate greed is the major impediment to [addressing] the climate catastrophe.

Most important, in some ways, is the intimate relation between U.S. foreign policy and U.S. domestic policy. I want massive disinvestment from the military and massive reinvestment in social programs that address the issues of poor and working people. Free healthcare, free education, public housing, quality education. And we don’t need 800 military [bases] around the world, we don’t need $1.2 trillion going into the military industrial complex. The U.S. military is also the number one contributor to the climate catastrophe, in terms of its [emissions].  

Truthdig: You have served as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. Do you favor a specific form of socialism? 

CW: I’m basically a radical democrat. A radical democrat believes there ought to be a robust public life. Robust public oversight of the most important institutions. It’s no accident that even under the predatory capitalist society that we live in, when it comes to the Army, we don’t lend that out to the market. The Army is in many ways socialist. Why? Because it’s so very important. And anything that is very important for society ought to have public oversight and not be open to the arbitrary power deployed by monopolies, oligopolies or small groups of people. 

Anything that is very important for society ought to have public oversight and not be open to the arbitrary power deployed by monopolies, oligopolies or small groups of people.

I’m not really an “ism” man. I’m a jazzman, an improvisational man. I’m for anything that works, that enhances poor people and working people. But if public oversight is associated with socialist policies, yes, that makes me a kind of democratic socialist, but not a dogmatic one. No, not at all, not at all. Markets have their role, have their place. They contribute to technological innovation, to levels of productivity. The problem is profit over human beings [that] generates not just inequality, but produces in society a certain callousness for the vulnerable and a certain indifference for people who are “losing out.” As the great Rabbi Heschel used to say, “Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself.”

Certainly, the democratic socialist tradition is one I identify with. But I’m a strong libertarian, too. I believe in a strong defense of free speech, of personal liberty, of personal rights. Often, that’s not associated with socialist projects — the Soviet Union, China or other places associated with socialism in the minds of American citizens. I’m very critical of any socialist experiment, let alone a democratic socialist experiment, that would violate the precious personal liberties and individual rights of citizens, no matter where they are.     

Truthdig: You touched on emissions. What specific West administration policies would tackle the climate crisis?

CW: We have to make it a major priority, brother. We’ve got to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative one. We cannot be tied to coal, to oil. We cannot treat nature as a gift, we cannot, in the language of the great Martin Buber, “Squeeze from it all we can for us.” We’ve got to treat nature as a vow, [which] means we’re looking for solar, for forms of energy that are renewable and regenerative, rather than extractive.

People have talked about the Green New Deal. And I think that’s a very important first step. But we’ve got to go even further than that. Our precious young people, the younger generation, are in part responding to a sense of doom, to a profound anxiety about whether there’s going to be a livable planet the next 50 years, with [current] levels of depression and drug overdose, suicide and despondency. 

Unfortunately, neither of the parties that have been ruling us have made this a priority. Militarism doesn’t allow it. Their ties to Wall Street, the corporate elite, to the major monopolies and oligopolies that are so disproportionately influential in our economy, don’t allow it. We’re locked into a very bad set of limited options. The Republicans on the one hand, with Trump leading us toward a second civil war. Democrats on the other, with Biden leading us toward a possible third world war.

Truthdig: Speaking of which, how would a West administration approach the Ukraine-Russian War?

CW: You always begin with the human beings who are being crushed. This is the starting point, no matter what. Then you tell the truth about the larger structures and institutions that produce the moment in which we find ourselves. 

NATO has been expanding since the ’90s, [after] the U.S. promised Russia it would not expand one inch. The U.S. lied, it didn’t tell the truth. NATO continued to expand and expand, until it got to the border of the Russian Federation. Putin, an authoritarian gangster in so many ways, and Russia, felt pushed against the wall, with NATO right on their border. They’re feeling as if they have no security, [so] they fought back. What would the U.S. government do if there were Russian missiles in Mexico or Canada? As we saw in 1962, in Cuba, the U.S. military would probably blow them to smithereens. That’s how empires behave. Russia is a wounded empire. What we have in the Ukraine is a criminal invasion provoked by the expansion of NATO.   

Truthdig: What could the American people expect from other aspects of your administration’s approach to foreign policy and the world?

CW: My aim is to become the head of the American empire in order to dismantle the empire. I want to make America a decent and dignified nation among nations. I do not want America to be what it is now, which is an empire that other nations must defer to. An empire that is wedded to the notion of dominating every nook and cranny of the globe. What the Washington military elite call “total spectrum dominance.”

Even the great George Kennan, father of the doctrine of containment, called for the disbanding of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991. Why? Because NATO was supposed to be defensive. 

My aim is to become the head of the American empire in order to dismantle the empire.

It’s very interesting. The great W.E.B. Du Bois wrote an essay in 1945 after he left the San Francisco founding of the United Nations, called “Winds of Time,” for The Chicago Defender, the great Black newspaper. He wrote, “I fear World War Three, where America attempts to suppress Asia and strangles old Russia.” Now, in 2023, what are the major focuses of those running the Pentagon and State Department? It’s China and Russia.

Taiwan in the middle; Ukraine in the middle; and now it’s the Middle East. The Washington elites thought the Palestinian issue was so marginal, so pushed to the periphery, that they didn’t have to worry about it anymore. That was their agreement with Netanyahu. You don’t have to worry about the Palestinian issue. Have your Abraham Accords, have your agreement with Saudi Arabia and the Arab countries. Of course, many of the Arab countries themselves do not have a serious, substantive commitment to the plight of Palestinians at all. So, what happens? Boom — the unpredictable. That’s in part what history is all about, the unpredictable.

Truthdig: Moving back to domestic issues, what is your relationship with Harlan Crow and what do you make of his controversial relationship with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas?

CW: I’ve met Harlan Crow in dialogue in Dallas. Actually, he’s given some wonderful contributions to a Black school named St. Philip’s [School and Community Center in South Dallas], run by Dr. [Terry] Flowers. We’ve always had debates and so forth and so on. He’s very close to Clarence, a very good friend of his. No doubt, brother Robbie George [McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University], is also a very good friend of his.

He’s been a supporter of conservative institutions like the American Enterprise Institute and various programs and universities. He’s got a collection of paraphernalia of different tyrants — of Stalin, Mao, the Romanian tyrant [Nicolae Ceaușescu], [Portugal’s Antonio de Oliveira] Salazar, Hitler’s part of that, as well. Then he’s got another room for his heroes — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and so forth. He’s a billionaire, a very, very rich brother. There’s no doubt about that. He’s got a lovely family.

We’ve always had very deep disagreements about a number of things. But when he gave to my campaign, I said, “Oh wow! That’s very nice of Brother Harlan.” But then, of course [laughs], 95% of the responses we had was, “Ought to give it back, because he’s a Nazi.” No, no, Harlan’s never been a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer. He does collect memorabilia [for] what he calls his “Never Forget, Never Again” room of various tyrants. I told the truth. I said I really shouldn’t give it back, because he’s been so misunderstood. But I will listen, I’m a jazzman, I listen. And I gave it back because of the perception. As you know, perceptions tend to trump truth when it comes to politics.

Truthdig: What do you think of Crow’s relationship with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the undisclosed gifts to him?

CW: They’ve always been friends, they’ve always been very close friends. He provided different kinds of gifts to Clarence Thomas. I get the impression that Clarence Thomas’ wife is very pro-Trump. So there, you do have a difference. But the friendship is very deep. There’s no doubt about that.

I think it’s wrong, certainly. If any cases connected to Harlan Crow came before the Supreme Court, Clarence ought to just recuse himself. That’s just a matter of principle. But it’s just a deep friendship they’ve had. I think they’ve always been public about it. It’s just that the press found out about it recently. 

Truthdig: Can you tell me where the U.S. Constitution says America must have a two-party system restricted to Democrats and Republicans?

CW: That’s a wonderful question! The last president who was an independent was George Washington. Washington said political parties could lead towards doom; John Adams said they were one of the greatest political evils. 

So, you’re right. The political parties really are an add on. They have nothing to do with the Constitution. The great works of Richard Hofstadter [detail] the history of the two-party system, the spoils system, the ways in which it reinforces the very worst. Even the founding fathers, slaveholders, had some wise insight in terms of separation of powers, [and how] the two-party system reinforces legalized bribery and normalizes corruption. It’s just sad that we get locked into this corporate duopoly. Anyone who tries to go against the grain and create an alternative party, an alternative independent campaign, is [tarred] a “spoiler” of a system that’s already shot through with so much rot.

Related ‘The Way Things Are Going, Biden Is Going to Lose On His Own’: An Interview With Jill Stein     

Truthdig: It’s as if critics of your campaign are saying, “You shouldn’t run because this is a democracy.”

CW: Or they say, “You should run only as a Democrat.” Now, you know, Bernie Sanders is my very dear brother. I supported him in 2016 and 2020. And they did not treat him justly. The whole process was rigged. When we thought we could win, they pulled the rug out from under us, and we were told later there was no way, no circumstances under which Brother Bernie would be nominated. The Democratic Party is undemocratic. 

I come from a Black musical tradition that is one of the greatest manifestations, not just of Black freedom, but of human freedom. That anthem is what? “Lift Every Voice” — not every echo. It’s “Lift Every Voice,” you have to critically examine society itself. A jazzman or a Blues woman, you can’t be either, unless you find your voice. If you’re just an echo or an imitation or a copy, you’re not going to make it, you find your voice by Socratic self-examination and by prophetic empathy towards the suffering of others. 

Truthdig: If it comes down to a very close election between Biden and Trump — or another MAGA Republican — would you drop out of the race and throw your support behind the Democratic candidate, to ensure a fascist candidate doesn’t win the White House?

CW: That’s the $64,000 question, brother. I can only answer it in real time. At the moment, I plan to go all the way through. There’s a good chance that neither Trump or Biden will be the candidates. You can have a Gavin Newsom, and somebody else among the Republican slate will surface, with Trump on his way to jail. But whoever the candidates are, we have to make that kind of decision in real time. At the moment, I plan to go all the way because I want to keep alive the legacy and tradition of folk who are concerned about the plight of hardworking people that Frantz Fanon called “The Wretched of the Earth.” 

You’re right about the fascism of Trump, the fascism of the Republican Party. But if you’re talking about barbaric, genocidal attacks on Gaza supported by Biden, and if you’re talking about the escalation of war in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, heading toward world war three — that’s a very tough call. Because both options are catastrophic. What does one do when both options are catastrophic?

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