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The Cornel West paradox: how woke is too woke?

Could he pull off the impossible? Credit: Getty

April 22, 2024 - 10:00am

Melina Abdullah first came across my radar in the spring of 2016, as Donald Trump closed in on the Republican nomination for president. Back then, Abdullah was a garden-variety faculty-lounge radical who spent too much time on Facebook. Now, she’s vying for the vice presidency on a third-party ticket with Cornel West.

According to Abdullah in an interview at the end of last week, the activist “never had the ambition” to run for office, claiming instead that she was “pretty effective as an outside organizer”. That’s one way of putting it.

Young America’s Foundation, where I worked with students in 2016, helped a group of conservative kids at California State University, Los Angeles host a lecture by Ben Shapiro. This displeased Abdullah, then chair of the school’s Pan-African Studies department. The day after the event, which ended with police escorting the conservative kids to safety, Abdullah participated eagerly in a “healing space” discussion, referring to Shapiro as a “neo-Nazi”.

“I get he’s Jewish so that’s ironic that I’m calling him a neo-Nazi but that’s basically what he is,” Abdullah told the university president. “A neo-KKK member, let’s call him that.”

“What I’m hearing,” she added, ostensibly fighting back tears, “is students come into my office feeling traumatised, feeling brutalised — physically, emotionally and mentally.”

Never mind that it was Shapiro’s fans who were briefly locked in the venue while Black Lives Matter activists beat on the doors: this very serious intellectual is now Cornel West’s running mate. West, of course, is a sharp defender of free speech who has criticised Abdullah’s brand of illiberalism when it comes from fellow progressives.

In a strange sense, West’s pick recalls Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s decision to allow for a land acknowledgement ceremony to be held at his own vice-presidential announcement. The ripest opportunity for a robust third-party showing since 1992 could easily be squandered by the candidates’ impossible choice: to go woke or not to go woke.

Kennedy, for his part, sits at 9.3% in the RealClearPolitics average, with West on 1.6% and Jill Stein at 1.5%. The independent candidate’s support is respectable, and it’s unlikely viral videos of the land acknowledgement will do much to hurt him. But everything from the conflict in Israel to his VP choice of Nicole Shanahan has brought this dilemma into focus.

Like American culture more broadly, politics fragmented in the last decade, sending people into smaller niches which make campaigning even more challenging. What has been characterised as “wokeness” is the biggest fault line. The anti-establishment crowd finds common ground on corporate greed and Ukraine, but not on Palestine. Populists despise vaccine mandates, but clash on imperialism. Feminists who dislike Biden’s approach to transgenderism won’t help organise alongside “climate deniers” who detest the President’s green industrial policy.

West’s campaign platform includes breaking up Big Tech, ending corporate stock buybacks, and a ban on government stock trading. He wants to “protect free speech” and enact term limits. Like Donald Trump, his campaign is critical of Nato, pledging to “slash the bloated US military budget” and end funding for the war in Ukraine.

These are populist sentiments common in circles on the Right and Left and many places in between. But West’s platform is dominated by categories such as “LGBTQIA+ Justice” and “Global Justice,” where there are calls for a national ban on “Don’t Say Gay” laws, for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and for an end to military funding of Israel.

The US voter base is a target-rich environment for third-party candidates right now. A remarkable 59% of Americans say both Trump and Biden are too old to serve second terms. Both men’s favourability is underwater by double digits in the RCP average. Both are found to be “dissatisfying” choices by a majority of adults.

Floating voters like populist economics and ending adventurism abroad, but no third-party candidate seems capable of doing all that while placating the radical demands of the cultural Left or, alternatively, placating the cultural Left while also appealing to anti-elite voters who see radical cultural Leftism as another form of class warfare.

A perfect campaign by Kennedy or West or Stein would have to navigate these conflicts deftly, managing the priorities of different coalitions on policy but also on style. Is it doable? Name recognition aside, RFK Jr understands this better than his less competitive peers in the third-party race. For his part, West just narrowed his lane by a few more inches. But even with such a massive appetite for third-party options this year, what choice did he have?


Emily Jashinsky is culture editor at The Federalist and co-host of Counter Points.

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Graham Stull
Graham Stull
1 month ago

Going purely by voter preferences, RFK can only lose votes by swinging woke. There are simply not that many voting wokesters out there, and as we have seen again and again, appeasing them does not assure their support, because their various campaigns are hysterical and self-perpetuating:
Even if you recognise all 124 genders, they will be asking you to respect people who eat poop off the floor. Ditto for climatism and CRT – there is no level to which a white person can self-abase that will attenuate the horrors of structural racism. Nor is there anything, short of the complete extermination of all homo sapiens on earth, that will satisfy the mania of climate alarmism.
That’s because these people are simply mentally ill. If you give them exactly what they want, they will only want more. Rather like a fat person scoffing down bags of M&Ms.
But of course, the realities of running a campaign are quite different. There is only so much RFK or West can do to steer through these issues. They are dependent on the organisations that surround them. They are run off their feet at campaign events and beholden to supporters who – almost by definition – are not well-balanced, representative voters.;

T Bone
T Bone
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

I’ve watched quite a few of RFK’s interviews. As I understand it, his goal is to avoid “punching down” or alienating entire voting blocks with “divisive rhetoric.” He obviously doesn’t think the Land Acknowledgement doctrine is worth contesting.

I think there’s something commendable about that mentality but he seems to become less relevant by the day.

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Don’t agree with everything you say — Little Debbie Swiss Rolls may win out over M&Ms — but I sure agree with most, and enjoyed how you expressed yourself.
I think RFK could only help himself by clearly standing for girls and women across the board — protecting all female-only spaces, not just sports — and making explicit that he opposes Biden’s aggressive efforts to supplant sex with “gender identity” in law and policy. Kennedy’s courage in speaking truth to power makes him an appealing candidate to me; I’d love to see him do this clearly around wokeness, and gender ideology in particular.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
1 month ago

I think a lot of women I know would agree with your sentiments on the gender issue. My sense is, an increasing share of centrist, left-leaning gals are waking up to what this gender thing means for their rights as women. The ground is shifting fast and RFK has a chance to be on the right side of that sinkhole.
I also concede the point on Little Debbie v M&Ms. If my understanding of the baked good in question is correct, the simple carb (flour) component could make it a more appealing treat for those desirous of that kind of satiation.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago

The cognitive dissonance of someone like Melina Abdullah is breathtaking.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

In other words, Abdullah is a mainstream Dem of today who is getting more attention due to this.

John Taylor
John Taylor
1 month ago

Perhaps she had no role in BLM’s pilfering of funds for personal use, but Abdullah should call for a full investigation and return of purloined monies. It is indicative of today’s ersatz Left that no one has made such a call after the revelations

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago
Reply to  John Taylor

The very purpose of the Left is to widen societal cracks and then be paid to fix them, while actually widening them further.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago

“What I’m hearing,” she added, ostensibly fighting back tears, “is students come into my office feeling traumatised, feeling brutalised — physically, emotionally and mentally.”
What I’m hearing is that you don’t know what “physically” means.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
1 month ago

Truth strikes like a literal punch in the face.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
1 month ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

No, it doesn’t; not really. Truth doesn’t leave someone with a black eye, broken nose and blood on their shirt.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
28 days ago
Reply to  Alan Hawkes

??? The only thing Truth always does is “set you free.” Sometimes bloodied, but freer nonetheless.

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
1 month ago

Please, can we all just have a good long nap? Let us go peacefully back to sleep and dream a world where material reality prevails, science (including biology) is respected, and this tiresome oppressor/oppressed “social justice” narrative is put to bed forever. This lesbian and former Democrat is sooooo tired of the “woke” world. At least RFK, Jr. understands males don’t belong in female sports, which is on a par with knowing the Earth is round, not flat.
We’ve sunk so low that “Is s/he in touch with reality?” is an effective winnower for candidates.

Nathan Ngumi
Nathan Ngumi
1 month ago

Insightful analysis.
It is unfortunate that Prof. Cornel West shot himself in the foot with his pick of a non-serious running mate.
It does not help that ‘third party candidates’ are divided among themselves, and are therefore unable to individually make any dent on the two-party hegemon. What prevents Prof. West, Dr. Jill Stein, Ralph Nader et al from forming a leftist coalition and picking a flagbearer among themselves?
American exceptionalism aside, here is where Americans can actually learn a thing or two from voters elsewhere in the world. In countries which have suffered dictatorships and misrule for decades or centuries at the hands of a single party or duopoly, the only way of ousting any Ruling Party with a stranglehold on power is a united opposition. A split opposition is a gift to entrenched rulers everywhere.
A single credible ‘third party candidate’ running as an independent who is able to get past the obstacle of being registered to contest in all fifty states (the duopoly has used their state legislatures to suppress would-be dark horse alternatives) would seriously split the vote and even have a chance of winning in a runoff.
Perhaps the credibility of independents would be enhanced if more of them won at the lower levels of State, Congress, US Senate and Governorships before it can be trusted to take the reins of US President.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
28 days ago

“But even with such a massive appetite for third-party options this year, what choice did he have?”
He could’ve always chosen intellectual respectability over grandstanding electioneering that seems to serve only his own ego.
Once you’ve gotten tenure and starred in The Matrix, what’s next for your average academic all-star? The Presidency, obviously.