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Everybody Knows: Cornel West in the Era of the Influencer


Why Can’t I Fall In Love

Observing the current state of federal electoral politics, I’m struck by how people who believe themselves to be politically aware are laser focused on the presidential elections. It’s as if such voters are looking for a personality to follow, an outsider candidate that will shake things up and actually be a person “of the people”. They want a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment where the candidate speaks to the pain and struggles of the common person and has a plan to solve them. Thus, the “right” candidate comes to be seen as the panacea to all of society’s ills, from remedying student debt, the rising cost of housing, and homelessness to crime, failures of public education, fog, global environmental catastrophe. Yet, in many ways, this is nothing more than a consumerism for well-meaning anti-capitalists, which serves merely to provide a sense of catharsis.


For the last few election cycles, the American political imagination has been captured by charismatic populists. In place of a clear political program or plan of action, we just need to hear fiery speeches and righteous indignation at the “system”. And just like that, we’re sold! Ready to fall behind a larger than life persona.

Recently, long time cultural commentator, political pundit, actor, author, and house music enthusiast, Cornel West announced was throwing his hat in the ring as the Green Party’s candidate for the highest office in the land. West, after going from academic star to pop culture celebrity became the subject of scorn during the late aughts for his accurate critique of first Black President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and handling of the 2008 financial crisis.

Once an icon of Black political thought, West had fallen out of favor with many in the Black community for not supporting Obama in his second run for office. However, disillusionment with the legacy of Obama and the social democratic “surge” that accompanied Bernie Sanders 2016 and 2020 runs in the Democratic Party presidential primaries, provided West with an opportunity for redemption, at least in the eyes of many newly activated “socialists”.

There is no doubt that West is a powerful orator who captures the frustration of those who would like to see a more humane United States. However, is West’s campaign for the presidential campaign anything more than a popular left figure flexing his cultural capital? Indeed, if one is to be entirely cynical, one might reasonably ask: Is it anything more than an online vanity campaign that might generate some donation dollars, and increase public speaking fees?

Me and the Devil Blues

We can’t even begin to discuss the presidential candidacy of Cornel West without discussing the ascendancy of two other men who rose to of presidency on campaigns short on experience but dripping with charisma and ingenious marketing: Barack Obama and Donald Trump, men whose campaigns were tailor made for 24 hour cable news consumption.

Liberals (and no doubt many self-descriptive leftists) would balk at a comparison between the urbane Obama and the crude Trump. Trump was a long time public figure a socialite, author, pitch man, self help guru, and reality TV star who put those to great use in his successful run for the presidency. Yet, the model of a celebrity presidency was pioneered by his advertising award winning forerunner Barack Obama.

Moreover, both men lacked political experience with Obama being one of only three people to go straight from Congress to the White House in history. However, what they lacked in expertise, they made up for with powerful messages calling for “radical change”. Both men preached to massive crowds, declaring that they would take on the existing order, an order that had ground working class and poor people to dust. They were both able to speak to the desolate realities of deindustrialized urban centers, rural poverty, fatigue at America’s forever wars, whilst at the same time promising prosperous futures for the discontent masses.

Trump, who manufactured a 40-plus-year career early on as a Gatsby-esque Billionaire playboy, metastasized into the head of an evil empire and anti hero. This patrician sold large sections of the public on the idea that he was indeed a self made billionaire and he understood the realm of politics despite his lack of experience and his dubious business practices. In fact, he convinced over 62 million Americans that his unscruplious background gave him a special insight into the dirty underbelly of politics, insight gained through paying off politicians whilst building his real estate empire and insight he would bring to running the country. Early on in the GOP primary he was quoted as saying:

You better believe it… I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give.And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that’s a broken system.”

There is no small degree of irony that a man who admitted that he was the comic book embodiment of corruption, campaigned on being able to “drain the swamp” of corrupt politicians. It was as if the Joker was running for mayor of Gotham City on the basis of a “tough on crime” manifesto! Labor violations, epic financial failure, and sexual assault were no match for the sway Trump had on the political imagination in 2016.

Yet, while at first glance, Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign might seem like an anomaly, his cultish rise to the highest office in the land was preceded by the man who had a similar run, Barack Obama.

Long before Obama ran for President, Adolph Reed had his number. He wrote:

“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway. So far the black activist response hasn’t been up to the challenge. We have to do better.”

Barack Obama represented a post racial America and his talk of hope and change, ending wars, legalizing gay marriage, was, as Cornel West correctly called out nothing more than, “Mascot for Wall St.” Obama was, as West noted, a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface”– neoliberalism personified packed perfectly for politically correct consumption.

West was one of only a few outspoken critics during the Obama years. Despite the fact that Obama was marketed as an American success story a Black man raised in a single parent household his story was not one of rags to riches. First off, Barack Obama didn’t come from a life of poverty, his mother was a globe trotting academic and his stepfather was an oil company executive. As Adolph Reed pointed out in 1996, Obama’s real story is one of a strategic ascension up the political ladder to move forward the neoliberal agenda with a veneer of racial vindication.

The enthusiasm around the first Obama campaign didn’t build a political movement. The youthful energy his campaign generated was absorbed into the Democratic Party, and the legacy of Barack Obama is truly one of style over substance.

I’ve Got a Miniature Secret Camera

Cornel West deserves credit for seeing through Obama, but to properly evaluate his candidacy, we need to start with a fuller measure of the man. West is no stranger to the spotlight. For the first act of his life outside of academia, he was a public intellectual who was as popular on daytime television as his Republican counterpart Donald Trump. West even appeared in the Matrix movies. Still, he’s always presented himself as a serious figure. However, with two presidents in the rearview mirror of American history, both of whom ran on charismatic bluster, why the enthusiasm around Cornel West? What does it say about the political imagination of a burgeoning left that the answer to a rising authoritarian right wing is to run another celebrity candidate – this time one who can quote Marx with the passion of a Sunday sermon?

It speaks to people’s collective desperation that the challenge to neoliberalism isn’t an organized working class but a new hero with flowery speeches that say all the things that people want to hear. Unlike Bernie Sanders, who spent decades in politics as a leftist outsider of sorts, West doesn’t form within the political process. And, if the more experienced Sanders was twice defeated by the Democratic Party machine, I’m confused about why we’re supposed to get excited about a third party candidate who has trouble even making up his mind about which tiny marginal party to choose to represent?

Mass culture is dead. Mass politics has of course followed suit. So what do we make of this moment?

Kick Out the Jams

This all reminded me of the 1990 Gen X classic film “Pump Up the Volume” starring Christian Slater. Slater plays a shy new kid who has just been transplanted from New York Cityto quiet suburban Arizona by his hippie-turned-yuppie parents. His frighteningly shy public facing persona hides his nihilistic charm as a late night pirate radio DJ named Happy Harry Hard On. Harry’s insightful musings about not meeting unobtainable parental standards of a successful teenager, and public education’s authoritarian control over the students speak to the Gen X realities of not meeting bourgeois teenage standards. His message is the perfect rhetorical catnip to a powerless listening base of disaffected teens (sound familiar?). The listeners find value in the faceless voice of counter cultural charm. But are they really looking for answers, or projecting their fears and frustrations at someone with a louder megaphone who can become an avatar for rebellion?

While Harry doesn’t really provide them with any solutions to suburban teenage disillusionment other than simply being part of the culture of destruction, his impassioned speeches turn into an echochamber of resentment that we see presently with the media, online and mainstream. Tragedy sadly strikes our titular hero as one of his listeners commits suicide and Harry’s show is blamed. Dubbed tapes of the broadcasts are sold throughout the school and the principal is trying to get a handle on the speech of Harry’s propaganda by punishing students who are caught distributing these recordings of Harry’s show. The principal, like most of the adults in the movie, represents an authoritarian tendency that causes the students, led by the words of Harry, to rebel. Ultimately, what are they really fighting against?

The students of suburban high school act out by spray painting graffiti on school property. One popular student, who feels particularly overwhelmed by trying to meet the standards of perfection of her parents, puts everything from jewelry to electronics in the family’s microwave and blows up her kitchen, breaking her nose in the process. These actions of course cause the schools principal to request the help of the FCC to try to put a stop to the pirate broadcast. They don’t succeed and Harry is able to send a much more tame final message to his adoring fans. The movie concludes with Harry creating more voices of angsty disdain. Are these voices trying to build some sort of solidarity to fight the system they so desperately decry? Or is it just people attempting to capture a market hungry for fiery voices that promise them rebellion but deliver nothing more than leftover late 60s skepticism?

Like most pundits of the political variety, real solutions aren’t part of the listening experience provided by Happy Harry Hard On. The point is for the host to “feel your pain” and thus allow the listening experience to become personal. It’s you and that voice in your vehicle or at the gym on a run with you, or at home. You and the voice know the truth, and the voice is the sage truth teller, in between strategically placed advertisements for $40 cereal subscriptions. They hit an emotional chord for the sake of engagement. Be it right wing nonsense about the left’s critical race theory and the trans agenda taking over primary education, or the left wing fear mongering over an ever encroaching Republican Party fascism, most of his has little to do with the most important things that ail our neoliberal society–but it works like a charm as a marketing strategy. It’s the fear that leads to anger that leads to hate and most importantly keeps eyeballs and ears engaged. Much like the students listening to Happy Harry Hard On, people want quick fixes to larger problems, and populist rhetoric through the bullhorn of the internet or television is all that is needed.

Ever since Bernie Sanders ran in the 2016 election, many felt that FINALLY we could elect someone to the White House that would start to make honest inroads to end neoliberal capitalism and lead us to the promised land of a Socialist paradise. Sanders exclaimed to massive crowds of followers that, “It’s not me, it’s us!” and that became like many popular slogans, a hashtag that quickly lost its original meaning. We the people are reduced to “we the supporters”, not we the owners of the means of our own labor power. Not, “we the strong”, but we the lost lambs looking for a shepherd.

If the Cornel West run for president is something for people to get excited about, I would offer them to take a look at the rise of worker activism in the past few years. There were over 400 work stoppages in 2022 involving not just the fast food customer service sector, but key industries like education, healthcare, and manufacturing. Nonunion workers accounted for 32% of the work stoppages. There is still hope.

There is nothing more endemic to neoliberalism than the idea that your own personal choices are enough to make a difference. Your political beliefs have become simply a part of one’s own personal branding. It’s one more part of the way you want the world to see you as a special individual.

Save your excitement for the rumble coming from the working class and focus on manifesting it into real political power. If not, we’re destined to subject ourselves to being captured by another national popularity contest that seizes the attention of the people but does little to improve our material conditions.