When the message appeared June 5, some wondered whether it was real: “I am running for truth and justice as a presidential candidate for the People’s Party to reintroduce America to the best of itself,” tweeted out Cornel West, “fighting to end poverty, mass incarceration, ending wars and ecological collapse, guaranteeing housing, health care, education and living wages for all!”
Had his Twitter account been hacked? Some wondered what to think of the news, which was acknowledged two days later when the 70-year-old public intellectual and professor West showed up on comedian and social commentator Russell Brand’s video channel to confirm his intentions.
“We’re calling for a paradigm shift,” West told Brand. “We need a spiritual awakening and a moral reckoning in the face of institutionalized greed … we have greed inside of all of us but I’m talking about institutionalized greed with predatory capitalist tendencies that tend to suck everything up for money and for profit.”
West might be called a true American Original whose trajectories often defy convention and expectation, not least by this storied friendship with the noted Catholic conservative Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. On paper the two men would seem to embody the culture of distrust and polarization that currently roils the United States; they differ in race, political philosophy, abortion views and Christian practices, yet the men call each other “brother,” often appearing together in public forums, extolling their differences in opinion while providing a model for civil engagement on vital issues rendered with mutual respect and even affection — a rare and precious sight in America, 2023.
Professor George agreed to share some of his thoughts on this unexpected and still-infant candidacy with OSV News’ Elizabeth Scalia, who reached out to him, wondering whether West’s move was simply a clever attempt to force an elevation of debate and discussions which have gone almost cartoonish in recent years, or he is in fact serious about occupying the Oval Office.
Professor Robert P. George: His announcement may have been untraditional, but of this I can assure you: Brother Cornel’s decision to run for president 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. Here I am referring to certain policies, to be sure; but I am also referring to values and virtues such as honesty, integrity, basic decency and compassion. He wants American voters to have an option he himself has always wanted, namely, the option of voting for someone who tells the truth as he best understands the truth; who desires to serve no interests other than the public interest; who says what he means and means what he says; who cannot be bought; who is not seeking money, fame, status or celebrity; who is not seeking influence or power for any reason other than to use them for what he believes is just and true.
OSV News: Given the largeness of his personality, his broad interests and sometimes puckish sense of humor, people may wonder: Is Cornel West really so pure in his intentions? Is it truly not at all about him? Is he not in the slightest degree driven by personal ambition?
Professor George: The answers to all those questions are yes. How do I know? Because I know his character. I know his heart. I know him. I know what makes Cornel tick — just as he knows what makes me tick.
OSV News: This begs for a Joe Biden impression! “‘C’mon man.’ No one is really like that. There are no saints in the political arena.”
Professor George: Well, Cornel would be the first to tell you that he has his faults. In fact, he has been admirably, indeed movingly, candid about some of them in his excellent memoir “Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.” He would also be the first to admit that, being — just like the rest of us — a frail, fallen, fallible human being, he could be wrong in some of his beliefs and policy ideas. He would never say, or even harbor in his breast the thought that his exceptional intellectual gifts and superb education immunize him from error. Neither his brilliance nor his sterling credentials have led him into the mire of pride or the swamp of vanity. Despite the acclaim he has received, not once have I observed him so much as tread in the general direction of adopting an air of superiority toward others.
OSV News: As a pro-life Catholic, how do Professor West’s pro-abortion sentiments come into play when you consider his candidacy?
Professor George: I know he worries about whether he is right to endorse, as he has so far, the “pro-choice” position on abortion. On that particular critically important issue he is, in my opinion, on the wrong side. But where he is wrong, whether it is on this issue or any other, it is never because he is selling his soul to gain popularity or get votes. (Of how many candidates for public office can that honestly be said?) It is not a result of bad will or animus or prejudice. And his motivating reasons — a concern for the well-being and equality of women — are in themselves good and noble reasons. It is simply that he has not — yet — found his way to seeing the humanity of the child in the womb. He and I agree that each and every member of the human family is the bearer of profound inherent and equal dignity as a creature fashioned in the very image and likeness of the divine creator and ruler of all that is. Where we get hung up, and where we debate, is the question of whether that tiny creature in his or her mother’s womb is indeed already, and is not merely in the process of becoming, a human being.
OSV News: Abortion is one hot and contentious issue among so many that are roiling the nation and tempt rhetoric — especially amid the punditry and political commentators — that dehumanizes and flirts with demonizing those with opposing viewpoints, that those who disagree are not just ignorant and wrong but deplorable and morally suspect. Things become framed as “a fight between good and evil,” with some political and social wags even suggesting that some viewpoints should be utterly silenced and given no platform for expression. Do you see West’s candidacy as potentially throwing water or oil on that fire?
Professor George: Cornel West does not suppose, as so many people in politics today do, that people who disagree with him on moral or other important issues are stupid or evil. He does not malign those who have reached conclusions that run contrary to his own. He doesn’t try to win arguments by smearing those on the other side as “bigots,” or “haters,” or “fools” or “ignoramuses.” He does not hesitate to call out bad moral character when he perceives it — as he has in both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but I can hardly criticize him for that. I do the same thing myself, whether we are talking about Joe Biden, Bill or Hillary Clinton, or, to be sure, Donald Trump. And he is a valiant defender of freedom of speech and other basic civil liberties, no matter whether the attack on them is coming from the right or left.
OSV News: Cornel West’s broad range of interests and artistic and intellectual gifts almost make him seem like a bit of a renaissance man. Presidential stump speeches and debates can often quickly devolve into almost farcical episodes of insincere stupidity and lunatic dishonesty. Will he be able to elevate (or even endure) the process?
Professor George: Cornel is not a poser. He’s not a posturer. He doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not. He doesn’t talk one way and act another way. He doesn’t suppose that a good end can justify the use of an evil means. He doesn’t place getting ahead above doing the right thing. He clings to what he was taught at Shiloh Baptist Church about the importance of integrity. His parents — I knew his dear mother, Mrs. Irene West — instilled in him not only a love of learning but also a dedication to truth. How refreshing it would be to see and hear such a man, whether or not one supports him or agrees with his policy prescriptions, on the debate stage, setting an example of honesty and holding the other candidates’ feet to the fire.
Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @theanchoress.