WATERLOO, Iowa — The Cornel West barnstorm of Iowa for Bernie Sanders began here Friday in an off-brand fashion for the famous Princeton professor and activist, best known for fiery speeches and sharp rhetoric delivered with rhetorical flourish and, above all, drawing a crowd.
There was plenty of that to come, but the first stop was a quiet conversation in a room of about a dozen where only three were not committed Sander supporters. It was billed as a press conference at Sanders’s Waterloo HQ, a converted health care office on a quiet downtown street across from a convention center and down the block from a strip club.
Only two reporters showed, and one walked there from the offices of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Other than West’s 15 year-old daughter (who was travelling with her dad) everyone else in the room was a Sanders staffer.
But If West was frustrated by the turnout, he didn’t show it. In a long interview with BuzzFeed News, he talked about other frustrations, though: with the press, with Hillary Clinton, and and with a black electorate he says has so far ignored the candidate with the sharpest focus on the issues that really matter to them. He spoke of the frustration on college campuses, where students have begun to rise up and demand to be heard on racism and privilege, and said Sanders is the candidate for that movement, too.
“I think it’s a marvelous new militancy of a younger generation engaging in a form of awakening,” he said. “Bernie Sanders’s campaign is a political expression of the moral and spiritual awakening in the country in regard to the power of the 1 percent, regarding Wall Street in regards to the massive surveillance state and so forth.”
“What Bernie Sanders represents not just as an isolated individual but as a powerful voice with a movement behind him is to challenge this righteous indignation and rage through love and justice,” West went on.
West formally endorsed Sanders back in August, while Sanders was still being regularly interrupted on the campaign trail by activists who said they associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. Since then he’s appeared with Sanders at events and spoken on Sanders behalf to the media. This weekend he crisscrossed Iowa solo while Sanders finished up prep for Saturday night’s second presidential debate on the campus of Drake University. He proved he can play the sharp-elbowed surrogate game and is also quite politically adept: He deflected several questions from BuzzFeed News about both his and Sanders’s past frustrations with President Obama. Sanders support for the idea of a progressive primary candidate against Obama in 2011 led to some bad headlines for Sanders, who still actively tries to reach out to mainstream Democrats with promises that his candidacy will be the best for down-ballot Democratic races should he win the nomination. West is among the most vocal Obama critics on the left.
“I’ve said a whole host of critical things about my dear brother Barack Obama,” he said. “But that’s in the past.” The focus now is making sure that working class voters are at “the center of this election.”
Sanders is still doing poorly with the the black vote, according to polls. That’s after real efforts by his campaign to reach out to Black Lives Matter activists and develop policy proposals aimed specifically at addressing ongoing racial injustice. When Sanders called for an end to the federal prohibition on marijuana, he framed the change as necessary to end ongoing racial disparities in War On Drugs that have ripple effects across minority communities.
West seemed confident that Sanders’s support in the black community will rise, especially vs Clinton.
“Once black voters wake up, it’s a new day. It’s a new day. Hillary Clinton knows that,” he said. Reminded of the calendar and the ever-decreasing time Sanders has left to make a move with black voters, West replied, “People wake up at different times.”
West was far harder on Clinton than Sanders ever is throughout the tour, playing the classic role of surrogate attack dog. Hours before the debate Saturday night, West told students at Grinell College in Des Moines that Clinton’s political positions were “Machiavellian calculation.”
On Sunday afternoon while Sanders was in Des Moines drawing his latest policy contrast with Clinton, West took the candidate’s place at a Democratic Party function in Ames where Clinton and Martin O’Malley spoke. His audience was smaller than the one for those two — a lot of reporters and party folks left after Clinton’s speech — but he kept up the pressure on Clinton.
Clinton “is a master of giving lip service to progressive causes but acting like a neoliberal and a example of the corporate wing of the Democratic Party,” West told MSNBC in an interview. “It’s fascinating to see her mastery of the lip service, but there is just no progressive substance there.”
In the speech, he repeated a line about Clinton he used in conversation with BuzzFeed News. He said voters need to judge her with what he calls “The Jane Austen Challenge.”
“You all know the great Jane Austen. One of the greatest novelists who ever put pen to paper in the English language. She talked about 'constancy.' Like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. Like Anne Elliot, in that great novel, Persuasion,” West said. “And what is constancy except a willingness to act for integrity, sustain moral engagement, and always subordinating political calculation to deep conviction.”
Needless to say, West did not think Clinton passed the Austen test.
“We have to be honest about our dear sister Hillary Clinton. When it comes to my gay brothers and my lesbian sisters, one year, she says marriage is just male and female. Few years later, she says she's evolved,” he went on. “I say, OK, I'm open to evolution. But there's certain issues that should cut so deep that you don't need to be a thermometer. You can be a thermostat.”