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“It Wasn’t a Golden Age”: Cornel West Says Democrats Have to Reckon with Mixed Obama Legacy

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Harvard professor Cornel West joins us from Detroit, where he attended both nights of the Democratic debate. He talks about the troubling legacy of the Obama administration and why he is supporting Bernie Sanders again for president.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to last night’s debate. This is Senator Kamala Harris.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: After the last debate, for example, I went to a place in Florida called Homestead. And there is a private detention facility, being paid for by your taxpayer dollars, a private detention facility that currently houses 2,700 children. And by the way, there were members of us—Julián was there, members of Congress. They would not let us enter the place, members of the United States Congress. So I walked down the road, I had climbed a ladder, and I looked over the fence. And I’m going to tell you what I saw. I saw children lined up single file, based on gender, being walked into barracks. The policies of this administration have been facilitated by laws on the book—

DON LEMON: Thank you, Senator.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: —that allow them to be incarcerated as though they’ve committed crimes.

DON LEMON: Thank you, Senator.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: These children have not committed crimes—

DON LEMON: Thank you, Senator.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: —and should be not treated like criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Kamala Harris talking about going to Homestead, just outside the Miami debate last time, where a number of the presidential candidates went. Cornel West?

CORNEL WEST: Well, I just want to affirm what my dear Sister Dolores said about the deportation out of control. It goes beyond political parties. It was under the Obama administration, as well. We have to be very candid about that. And it’s very difficult, I think, to have a robust and candid conversation about a number of these structural issues that have to do with misery and oppression, without somehow being open to the ways in which both parties have been complicitous to not staying in contact with the rich humanity of our precious Mexican brothers and sisters—Chicanos, in my own language.

But it also relates to this larger issue of: How does the Democratic Party come to terms with Obama and his legacy? Because it’s clear that hardly anyone wants to critically examine it. So you can’t say too much about the Wall Street bailout explicitly; you can’t say too much about the drones; you can’t say too much about the wars in Libya and Somalia, and the bombs in Yemen; you can’t say too much about the very ugly Israeli occupation; you can’t say too much about the ugly Egyptian authoritarianism—though they are tied to the Obama administration. So, the Democratic Party is in a very tough situation, because you’ve got Democrats who are in love with our dear Brother Barack Obama, and we know he’s a zillion times better in many ways than the Trump in the White House right now, but, on the other hand, it wasn’t a golden age. And I think we have to be very candid about this.

And this is part of the tightrope that needs to be walked, I think, by those part of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, because you have to be able to tell the truth. You have to be committed to the suffering of poor and working people. I don’t care where they are. They could be in Tel Aviv, in Gaza. They can be in Mexico City or El Paso. They can be in Guatemala or El Paso. They can be in Guatemala or Ethiopia or Somalia, Dalits in India, Uyghurs in China, and so forth. And so, those of us who are on the outside, more social movement activists, let’s say, as opposed to insiders, we have got to be able to speak our truths and bring power and pressure to bear, even as we connect with various statesmen and politicians.

And one of the reasons why I spend the wonderful time and precious moments that I do with my dear Brother Bernie Sanders is not because I think he’s pure and pristine, but in many ways he is the last hope in terms of dealing with the planet in catastrophic mode, in dealing with the grotesque wealth inequality, in dealing with the legacies of white and male supremacy and transphobia, homophobia. How do we keep track of Jewish humanity, Palestinian humanity, Arab humanity? What kinds of politicians will speak to those issues? Very, very few. Most of them are so well adjusted to the unjust status quo, who benefit from the oligarchic and plutocratic money. And Brother Bernie is one of the last hopes. I’m not saying he’s the last hope, but he’s one of the last hopes, as our empire undergoes such decline, even as we lurch for real democratic, radical democratic awakening and regeneration.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Dr. Cornel West, you mentioned that this, of course, an empire, even if an empire in decline.

CORNEL WEST: That’s right.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And one of the most remarkable things about last night’s debate, as well as Tuesday’s, is that there was virtually no mention of foreign policy. According to a Washington Post count, last night, candidates spent a total of six minutes talking about foreign policy, which is down five minutes from the 11 minutes they spent on Tuesday night. And also, many commentators have pointed out, as, you know, the rhetoric calling for war with Iran is increasing within the Trump administration, there was one in Iran question, which was bizarrely asked to Andrew Yang and Jay Inslee alone. And when Bill de Blasio tried to bring it up, he was interrupted twice by moderators, and said we have to move on to the Mueller report.

CORNEL WEST: No, I think part of the problem is, is that when you talk about empire, you’ve got the pillars of the military-industrial complex, you’ve got Wall Street, but you also have corporate media. And I thank God for Democracy Now!, thank God for the two wonderful sisters that you all are, to try to say, “You know what? Corporate media is an integral part of the empire that is in denial about America being an empire, and therefore doesn’t want to keep track of the nine countries—five Middle East, four in Africa—where United States is even dropping bombs or assisting in the dropping of bombs.” Nobody wants to talk about the 128 countries of special operations, the over 586 military units of the U.S. military in all around the world, and the 4,800 that we have throughout the United States and the world. Corporate media won’t touch that with a 10-foot pole.

And so you end up with this very narrow, deodorized, truncated conversation that denies the reality of the U.S. presence in the world. And as Brother Martin Luther King used to say, those bombs that are dropped in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, they land—indigenous peoples’ reservations. We are not a nation of immigrants; we’re a nation with immigrants, with indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans in our origin. Those bombs drop in hoods, black hoods. They drop in barrios. They drop in white working-class and white poor communities. Sixty cents of every $1 of U.S. budget goes to the military-industrial complex, Trump’s $750 billion military budget. Who voted for that? Democrats as well as Republicans. That’s part of the imperial extension, that makes it difficult for us to speak to issues of healthcare, jobs with a living wage. It suffocates the domestic agenda. And Martin Luther King Jr., our dear Sister Dolores and Cesar Chavez and others, those grand exemplars of the social movements of the past, they understood that. And I think that’s part of the challenge that we have to bring.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to go to break. And, might I point out, we’re not going to a drug advertisement or a weapons manufacturer advertisement—

CORNEL WEST: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —or an oil, gas or coal industry ad.

CORNEL WEST: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re turning to a little music, and then we’re coming back to this to hear what they did, the candidates did, have to say about war, and also, what advertisements have to do with the range of the debate. Dr. Cornel West is with us. He’s supporting Bernie Sanders. He teaches at Harvard University. And we’re joined by Dolores Huerta, who is head of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, the renowned civil rights activist, co-founder of United Farm Workers of America. She supports Kamala Harris. Stay with us.

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Cornel West: Corporate Media’s Superficial Coverage Helped Create “Fascist Frankenstein Trump”

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