In a Democracy Now! special, Harvard professor Cornel West and Ben Jealous, president of People for the American Way and former president of the NAACP, discuss the 2020 DNC, Joe Biden’s vow to fight systemic racism and “overcome this season of darkness in America,” the historic nomination of Kamala Harris as his partner on the ticket, and how the convention was a showcase for a broad anti-Trump coalition, including prominent Republican figures given plum speaking slots, but few voices from the party’s insurgent left wing. “At this moment, with the decline and fall of the American empire, it looks as if the system is unable to generate enough energy to seriously reform itself. It remains sanitized, superficial,” says Dr. West. “I want fundamental change.” Jealous says Biden is someone progressives can work with and pressure. “The theme of this convention was really one of unity,” he notes. “This is a time when we have to come together to defeat a president who is the most evil, the most corrupt that any of us have seen.” We originally interviewed West and Jealous last month as the DNC ended.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, a Democracy Now! special. We look at the Democratic Party’s nomination of Joe Biden for president and his historic pick of Senator Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate, making her the first woman of color to run on a major party ticket.
Just after the Democratic National Convention wrapped up, I spoke with Dr. Cornel West, professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University, author of numerous books, including Race Matters and Black Prophetic Fire. In 2017, Cornel West was in Charlottesville, Virginia, when neo-Nazis stormed the campus. He and other clergy members were protected by anti-fascists from the mob of white supremacists.
Also with us, in Baltimore, Maryland, is Ben Jealous, president of People for the American Way, former president of the NAACP. He ran for governor of Maryland in 2018. I began the conversation, just after the Democratic convention concluded, by asking Ben Jealous about what the convention represented.
BEN JEALOUS: You know, look, I think that the theme of this convention was really one of unity. This was a time when we have to come together to defeat a president who is the most evil, the most corrupt that any of us have seen. And that says a lot.
It also was a time when we saw two nominees who we, as progressives, know we can work with. Kamala Harris’s sister, who introduced her, Maya, is the former head of the ACLU of Northern California. Kamala ran for DA in a much more conservative time, and yet did so as an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, who then held her ground early in her term when she was tested, when an officer was killed, and the entire liberal establishment in Northern California came down on her, and she said, “The death penalty is wrong, period.” Tremendous courage. And Joe Biden, who Bernie himself said is poised to be the most progressive president since FDR.
And so, while it’s not Bernie, and while maybe it’s not somebody else someone hoped for, what we do know is that these are people that we can work with. These are people who, at their best, represent our best values — literally, the daughter of civil rights activists, the sister of a civil rights lawyer, who herself told me 15 years ago she became a prosecutor because it wasn’t enough to just fight the power, we also had to hold the power. And I’ve seen her act courageously. So I’m very hopeful.
And I have no doubt that we can work with Joe. Like Ady, who spoke so beautifully — and that was a true highlight for me — I believe that we must move towards Medicare for All. I also believe that Joe Biden will take us further in that direction certainly than Donald Trump, and, frankly, further than most presidents, that we have an opportunity here to move things in the right direction again. And as organizers, that’s the most important thing to get out of any presidential election, is a president that you can move in the right direction.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Cornel West, your reaction to this week and the positions of the Democratic candidates for president and vice president?
CORNEL WEST: You know, Sister Amy, my points of reference really are the freedom dreams that we just heard from “Zoom” of the Commodores and the genius Lionel Richie; of Ella Baker, who was invoked by Brother Biden in the first sentence of his speech, the Ella Baker who was a revolutionary, the Ella Baker who was working on the Mass Party Organizing Committee with Arthur Kinoy and the great William Kunstler, actually working for a third party because she thought that the two-party system was so decrepit; and then also to Curtis Mayfield, that they’ve been playing over and over again, to “Move On Up.”
But you’ve got to move on up from poverty. And in order to do it, you’ve got to talk about poverty. If you’re going to move on up from Wall Street greed and Wall Street crimes, you’ve got to talk about Wall Street greed and Wall Street crimes. If you’re going to move on up from the Pentagon militarism around the world, you’ve got to talk about it. Those are the taboo issues that we don’t get serious wrestling with. So when you really talk about the soul of America and the battle for the soul of America, much of that soul has been evacuated by the Pentagon greed and the Wall Street greed and the inability of the police and other institutions to treat Black people and Brown people, Indigenous people as human beings.
So, I agree with Brother Ben in terms of being part of an anti-fascist coalition, that I think we’re forced to vote for Biden. But we’re not going to lie about Biden, we’re not going to lie about Harris. We’re going to tell the truth about their captivity and their refusal to hit Pentagon money spending and militarism around the world, to hit Wall Street greed and to also speak substantively to issues of poverty.
You can’t have massive protests all around the country, the largest in the history of the country, you can’t have Brother Barber and Sister Theoharis out there talking about poverty, and then, when you get to the convention, you get this spectacle that has nothing to do with wrestling with poverty. I think Brother Cory was the only one to even talk about it, for the most part. None of the major figures did. Thank God, did Bernie. Thank God AOC got her little 90 minutes [sic], as opposed to the Republicans —
AMY GOODMAN: Ninety seconds.
CORNEL WEST: — getting major — I’m sorry, 90 seconds. Exactly, 90 seconds. So that, you know, I’m with Ben in terms of we’ve got to vote for Biden, but never, ever lying about him, and not coming to terms with the fact that at this moment, with the decline and fall of the American Empire, it looks as if the system is unable to generate enough energy to seriously reform itself. It remains sanitized, superficial. We’re getting Lawrence Welk’s bubbles rather than Prince’s Revolution. I want to go to Prince’s Revolution concert. I want fundamental change.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Joe Biden’s comments last night about Social Security.
JOE BIDEN: For our seniors, Social Security is a sacred obligation, a sacred promise made, they paid for. The current president is threatening to break that promise. He’s proposing to eliminate a tax that pays for almost half the Social Security, without any way of making up for that lost revenue, resulting in cuts. I will not let that happen. If I’m your president, we’re going to protect Social Security and Medicare. You have my word.
AMY GOODMAN: During the primary campaign, Bernie Sanders released an ad highlighting Biden’s past support for cutting Social Security and Medicare. The ad highlighted an interview Biden did on Meet the Press in 2007.
TIM RUSSERT: Senator, we have a deficit. We have Social Security and Medicare looming. Would you consider looking at those programs — age of eligibility —
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Absolutely.
TIM RUSSERT: — cost of living — put it all on the table?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: The answer is absolutely. You have to. I mean, you know, one of the things that my — you know, the political advisers say to me is, “Whoa! Don’t touch that third” — look, the American people aren’t stupid. It’s a real simple proposition. Social Security is not the hard one to solve. Medicare, that is the gorilla in the room. And you’ve got to put all of it on the table.
TIM RUSSERT: Everything?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Everything. You’ve got to.
AMY GOODMAN: “You’ve got to put all of it on the table.” Ben Jealous, both you and professor Cornel West have been surrogates for Bernie Sanders. Can you talk about how that relates to Joe Biden today and his positions?
BEN JEALOUS: Joe Biden today needs Bernie, needs everyone who voted for Bernie, to become president. Joe Biden today has moved with the party to the left. And Joe Biden today gets, in his core, that we have to protect Medicare, that we have to protect Social Security. I won’t deny he’s a politician who has been at different places at different points. But I know where he is now. And I think we have to take a cue from Bernie and be very clear that everybody needs to vote against Trump and for Biden in this moment, so we have a president that we can move. There’s no moving Trump, but it is definitely possible to move Joe. And every organizer ultimately needs a president that they can move.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Cornel West, I said, you know, this obviously — that was a clip from 2007. That’s what? Thirteen years ago.
CORNEL WEST: That’s right. That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: But only recently, presidential candidate Joe Biden said even if a Medicare for All — now, that’s different than Medicare that he was talking about in 2007, that would have been Medicare for everyone in this country — even if Medicare for All were passed, which would mean bipartisan support, he would veto it, if he were president.
CORNEL WEST: I mean, one — I mean, Brother Biden told my dear Brother Bernie, in front of the nation, “I never, ever entertained the possibility of cutting Medicare and Social Security.” And you’ve got the evidence that he did. So he lied, you know. But, I mean —
AMY GOODMAN: Actually, let me go to Joe Biden.
CORNEL WEST: — as Brother Ben is right. I mean, politicians —
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go —
CORNEL WEST: Politicians lie all the time. But —
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to Joe Biden.
CORNEL WEST: Yeah, go right ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: He was speaking on MSNBC with Lawrence O’Donnell, saying what he would do if he were elected president and he got a Medicare for All bill.
JOE BIDEN: I would veto anything that delays providing the security and the certainty of healthcare being available now. If they got that through, and by some miracle, and there was an epiphany that occurred, and some miracle occurred that said, “OK, it’s passed,” then you’ve got to look at the cost. I want to know: How did they find the $35 trillion? What is that doing? Is it going to significantly raise taxes on the middle class? Which it will. What’s going to happen? Look, my opposition isn’t to the principle that there should be — you should have Medicare. I mean, if everybody — healthcare should be a right in America. My opposition relates to whether or not, A, it’s doable, two, what the cost is, and what the consequences for the rest of the budget are.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Professor West, that was Joe Biden in March, just as we’re moving into the pandemic. And do you think this pandemic has highlighted so many inequities, that it would make it actually easier, because of the horror of the number of deaths disproportionately affecting people of color and poorer people in this country, to actually move that agenda forward? And do you think Joe Biden could be that person as president?
CORNEL WEST: Well, I hope so. I mean, that’s why we’ve got to push him over the line, but we have to be very honest with ourselves. I mean, we’ve got over 68% of fellow citizens who support Medicare for All — 46% of Republicans, 85% of Democrats do. And yet, big pharmaceutical companies, big private insurance companies, the donors, still dictate the destiny of policy.
Now, people are not stupid in this regard. I mean, the distinctive features of a decline of an empire, military overreach — 53 cents of every dollar is going to the military, 53 cents of every dollar in the city of Chicago goes to the police — militarism domestically, militarism abroad. But at the same time, you say to yourself, “Well, the people themselves are moving in a progressive direction” — Brother Ben is right — “but there’s no translation.”
That’s why we didn’t hear enough serious progressive voices during the spectacle, because you’ve got this big money still rendering captive so many of those in the Democratic Party, and they want to speak and give a lip service to justice, but there’s no real substance there in terms of sustaining an attack on poverty, sustaining an attack on the mass incarceration system and the new Jim Crow, sustaining a redistribution of wealth downward. You can’t talk about racism if you don’t talk about Black people having access to wealth. It could be reparations. It could be redistribution. We have to have access to wealth and income. And this is true for Black, for Brown. This is true for Indigenous peoples. This is true for Asians, across the board.
And so, what has happened, though, Sister Amy, is that we’re getting a sad spectacle that remains on the surface, and yet the massive suffering and misery that’s taking place is intensifying. And we’re getting the unraveling of public life with the post office and a whole host of other public institutions, education, and we’re getting the inability to envision a substantive alternative to the present, so we end up tied to this nightmarish reality.
So, yes, a vote for Biden as an anti-fascist vote, that’s different than in any way falling prey to illusions. We have to be able to keep our hopes while we kill the illusions. And if we can’t walk that tightrope, we’re not going to make it as a country.
AMY GOODMAN: Medicare for All issue, when it came to the presidential debates, Kamala Harris raised her hand when asked if she supported Medicare for All, but, the next day, said she hadn’t heard the question properly, she misunderstood. Ben Jealous, you’ve known Kamala Harris for a long time.
BEN JEALOUS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the vice president doesn’t determine the agenda, of course; the president does. But your thoughts on this? And as a supporter for this, Ben Jealous, what do you think is the best strategy? People are saying you wait until November 4th, and then you apply massive pressure. Or do you start now? And if people don’t start now, if they are suppressed, because, as Cornel West said, it’s a vote against fascism, will a pattern be set where it’s too late after the election?
BEN JEALOUS: Yeah, my heart broke when I saw my friend, Mr. Barkan, speak via computer. The last time I was with him, we were just four blocks from the Capitol, together encouraging, helping train dozens of activists who were about to get arrested in protests demanding Medicare for All.
As an organizer, I can’t pretend that it’s all about where we are at this moment. It is always about our vision. It is about the will of the people. And it is about the trend of the movement in our country. And all of those point towards the day when Medicare for All will be a reality.
And, sure, you have — it was in my own primary — you know, establishment progressives, progressives who see themselves as experts on the budget, who have been completely bamboozled by corporations into believing that we can’t afford it. And yet, year after year, we see more and more studies by academics, by think tanks, saying, “You know, actually, Medicare for All is the most affordable option.”
So, I believe that because of the movement in this country, the opinion of the people, as laid out by Dr. West, because of the resolve of organizers, not just Ady, but all the legions inspired by him and by my good friend, Dr. Barber, that we will get Medicare for All. And I don’t depend on the platform position of some politician. No, I look to the will of the people. I look to the movement and the trend. So that’s where my hope is. And as an organizer, I know we have to have a president, we have to have a vice president that we can work with. Can we move Biden? Absolutely. Can we move Harris? Absolutely. And that’s where my confidence is.
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, Ady Barkan did give a major — he gave a few minutes of an address, but I’ve never heard him speak without saying the words “Medicare for All,” and here he didn’t say it — not clear if it was because of the contenders’ positions. Of course, right afterwards, he tweeted, We will be fighting for Medicare for All, starting on November 4th. And he described it. He just didn’t use the words.
But speaking about who spoke, let me ask Cornel West if you’re concerned about — you know, we were showing, at the beginning of the broadcast, all the presidential rivals — almost all of them — in discussion yesterday. And a number of them got key positions, including the former Republican, Bloomberg. You had Amy Klobuchar. You had Cory Booker and so many others. But you didn’t have Julián Castro, who we spoke to at the beginning of the week. How is it possible that the only Latinx presidential candidate was not invited, when almost all of the rest of them were?
CORNEL WEST: I mean, I think it’s ridiculous, I mean, when you’ve got the neofascist gangster in the White House. He started his whole campaign attacking our precious Mexican brothers and sisters. And here you’ve got a Chicano from Texas, who is brilliant and sharp, and doesn’t get a chance to speak. But Brother Bloomberg does. You say, “Wait, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire?”
I mean, here’s — and then Sister Linda Sarsour gets demonized and pushed out because she stands for Palestinians, she’s against the vicious Israeli occupation. Biden is talking about human rights. Harris is talking about a coalition of conscience. You can’t have a coalition of conscience and talk about human rights if you don’t come to terms with precious Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Ain’t nothing anti-Jewish about that. In fact, it affirms Jewish values coming out of Hebrew scripture: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” They’re talking about justice.
So, the role of the lobbies — you’ve got AIPAC, you’ve got Big Pharm, you’ve got big private insurance companies, you’ve got K Street, across the board. And these are moral and spiritual issues. These are not tribal. These are not just about identity and group politics. If we can’t reach a point of integrity, honesty and decency — and by “spirituality,” all I mean is the use of empathy and imagination to envision another future, a better future — if we’re unable to do that, we’re locked in, and, lo and behold, we just slide down a slippery slope to chaos and fascism.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cornel West and Ben Jealous, head of People for the American Way. More with them in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with our conversation, just after the Democratic National Convention wound down, with Harvard professor Cornel West and Ben Jealous, president of People for the American Way. I asked them about how the DNC showcased a broad anti-Trump coalition, including prominent Republican figures, but not so many voices from the party’s progressive wing. This is former Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich addressing the DNC.
JOHN KASICH: I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat. They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that, because I know the measure of the man, is reasonable, faithful, respectful.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous?
BEN JEALOUS: You know, one of the great moments for me, as president of People For, was that 13 of our young people spoke — Mayor Robert Garcia from Long Beach, a product of our Young People For program; Raumesh Akbari, state senator from Tennessee; Stacey Abrams, who, with Julián Castro, was in the first class. And so, yes, absolutely, I would — you know, the first class of our Young Elected Officials program. And I would love to have seen Julián spoke, and he should have spoke. And yet, you’ve got to look at the future and the trendline. The young people who spoke — Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes —
AMY GOODMAN: Of Wisconsin.
BEN JEALOUS: — Mr. Kenyatta, who’s the first openly Black — the first openly gay Black member of the Pennsylvania state Legislature — they represent the future. And we can’t take this away from them.
Sure, there is always a struggle in a party between older politicians and younger politicians. But let’s not pretend like we don’t see the future in the young public servants who spoke during this convention, because it’s there. And it shows a party that is much more distinct, and a party that’s much more in touch, and a party that is being moved in the right direction by the people of this country, which, of course, the Republican Party is not.
And so, this is a moment when I think we have to be very clear with the young people of this country that what they see in AOC, what they see in Raumesh in Tennessee, is a reflection of their power to move this country in the right direction. And what I saw all through the program was evidence of that.
And, you know, sure, parties always bring out somebody from the other party to suggest that we can rebuild the middle. We are, I think, all hungry to get beyond the moment of division in this country. I embrace that. There’s no Republican who represent my values. But are there some who represent my hope that we can get to a place where it’s not just criminal justice reform that we can agree on, but maybe there’s two issues that we can agree on? Certainly. And I welcome that day, because, as a criminal justice reformer, the way that we’ve been able to shrink prisons in places like Texas is by finding the Republicans that we can work with in that moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Ben, very quickly, I was wondering your response to the 13-year-old boy who spoke from New Hampshire, named Brayden Harrington, who had a stutter.
BEN JEALOUS: It made me cry.
BRAYDEN HARRINGTON: Without Joe Biden, I wouldn’t be talking to you today. About a few months ago, I met him in New Hampshire. He told me that we were members of the same club: We stutter. It was really amazing to hear that someone like me became vice president. He told me about a book of poems by Yeats he would read out loud to practice. He showed me how he marks his addresses to make them easier to say out loud. So I did the same thing today.
We all want the world to feel better. We need the world to feel better. I’m just a regular kid. And in a short amount of time, Joe Biden made me feel more confident about something that’s bothered me my whole life. Joe Biden cared.
BEN JEALOUS: It made me cry. I mean, I grew up with a stutter. I’ve been involved in every presidential since Jesse Jackson’s ’88. I was 14 years old. I was the president of Youth for Jackson in Monterey County. It was another candidate, Joe Biden, who inspired me.
First time I gave a speech to a group of Democrats, I stuttered so badly that an old woman, an old hippie, like so many people who I grew up with, came up to me with a meditation tape and slipped it in my pocket and said, “Boy, please listen to this.”
Being a young person with so much to say, and not being able to get the words out, is deeply painful. I know what my candidacy in Maryland meant to young people who stutter here, to older people who stutter. And I know what Joe Biden has meant to all of us who stutter. Even when I was fighting for Jesse Jackson’s campaign, he was in a very different place in that race. The fact that he had grown up with a stutter and found his voice was as transformative for me, as a young person with a voice, as the candidate that I was pushing in that primary so many years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Cornel West, I began by saying you were in Charlottesville, and this is the anniversary of Charlottesville, where the — basically, the Klan without hoods, they felt safe enough in this country today not to wear sheets and cover their identities. Where you were, talk about who you were saved by, since this is going to be the theme next week of President Trump in the Republican National Convention, going after antifa and the anti-fascists, when who has been arrested in this country at this point, been charged? Those charged with murder or attacks have been overwhelmingly Proud Boys and “boogaloo.”
CORNEL WEST: Well, I mean, we were standing as part of an anti-fascist coalition, just the same logic that we talk about in terms of pushing Biden and Harris across the line but also telling the truth about them, there in Charlottesville. That coalition was a broad one.
We saw at the convention, we’ve got Colin Powell, militaristic, still part of that coalition. He’s not my political friend. He’s a brother. I’m a Christian. I try to love everybody, you know. We’ve got my dear Brother Bob Avakian, Revolutionary Communist Party, and Carl Dix, all now talking about voting for Biden, against the fascist, but not fetishizing the vote, not thinking that somehow Biden is going to be this salvific figure or even Biden has principles and integrity that relate to poor and working people.
Brother Ben knows that the mass incarceration regime, you had a whole lot of precious folk who went to jail who stuttered, because of Biden. You’ve got a whole lot of folk who stuttered in Iraq, who were killed, because of Biden’s support. We have to be honest about those issues that relate to the soul of America. You can’t have a soul with massive militarism. You can’t have a soul with massive Wall Street greed. These are fundamental issues. Ben and I have talked about this on the campaign with Brother Bernie.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to get final comments from Cornel West and Ben Jealous, but we wanted to go to Axios, the interview that Jonathan Swan did with President Trump, talking about Congressmember John Lewis, who had just died.
JONATHAN SWAN: John Lewis is lying in state in the U.S. Capitol. How do you think history will remember John Lewis?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know John Lewis. He chose not to come to my inauguration. He chose — I don’t — I never met John Lewis, actually, I don’t believe.
JONATHAN SWAN: Do you find him impressive?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Uh, I can’t say one way or the other. I find a lot of people impressive. I find many people not impressive. But no. But I didn’t go —
JONATHAN SWAN: Do you find his story impressive?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He didn’t come — he didn’t come to my inauguration. He didn’t come to my State of the Union speeches. And that’s OK. That’s his right. And again, nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have.
JONATHAN SWAN: All right, but back to — I understand.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He should have come.
JONATHAN SWAN: But back —
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think he made a big mistake. I think he should have come.
JONATHAN SWAN: But taking your relationship with him out of it, do you find his story impressive, what he’s done for this country?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: He was a person that devoted a lot of energy and a lot of heart to civil rights, but there were many others also.
AMY GOODMAN: “There were many others,” and “He didn’t come to my inauguration or my State of the Union.” Ben Jealous, your final comments, President Trump saying he’s done more for Black people than anyone?
BEN JEALOUS: Look, that is the most cowardly and corrupt president — and vain — that we’ve ever seen. I think that’s just the final word there.
And what I would say to my good friend Dr. West, who’s inspired me literally my entire adult life, and who has been a real friend, the prophetic voice in politics must do two things. One is to be honest about where we are, and the other is to be honest about where we can be. And in our church, in the Black church, in our tradition, we claim the victory in advance, and then we make it real.
And what I know is that there is a day coming when we will have Medicare for All, when we will transform public safety, and that getting to that day begins with getting the man you just saw, Donald Trump, out of office.
AMY GOODMAN: Cornel West, 30 seconds.
BEN JEALOUS: And that we have to be absolutely clear with the young people of this country that they will determine whether Trump stays in office or not, by whether or not they show up to vote.
AMY GOODMAN: Cornel West?
CORNEL WEST: That’s true. No, I agree with Brother Ben. I agree with Brother Ben. I would just add one thing, though, Brother Ben. It’s not just a matter that Medicare will come. We have to point out who the major obstacles are. And those obstacles are big pharmaceutical companies and big private insurance, who too often provide the moneys for the politicians who remain stuck in the middle ground —
BEN JEALOUS: Amen.
CORNEL WEST: — rather than pushing all the way. But I’m with you. I’m with you, though, Brother. Indeed, indeed.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. Cornel West, professor of the practice of public policy at Harvard University, and Ben Jealous, now president of People for the American Way, former head of the NAACP. You can see all our Breaking with Convention coverage, including on the Republican National Convention, at democracynow.org.
When we come back, we look at the uprising against police brutality and racism with professor Angela Davis.