I’ll say this about Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein: She may have tried real hard during Wednesday night’s first-ever Green Party town hall on CNN to get mainstream Bernie Sanders voters into the party fold, but she did not stop her running mate, Ajamu Baraka, from saying what he really feels about America. Barack Obama an “Uncle Tom president”? Wow. I would have preferred something a bit more politically nuanced.
Baraka spoke only when necessary, but when he spoke he was clear to CNN anchor Chris Cuomo and to the New York City studio audience assembled—is that Cornel West in the center of the front row, clapping happily?—that his black radical past was both his black radical present and America’s radical future. He defended his Obama name-calling during an interview with Black Agenda Report as “calling it as you see it” and “speaking truth to power.” He correctly criticized Obama for his “neoliberal worldview” that undermined his own potential greatness.
He also openly talked about his disappointment with former Democratic presidential candidate Sanders, and didn’t back down from his prior comments about Sanders being “an ideological prop” who embraced Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy. It was refreshing to see those “inflammatory, provocative” comments, as self-defined by Baraka, on CNN. Stein, to her half credit, only half tried to clean up the comments about Obama’s consistent bending over, neoliberal top hat in hand.
Provocative seems to be the tone of 2016. “We’re gonna have to deal with Donald Trump, even after the election, win or lose, because he is appealing to a social base that is prepared to continue to embrace the darker side of humanity,” explained Baraka, referring to Trump’s Wednesday shakeup of his neofascist presidential campaign. Baraka sees a possibility of tangible hope and actual change in America, a “real democracy” being damaged by Trump and his supporters.
From the vantage point of the left, the dilemma of having a third party is permanent. Stein said the following to a young Asian, female Sanders supporter who asked why the Green Party presidential candidates should get her support: “You’ve learned, really, in real time why it is that you can’t have a revolutionary campaign in a counterrevolutionary party.”
Right. The lesser-of-two-evils argument is death row for radical change in America because the Republican Party is never going to nominate Barney the Dinosaur or a Care Bear. If an American citizen thinks something as simple as a vote can stop something as permanent as war, then vote to stop war. But how is that done when one party believes in ground troops, while the other thinks drones are progress?
Modern political history shows that candidates such as Sanders—who was Howard Dean, who was Bill Bradley, who was Jerry Brown, who was Jesse Jackson, who was Ted Kennedy, who was Bobby Kennedy and so on—will always represent that third party, that party of the left, that exists anyway in the popular American imagination. What must change is a frightened left that forces itself to the middle. (This is what Ralph Nader was saying in 2000, and he’s become a pariah for it.)
Has anyone thought about the idea that a real third party, a Left Party, might get the Democratic Party in permanent, proper gear? Stein: “We need real democracy.” Right. Baraka, explaining his comments about Obama and Sanders, said that we need to confront America’s imperialist and white supremacist contradictions, not hide from them.
Clichéd as it is, it still bears repeating that those committed to social movements know that revolution is nothing but a never-ending attempt by an at-first marginalized few to direct inevitable change. That radical American history will continue no matter who’s in office. (The Black Lives Matter movement will one day occupy the place in black minds reserved for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Angela Davis may one day be on the digital equivalent of the $20 bill in 2060.) George Lucas has embedded an exciting version of an eternal truth: Every empire breeds a rebellion, and every successful rebellion attempts to become an empire. That uncomfortable idea must be accepted.
It’s difficult for this nation to absorb such things. The United States, the world’s marketing champ, is the expert at turning openly radical history into smooth, pleasant narrative. It “rigs” history by switching it and myth around until it becomes difficult to know which is what. It eventually absorbs—and appropriates—all of its past, while cursing out loud the radicals of the present. Think about that as you look online at Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Malcolm X postage stamps and watch that Stanley Nelson Black Panther documentary funded by PBS before going to that old-school N.W.A-reunion hip-hop concert. Paul Robeson, meet Paul Bunyan.
This is not popular to say during presidential-election years, but a nation founded on slavery and genocide was ironically created by revolutionaries—people who chose a hard, dangerous, alternative path. (Wasn’t it the great comedian George Carlin, now with his ancestors, who famously cracked that the United States was founded by “slaveholders who wanted to be free”?) Since America’s ironic beginning, it has hated radicals who get the incremental change that forms modern American life.
Of course, no one in his or her right mind wants President Trump. But even a casual look at the Electoral College shows that it is not going to happen. Fact: There are not enough unlikely white voters in America to elect him. The redneck riot at the polls this November will look visually impressive, but it won’t resist simple demographic math. To win, Trump would have to turn blue states purple or red, and his big, bigoted mouth won’t allow that to happen.
Meanwhile, let’s not forget that those familiar folks who scare voters into the Democratic box are people who get paid very well to do so. (As a rule, radicals in America don’t get paid well unless they rhyme, or teach at Ivy League schools. The reality that most of America’s “black public intellectuals”—those who are radicals and those who pretend to be for television—have done both is a commentary for another day.) The fact that, admittedly, it is imperative this fall that loyal Democrats prevent the most unstable man since Richard Nixon from gaining the White House—see how contradictions abound, even in this commentary?—is not relevant to that consistent truth.
A vote for Stein-Baraka, then, is not the throwaway vote it would otherwise appear to be: Like Brexit, like the Trump movement during the primaries, it’s a very imperfect, admittedly very dangerous act that sends a message, a statement, about the current state of the world and the nation that is voting. That risk, that dangerous imperfection, is a permanent part of American life, future moderate Supreme Court nominees be damned. If that idea of risk is not accepted among those calling themselves left of center, then nothing of value will ever really change in America.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.