April 22, 2024 - 10:00am

Melina Abdullah first came across my radar in the spring of 2016, as Donald Trump closed in on the Republican nomination for president. Back then, Abdullah was a garden-variety faculty-lounge radical who spent too much time on Facebook. Now, she’s vying for the vice presidency on a third-party ticket with Cornel West.

According to Abdullah in an interview at the end of last week, the activist “never had the ambition” to run for office, claiming instead that she was “pretty effective as an outside organizer”. That’s one way of putting it.

Young America’s Foundation, where I worked with students in 2016, helped a group of conservative kids at California State University, Los Angeles host a lecture by Ben Shapiro. This displeased Abdullah, then chair of the school’s Pan-African Studies department. The day after the event, which ended with police escorting the conservative kids to safety, Abdullah participated eagerly in a “healing space” discussion, referring to Shapiro as a “neo-Nazi”.

“I get he’s Jewish so that’s ironic that I’m calling him a neo-Nazi but that’s basically what he is,” Abdullah told the university president. “A neo-KKK member, let’s call him that.”

“What I’m hearing,” she added, ostensibly fighting back tears, “is students come into my office feeling traumatised, feeling brutalised — physically, emotionally and mentally.”

Never mind that it was Shapiro’s fans who were briefly locked in the venue while Black Lives Matter activists beat on the doors: this very serious intellectual is now Cornel West’s running mate. West, of course, is a sharp defender of free speech who has criticised Abdullah’s brand of illiberalism when it comes from fellow progressives.

In a strange sense, West’s pick recalls Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s decision to allow for a land acknowledgement ceremony to be held at his own vice-presidential announcement. The ripest opportunity for a robust third-party showing since 1992 could easily be squandered by the candidates’ impossible choice: to go woke or not to go woke.

Kennedy, for his part, sits at 9.3% in the RealClearPolitics average, with West on 1.6% and Jill Stein at 1.5%. The independent candidate’s support is respectable, and it’s unlikely viral videos of the land acknowledgement will do much to hurt him. But everything from the conflict in Israel to his VP choice of Nicole Shanahan has brought this dilemma into focus.

Like American culture more broadly, politics fragmented in the last decade, sending people into smaller niches which make campaigning even more challenging. What has been characterised as “wokeness” is the biggest fault line. The anti-establishment crowd finds common ground on corporate greed and Ukraine, but not on Palestine. Populists despise vaccine mandates, but clash on imperialism. Feminists who dislike Biden’s approach to transgenderism won’t help organise alongside “climate deniers” who detest the President’s green industrial policy.

West’s campaign platform includes breaking up Big Tech, ending corporate stock buybacks, and a ban on government stock trading. He wants to “protect free speech” and enact term limits. Like Donald Trump, his campaign is critical of Nato, pledging to “slash the bloated US military budget” and end funding for the war in Ukraine.

These are populist sentiments common in circles on the Right and Left and many places in between. But West’s platform is dominated by categories such as “LGBTQIA+ Justice” and “Global Justice,” where there are calls for a national ban on “Don’t Say Gay” laws, for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and for an end to military funding of Israel.

The US voter base is a target-rich environment for third-party candidates right now. A remarkable 59% of Americans say both Trump and Biden are too old to serve second terms. Both men’s favourability is underwater by double digits in the RCP average. Both are found to be “dissatisfying” choices by a majority of adults.

Floating voters like populist economics and ending adventurism abroad, but no third-party candidate seems capable of doing all that while placating the radical demands of the cultural Left or, alternatively, placating the cultural Left while also appealing to anti-elite voters who see radical cultural Leftism as another form of class warfare.

A perfect campaign by Kennedy or West or Stein would have to navigate these conflicts deftly, managing the priorities of different coalitions on policy but also on style. Is it doable? Name recognition aside, RFK Jr understands this better than his less competitive peers in the third-party race. For his part, West just narrowed his lane by a few more inches. But even with such a massive appetite for third-party options this year, what choice did he have?

Emily Jashinsky is culture editor at The Federalist and co-host of Counter Points.