Peter Daou, a former Democratic activist, is running Cornel West’s third-party campaign. He talked to The New York Times about how he came to view the two-party system as a bigger problem than Donald J. Trump.
On Monday, Cornel West, a left-wing scholar and third-party presidential candidate, announced that he had hired Peter Daou as his campaign manager. The choice adds a new twist to one of the most unusual career trajectories in political consulting.
A Lebanese American jazz keyboardist and dance music producer — one of his early club remixes was declared “smokin'” by Billboard in 1991 — Mr. Daou, 58, found his way into politics in the mid-2000s. He started as a liberal blogger and then became a digital adviser for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign.
In 2016, he achieved prominence as the chief executive of Shareblue, a pro-Clinton megaphone that cultivated online outrage against Donald J. Trump, the political media and Bernie Sanders, Mrs. Clinton’s primary rival. (Mr. Daou was not affiliated with the 2016 Clinton campaign, but he did get a shout out in Mrs. Clinton’s subsequent book, “What Happened.”) At the time, a Sanders strategist called Mr. Daou the “pond scum of American politics” — so it was a surprise when, four years later, Mr. Daou transformed from Clinton superfan to an equally loud supporter of Mr. Sanders, the Vermont socialist.
It was the first of a series of record-scratch shifts in Mr. Daou’s politics. He has since quit the Democratic Party, called on President Biden to resign over campaign-trail allegations of groping, and worked briefly for Marianne Williamson’s campaign before signing onto Dr. West’s Green Party candidacy.
In 2017, Mr. Daou started a short-lived online platform, endorsed by Mrs. Clinton, that aimed to fight “a proliferation of confusing, chaotic misinformation” with verified, Clinton-affirming facts. He denounced “Russia’s successful hacking of our election using cyberespionage, online intimidation, and disinformation.” He now mocks the “liberal speak” of Democrats: “January 6, January 6, January 6, January 6, January 6, January 6, January 6, January 6, Orange man bad, Orange man bad, Orange man bad, Orange man bad, Putin, Putin, Putin, Putin, Putin, Putin,” he posted this month on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
“My evolution, philosophically and politically, I’ve been exceptionally transparent about it,” Mr. Daou said in a phone conversation with The New York Times, shortly after the West campaign’s announcement. The interview has been edited and condensed.
How would you define success for the Cornel West campaign? What are you trying to do here?
The first definition of success, to me, is a President Cornel West. But there are many, many ways of thinking about what this campaign can achieve. One would be to finally break the grip of the duopoly, you know, the monopoly of the two parties where you really just get two choices.
You’ll hear Democrats saying, “We’re saving democracy, we’re protecting democracy.” Well, you don’t protect democracy by trying to kick Greens off the ballot, and you don’t protect democracy by telling people, “You’re a spoiler.” You can’t kill democracy to save it.
Cornel West is running for president as a third-party candidate.Credit…Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press
During the 2020 primary, you wrote an essay in The Nation warning that fighting among the various factions of the American left, “at a time when they need to marshal every asset to defeat Trump and his G.O.P. cronies,” would be “an epic act of self-destruction.” Jaime Harrison, the Democratic National Committee chairman, has made more or less the same argument about Dr. West’s candidacy, saying, “This is not the time to play around on the margins.”
Somebody quoted William Blake, in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” on Twitter: “The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.” Yes, in 2020, I was buying into these spoiler arguments. I was going after the progressives and the leftists and the Green Party members who I have now come to see as my family. And it was a mistake. I was wrong. You know, it’s OK to be wrong.
In 2016, you worked for Shareblue, which a lot of people would credit with stoking the my-party-right-or-wrong strain of Democratic social media posting that you now decry. Do you feel like you had a hand in creating this thing that you’re fighting?
I think I played a part, yes. Because look, when you’re in that partisan war, you’re in the trenches and you’re fighting and you’re throwing punches. You get caught up in the moment, you believe your side is right, and you fight. I’m one human being, but I take responsibility for that. I apologize for that. The way I see it, what I can do right now, especially with Dr. West, is break out of it.
You’ve recently made fun of what you call the “orange man bad” school of liberal discourse.
My former liberal Democratic political friends say, “Oh, you just love Trump, you’re a Trump supporter.” No, I oppose Trump more than you do. The problem is painting Donald Trump as some singularly dangerous figure, because it takes attention away from all the other problems. That’s propaganda. That’s intentional. And it also raises a lot of money for the Democratic Party.
You wrote a book in 2019 arguing that “nothing in American life is more of a threat to our democracy than the Republican Party’s lurch to the far right.” You’re now arguing that the Democratic Party “is itself a threat to democracy.” Are these threats comparable, to your mind?
I consider myself an independent leftist. I haven’t always been in that place. For a long time, I worked within the Democratic Party, and slowly moved toward the left, to the point where I quit the party in 2020. And, having done that, I look much more objectively at these arguments that Republicans are far, far worse and far, far more dangerous than Democrats, and if Trump gets elected again, it’s the end of the world, it’s the end of the country.
When we say we’re protecting democracy, there’s an assumption there that there is a democracy. You only are given two choices. And both parties are responsible for that. It’s certainly a threat to democracy to take Joe Biden, who 67 percent of Democratic voters in a recent CNN poll do not want to be the Democratic nominee.
If that’s the case, why not challenge him in the primary? Why run as a third-party challenger?
I think what we’ve seen this cycle, and the last couple of cycles with Bernie Sanders, is the Democratic Party will not give the opportunity for somebody like Dr. West to actually engage in a fair primary process. So I think this is the right way to go. The Green Party will get on the ballot, or we’re working to get on it, in all 50 states. We are going to make sure this is a fair process because it’s not going to be a fair process within the Democratic Party.
Ron Klain, who until recently was Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, wrote a blurb for your 2019 book. When was the last time you talked to anybody in Bidenworld?
I have not been in contact with any of my establishment colleagues for many years. I’m sure they don’t have very high opinions of me. But it really doesn’t matter to me, because this is not about my personal connections.
You recently addressed the young Biden-supporting TikTok influencer Harry Sisson, comparing his enthusiasm for Mr. Biden to yours for Mrs. Clinton in 2016, and warning him: “Trust me, you’ll regret it later.” For a long time, even after you embraced Bernie Sanders, you seemed to stand by your years as a Clinton die-hard. Are looking back differently at that now?
I thought I was doing the right thing at the time. Looking back now, I was just enabling and supporting a system that is oppressing people. So for a younger person getting involved, I say, look at the system itself. Look at the suffering created by the system and fight the system. Don’t get attached to one politician or one party. I find the idea of anarchist philosophy, along the lines of David Graeber, quite intriguing: You know, no power dynamics, no coercion, a structure in which in which we all cooperate, and there’s true equality, right?
In the end, what Dr. West is doing, this is the way you do it: You go at the system directly. And that’s what we’re going to be doing to the very last day. He will be on the ballot. And this is not going to be some sort of process in which, you know, “Down the line, well, maybe not, if this is going to bring on a Republican.”
We are working to get on the ballot. In the general election, there are going to be at least three choices, and he will be one of them.