- Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel’s long-shot 2020 presidential campaign is being managed entirely on the Internet primarily by three teenagers and former high school classmates from Westchester, New York.
- David Oks, Henry Williams, and Elijah Emery have built a following of 95,000 Twitter followers on which they troll other 2020 candidates and tweet about their leftist policy ideas from Gravel’s account.
- In an interview with INSIDER, Williams said the initial goal of the campaign was to get Gravel on the debate stage to challenge US imperialism.
- Williams said he hopes Gravel will serve as a new vanguard for leftist ideas, and the so-called #Gravelanche behind them will become the basis of the Democratic Party’s new left flank.
- In particular, the campaign hopes to bring novel ideas including ending US intervention abroad, slashing military spending, and legalizing sex work into the political mainstream.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
“Joe Biden‘s a bum,” began a June 5 tweet from the account of 89-year-old former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, the latest iteration in a long series of insults against the former vice president.
“A right-wing chauvinist, good time prick, arrogant bastard creep who thinks that because he’s got a $US3,000 suit and the cachet of a lifetime sinecure in the Senate we should bow down to his beaming smile. A real racist piece of work,” the tweet, Gravel’s most-retweeted and most-liked tweet about Biden, continued.
That day, Biden drew ire from reproductive rights groups and much of the 2020 presidential primary field when his campaign told NBC News that he supported keeping the 1973 Hyde Amendment, which bans any federal funding from subsidizing abortion except in rare cases (Biden ended up backtracking and changing his position on the matter less than 48 hours later).
While most other candidates just recently began to publicly take veiled and explicit shots at Biden and at each other, the teenagers running Gravel’s long-shot 2020 presidential campaign have built a following and made a near-sport out of coming up with creative insults for their fellow contenders – and criticising fellow Democrats, particularly Biden, just as ferociously as Republicans.
Gravel’s account, which now has almost 100,000 followers, is run by three high school and college students from Westchester County, New York. They drafted Gravel – an octogenarian former Senator whose last ran campaign was in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary – to run for president again back in March of this year.
Initially, their ask was simple.
They wanted people to donate $US1 to help get Gravel on the stage for the first Democratic debates this month in Miami. It was there, they hoped, Gravel would bring issues like US imperialism and ending war into the 2020 conversation.
While the Gravel campaign fell short of the required 1% performance in three polls and 65,000 unique donors to make the first debates in Miami, its organisers say they’re on the path to qualify for the next round of debates in July, all thanks to their online popularity.
On Twitter, they have called Pete Buttigieg “a Gold Star goofball,” said the presidency of Sen. Cory Booker would be like “a boot stamping on a human face,” publicly shamed candidates who poll lower than Gravel as “fake progressives and stooges for corporate power.”
They have also released merchandise – including buttons and papers meant for rolling joints of marijuana – decorated with punchy logos including “cut military spending in half,” “compost the rich,” and “send Henry Kissinger to the Hague.”
Here's the official Mike Gravel 2020 Campaign Launch Ad – "Rock 2.0" Join the #Gravelanche to push American politics to the left and speak truth to power, send Mike $1 to get him on the debate stage: https://t.co/R8N3DrihCD. pic.twitter.com/MWaPNCrxJH
— Gravel Institute (@GravelInstitute) April 18, 2019
The campaign, however, goes much deeper than the aggressive (and often very funny) tweets attacking fellow Democrats and eye-catching merchandise. The Gravel team is now “running to win,” and has centered their mission around an extremely detailed set of policies – one of the most comprehensive in the field – modelled on the same ones for which Gravel has championed his entire career, especially military non-interventionism.
On the donation section of Gravel’s campaign website, the mission is described as “ending America’s imperial policies (especially in Venezuela and Iran), legalizing marijuana, fundamentally reforming our politics through direct democracy, abolishing mass surveillance on American citizens, prioritising climate change, dismantling America’s carceral state, and building a foreign policy of peace.”
How it all came together
This Gravel teens have run a campaign before, albeit a failed one, in OK’s run for mayor of Ardsley, New York at age 16.
They have come a long way since then, having managed to secure 45,000 individual donors, raise $US120,000 total in the first month of the campaign, and even reach 1% in a few polls – entirely through social media. They’re now even the subject of an upcoming documentary titled “Teen Kingmakers.”
In a May interview with INSIDER, Gravel’s chief of staff and top strategist Henry Williams, a 18-year-old Columbia University physics major, said his friend and Gravel’s campaign manager David Oks first got him interested in politics when they were high schoolers during the 2016 election.
“[Oks] always rated Trump’s chances way higher than anyone else did at that point. As time went on, I started to see that not only was he right about that, but he was right about a lot of other stuff and had an instinct of how politics works,” Williams said.
In the most crowded Democratic primary field in history, some candidates have struggled to command attention online, but social media is a second language to Oks and Williams. And in a political environment that rewards shock value and novelty, they have perfected the formula.
Williams said that he and Oks’ push to draft Gravel was partly inspired by the meteoric rise of Andrew Yang, a tech entrepreneur running a campaign largely centered around universal basic income, who raised $US1.7 million from 80,000 donors in just two months after catching fire on the Internet and inspiring a loyal following who term themselves the #YangGang.
“If Yang can weaponize a small, super online subset of the Internet and get an international audience, why couldn’t you go take someone like Gravel who appeals to those who like honest politicians and who are fighting the good fight while also weaponizing a very online, very young base of support and transform that into a movement?”
Williams said that he and Oks had vaguely heard about Gravel’s 2008 presidential run – where he got on the debate stage and challenged Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden – but after learning more about him on a podcast, decided he would be the perfect candidate to serve as the “vanguard” for a new leftist movement.
After Gravel responded to their initial email to his website, Williams said they spoke on the phone for about five to six hours a day for a week about the idea of Gravel running for president.
“Bit by bit, we convinced him that there was a real leftist movement and environment that there wasn’t in 2008, and in our view, hasn’t existed since the 1960s” Williams said, adding that with his and Oks’ level of social media savvy, “he would have more an audience now that he would in any point of his career.”
While it may be tempting to typecast the Gravel teens as emerging standouts in the next new generation of extremely online left-wing social media phenoms and branding experts, the teens behind it say they’re grassroots organisers at their core and have big plans for how they want to propel the leftist movement forward.
“A true left flank”
Gravel himself had an unconventional career in politics, defined by taking on bold anti-war stances that directly counteracted the political mainstream.
After serving in the Army and earning a degree from Columbia University, Gravel moved to Alaska before it gained statehood, and later ran a successful underdog campaign for Senate. He would go on to serve two terms from 1969 to 1981 and became a vocal anti-war activist. He worked to end the draft, and risked punishment by reading the Pentagon Papers aloud on the Senate floor.
Williams and Oks say they didn’t invent the style of campaigning they embody on Twitter and the political messages they project, but are simply furthering Gravel’s legacy of taking bold, principled stances and challenging the establishment.
They have just adapted it to the digital age and spoken in the language of Twitter.
We're proud to release our new ad, "END ALL WARS." Listen below for words from Mike on his goals on the debate stage.
— Gravel Institute (@GravelInstitute) June 17, 2019
“I don’t think that David or myself know anything more than anyone on the left does, or are better or smarter than anyone else, I just think we’ve read the winds,” Williams said about the Gravel campaign’s unlikely success, both online and in the real world.
Williams said his main goal for the Gravel candidacy is to bring stances like supporting legalised sex work and significant cutting defence into the political mainstream, similarly to how progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders helped turn support for positions like Medicare for All from the 2016 fringe to the 2020 mainstream.
“We intuited that this might work, but we had no idea of the kind of explosion we had,” Williams said of the campaign’s Twitter presence, adding their campaign has drawn the attention of activists from the pro-sex work legalization and prison abolition movements simply by virtue of being the only campaign seriously engaging with those causes.
“Now that Bernie is in the mainstream of the party, you need someone further to the left of him. The best we can do for getting to them to the left is to show it’s possible to be where we are and still make waves … I don’t know of anyone that’s ever run on decriminalizing sex work before,” Williams said.
He added, “My dream is to transfer all our political momentum behind one candidate, probably Bernie Sanders, and to get Bernie to adopt a plank to his policy platform regarding non-interventionism or cutting the military budget, opposing the criminalization of sex work, just one or two,” saying that people frequently joke that Gravel makes Sanders, 77, look both old and moderate.
“We want to prove there’s a political market for these messages because the party needs a true left flank,” Williams continued.
Among all the 2020 candidates who have presented comprehensive ideas on foreign policy, the Gravel campaign’s is by far the most detailed and ambitious.
In addition to embracing non-aggression as a principle and not engaging in future wars without explicit congressional approval and oversight, the Gravel foreign policy platform advocates for the US re-engaging in international agreements like the Paris Climate Accord, bringing every currently-deployed troop home from overseas, and cutting the US’ defence budget by 50%.
The campaign also wants to fundamentally upend the self-perpetuating cycle of defence contractors financially profiting off US military engagements and conflicts – what President Dwight Eisenhower famously termed the military-industrial complex and is now referred to as “the blob” – by banning foreign arms sales.
“You can’t push for social democracy domestically, but still maintain a system of imperial exploitation both outside and inside your borders,” Williams said.
Especially when it comes to US foreign and military policy, Williams argued that Democrats need “a new flank to move the party left again,” the way Sanders did on issues like healthcare and the minimum wage in 2016. In his view, foreign policy is the “lacking point” for both Sanders and Warren’s campaigns.
A foreign policy of peace and a different global order
Williams tells INSIDER that he perceives an “obscene military worship” and pandering from fellow Democrats who make promises to improve the lives of veterans without meaningfully engaging with the root causes of war. He also thinks Democrats shy away from criticising the military out of fear of disrespecting veterans, arguing, “we mistreat people by making them fight at all.”
“You can appreciate and respect veterans, Gravel is a veteran himself. But you can still say the military is wrong and immoral, and the Iraq War was wrong and immoral,” Williams added, criticising politicians on both sides of the aisle for vowing to improve treatment and resources for veterans without meaningfully criticising the root causes of war and conflict.
Williams said he hopes Gravel’s campaign serves as the jumping-off point for Democrats and the left to seriously question the US’ current role as the dominant hegemon and as he put it, “the world’s policeman,” citing the failure of the Iraq War and the countless times in US history the US has used humanitarian intervention to install dictators in places like Latin America, destabilizing entire regions in its wake.
When asked if the US no longer acting as a global hegemon would mean non-intervention even in the direst of humanitarian crises, Williams firstly highlighted the US’ poor track record with humanitarian interventions, and said that “ending wars, US hegemony, and US imperialism doesn’t mean letting injustices happen. It means you need a different global order.”
“Justice unites us all, and that’s where hegemony comes in,” Williams added. “You cannot get one kind of justice without the others, and this isn’t just about justice within our borders. We’ve started to partially make that jump with regards to undocumented immigrants … but the next step is recognising that people outside our country are equally human.”
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