What does it take to launch a leftist institution? For Henry Williams and David Oks, it started with one uncertain phone call across the country, to an 89-year-old former senator whom the teenagers both admired.
In his 12 years in the Senate, Mike Gravel had fought to end the draft for the Vietnam War, locked horns with Nixon over ballistic nuclear missiles and wrestled Ted Kennedy for leadership roles. As a staunch anti-war hardliner, Gravel railed against imperialist policies and used a committee hearing to read the leaked Pentagon Papers — a massive indictment of American corruption in Southeast Asia — into the Congressional record. Even after retirement, he spoke against the Iraq War and tore into Barack Obama for his drone kill list.
Williams and Oks knew all of this by the time they tracked down Gravel’s home phone number and decided to call it. Unsurprisingly, Gravel thought it was a prank, and not a particularly convincing one. But with that call, the two high school seniors convinced the elder statesman to run for president — not to win, but to shove radical critique of American politics and Democrat failures into mainstream news.
For Gravel, the campaign was a final hurrah in a career full of leftist idealism. For Williams and Oks, it was a chance to translate that idealism to the age of Gen Z. They looked to Andrew Yang’s much-hyped, endlessly meme’d campaign for inspiration (“How hard could it be? If he could do it,” Williams deadpans). And despite failing to get Gravel to the debate stage by the slimmest margin, the duo were emboldened by both the viral success and Gravel himself, who had become a mentor and grandfather figure.
“Mike taught me to fight, even when you’re on the losing side your entire life, and to use whatever’s at your disposal at any time,” Williams, 20, tells me. “And what we happen to have at our disposal is the internet and young people on the left.”
After Gravel dropped out of the race, the duo refocused their efforts to the Bernie Sanders primary campaign, and then fell into an existential debate about where to go next. They realized that they didn’t have stellar field-organizing chops, nor the appetite for politicking as electoral advocates (“Our views are a little too uncompromising,” Williams notes). They pondered a future as a lefty think tank, along the lines of Matt Bruenig’s nonprofit People’s Policy Project or Data for Progress. But ultimately, they realized the focus should lie on their talent and verve for communications, as well as the network of artists, producers, speakers and politicians who were sympathetic to the cause, thanks to their stumping for Gravel and partnership with Sanders advocates.
The concept that resulted is the Gravel Institute, an online project with a stated goal of taking down right-wing misinformation machine PragerU, but with long-term ambitions that stretch far beyond YouTube videos. Since launching at the end of September, Gravel Institute has pumped out four short, digestible videos that bust myths about progressive policies and American history, featuring familiar faces like former Sanders spokesman Briahna Joy Gray. Unlike PragerU, these videos sport citations and credible sources throughout.
More than a few YouTubers already make leftist political content and fact-check right-wing claims; the ever-popular Contrapoints, for one, has 1.1 million subscribers as the result of doing just that. But Williams tells me that progressives need more institutional support for leftist ideas, not just more voices; he shakes his head while rattling off facts about the decline of progressive media and the rise of redpilled youth.
“The left has its major national political figures, but it needs an entity that can constantly strike back on the ever-present conservative influence on the internet. The reality is, extreme right-wing content flourishes in so many places with no pushback, but left-wing content simply doesn’t exist without attracting propaganda and criticism, trying to take it down,” Williams says.
The Gravel Institute is swimming uphill because propaganda against leftist ideas also comes from centrists and mainstream news outlets, Williams says. But that’s the point of trying to build an institution rather than a social media channel, and the duo believes a stream of beautiful, well-narrated videos can start turning the political soil and create fertile ground for lasting action. The plan in 2021 is to release a video a week, Oks tells me; he also hopes to see aggressive growth in traffic, with the YouTube channel only sporting 121,000 subscribers so far.
Some observers remain critical of whether Gravel Institute’s plan of posting to YouTube can really make a dent. MAGA chuds and redpilled teens don’t share PragerU videos out of a genuine curiosity, after all — they do it to reaffirm what they suspect, and better weaponize falsehoods as fact. Author and YouTuber Lindsay Ellis noted to VICE that PragerU is effectively a “gateway drug” to more extremist content and networks, like QAnon. “What is the Gravel Institute going to be a gateway to?” she continued. “There’s nowhere to go that isn’t already pretty mainstream, and there isn’t a vast underbelly of leftist content that Gravel can redirect toward.”
Then again, it looks like Oks and Williams are betting that an underbelly of radical content is less important than pushing mild progressives further left. “I don’t really think we’re going to be converting people who consume PragerU. Our main target audience is people who are in the center, but don’t have particularly well-thought-out political beliefs,” Oks tells me. “You can kind of feed them ideas one by one, and they think, ‘I don’t consider myself leftist, but I definitely agree with this idea and that idea.’”
In time, Oks imagines Gravel Institute promoting more granular content for people who are already interested in leftism but need help digging into theory and history. But that’s for the future — right now, he’s mostly excited about a wave of requests he’s received for videos that can be shown in schools. It’s typical of the tension within Williams and Ocks: They’re the kind of wonky teens that can debate accelerationism and Gramscian philosophy in the same breath as a rant about the practical triumphs of a $600 unemployment benefit. The time with Gravel and the Sanders campaign taught them that the two-party system will crush newcomers, but also that you can carve real victories out of that system, too. Maybe that’s why even cynical Reddit leftists seem to be warming up to the Gravel Institute.
The duo are clear on the fact that they’ll never outspend PragerU, which has three million YouTube subscribers and tens of millions from conservative donors. Gravel Institute was founded with a $25,000 donation from Tumblr founder David Karp, and now the entire operation is crowdfunded. There is practical upside to this — not having major financiers means the team has full agency to hone whatever message it wants. There’s some upside on a philosophical level, too. “We know money isn’t an infinite corrective. The Democrats had a lot of it, and they spent it kind of stupidly in the wrong races, and they way overestimated its impact [over] things like grassroots organizing and social media,” Oks says.
In many ways, the Gravel Institute really is made in the image of its inspiration: A bluntly spoken man whose novelty came from his inability to pull punches, and who remained visibly disgusted with the inaction and ambivalence of his colleagues long after his tenure ended. Gravel knew about the failures of American democracy and tried to change the system from within. The two young men he inspired now face a similar puzzle, trying to find purchase in a sea of progressive content that appears to lack a gravitational force.
Naturally, they still think about the two promises they made Gravel last year after broaching the idea for a campaign. “He said, ‘Listen, if you’re going to do this, promise me you will devote your lives to the same causes I devoted myself to,’” Williams says. “‘And that you’re going to win.’”