The field of Democrats aiming to challenge Donald Trump for the presidency in 2020 is already a who’s who of “who the fuck is that?” But the latest entrant (who hasn’t quite confirmed his run yet) is a longer shot than most, and he hasn’t held office since 1981. He’ll turn 89 in May. At the moment, his campaign staff is a few teens from New York’s Westchester Country — clear across the nation from his San Francisco home.
It’s Mike Gravel, once a senator who represented Alaska, and now a Twitter legend.
Certainly you’d preserve your sanity by ignoring horse-race coverage of a primary cycle three months before the first debate happens. No one’s going to give you a hard time for not researching John Hickenlooper in your spare time. Gravel, though, is a horse of a different color, and his unexpected arrival on the scene — spurred by kids born a full generation after his D.C. profile had waned — opens up a very strange wormhole into the last half-century of American politics.
Already indicating that he will not seek the party’s nomination and instead bring an anti-imperialist message to bear, he could wind up the ghost at the feast, torching rivals for their complicity in the American war machine. As the guy who declassified the Pentagon Papers on behalf of the public and strove to end the Vietnam War by shutting down the draft, he’d have the high ground. (On the negative side, he’s also a 9/11 truther, which has brought him into the orbit of notorious antisemites.)
Military intervention is hardly the only issue on which Gravel could attack self-styled progressives from the left. He’s called for the abolition of capital punishment and pushed to reschedule cannabis, taking top jobs in the legal market. He advocates for the people’s right to vote directly on national policy. During the 2008 Democratic primaries, he and Rep. Dennis Kucinich were were alone in supporting the right to same-sex marriage; Obama and Hillary waffled. Still, his signature concern — and the one that appears to have key resonance among the youth — is American hegemony abroad. It’s a position he’s expressing in memes about locking up Henry Kissinger.
That kind of righteous anger, justified by a record of strong principle, got Gravel the reputation of the “cranky uncle who lives in the attic” in 2008. What nobody knew back then was that Grumpy Old Leftist Energy would be resurgent eight years later, with Sen. Bernie Sanders inveighing against the billionaire class. “Gravel walked so Bernie could run,” tweeted @ultraleftacct.
As with Bernie’s talking points, Gravel’s campaign appealed to younger voters — an idealistic cohort tired of centrist do-nothings and Democrats’ excuses for hawkish foreign policy. Indeed, Gravel said it was “kids” who persuaded him to film two serenely strange ads that went viral on YouTube, a platform then relatively young in its own right. “Rock,” the better-known of the spots, he described as a metaphor: The choices you make in this life ripple outward.
Gravel signing on for 2020 is a bit like if we found out that Bernie’s dad had jumped into the mix — an even older, more irritable, less apologetic wildcard to hold power to account. And it looks as if he will again enjoy the curious synergy between advanced age and energetic, plugged-in youth.
I spoke to Henry Williams, an 18-year-old Columbia student and one of the organizers who engineered this surprising comeback, about what it represents. He says it’s an opportunity to change the conversation.
Williams and his friend David Oks, who are spearheading the Gravel effort and Twitter presence, aren’t lacking political experience. Lowering the voting age was “a cause that David and I were involved in — we had a [political action committee] called Youth Progress PAC,” he says. Oks went on to run for mayor of his town, with Williams serving as campaign manager and chief of staff. “We ran that election to bring up issues that are rarely discussed” in local contests, Williams says. More recently, they became “interested in trying to make a difference in the 2020 election” and went searching for someone who could shift the narrative leftward. The guy they found was Mike Gravel.
“We’d both heard about him in the past,” Williams says, noting that he and Oks are both fascinated by the Nixon era. He cites Gravel’s “incredible and courageous criticism of Clinton and Obama’s stance on American empire.” They “felt like there was a lot of room for his message out there online,” so they emailed him through his website. “He was incredulous, but he liked us a lot, and he was willing to give us a chance to prove that his ideas could gain support.”
As for the overnight success of the Twitter account: It was a little premature. “We didn’t expect it to happen so fast,” Williams says, “but journalists were looking at FEC filings, so we figured, just go ahead and launch. Why not, let’s get an audience for it. Just this afternoon, David and I spoke to the senator, and he was elated… he didn’t expect this resonance. He had not really used social media; the account had a thousand, maybe two thousand followers. He’s not been in the public eye for a while, didn’t see much use. But he was really compelled by our pitch, and he actually teared up to see that young people were so excited. He didn’t know about this online leftist community and this potential.”
Even Gravel’s wife, whom he said would have to be persuaded on the value of this campaign, has “substantially come around,” Williams says.
How does he explain the romance between crotchety old men — be it Gravel or Bernie — and a younger support base? One word: authenticity. “A lot of these old-school people were pushing a genuinely leftist message before its time, before there were people who could get behind them in a movement,” Williams says. “What they have now, in their seniority, is a kind of earnestness that appeals to young people — they’ve been crusaders their whole life, haven’t pretended to be more moderate, which reeks of dishonesty.” The youth, he says, are “so over the refinedness of this message.”
Williams finds it “remarkable that we’re having all these conversations about electability, and not what we want society to look like.” His generation has no passion for “wonkish means-tested bullshit, and it’s not even good retail or electoral politics,” he adds.
When the Gravel tweets began, some observers were understandably skeptical: Maybe this was some kind of elaborate prank or performance art, Gen Z kids writing electoral fanfic. Williams understands that the account may look “bizarre,” or “too online,” but the internet is where the left’s power is right now, he says. While Gravel “is not Twitterati,” he has Williams and Oks to translate the “important ideas he’s been advocating for his entire life,” sometimes into the memes and dunks that their intended audience will gravitate toward. This, he points out, is pretty huge for a guy who was “otherwise totally out of the political discussion.”
People in the political sphere have taken notice; even statistician-pundit Nate Silver followed the account. It’s all confirmation that you can break from the traditional rules of how a campaign is run — and say, for example, that you don’t actually want to win a primary. “Trump proved there are no rules in politics,” Williams says. “Young people like candidates who acknowledge that instead of pretending we can go back to the old norms.”
Now, with an overwhelmingly positive response, the hard work begins. “Hundreds of people have emailed asking how to volunteer and donate, and we’ve been scrambling to set up those channels,” Williams says. They need to amass 65,000 donors to get Gravel into the debates, in which case, they hope, “other Democrats will have to be held to the questions” that Gravel raises (probably in his cantankerous fashion). The building momentum for “left-field candidates” with signature issues, like Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg, give the young organizers confidence: “That formula has been proven,” Williams says.
What Williams and Oks don’t want to see is a Democratic nominee like Joe Biden, who voted for the invasion of Iraq — a war begun when these guys were toddlers. “Biden in particular represents a hawkish, pro-war side” of the party, Williams says, as well as the post-9/11 rhetoric that holds we can never criticize “the American imperial project.” He and the leaders who defended the Iraq adventure for many years are “far more than old guard” than Gravel, he argues. “More than anything, I’d hate to see a candidate who won’t say anything critical of that foreign policy.” There’s the rub, and Gravel’s ultimate strength: He’s got nothing to lose by pointing out how grievously the United States has failed on the global stage.
“I hope that opens up room for someone like Bernie Sanders,” Williams says, recalling how he was “incredibly disappointed” by Hillary Clinton’s anti-Trump slogan, “America Is Already Great.” Quite to the contrary, he sees the U.S. as a “broken nation,” and his great ambition is to “change the underlying structure of politics enough that it’s acceptable to say the military is not great, we have the wrong priorities, and we have a responsibility to pay back the neocolonial riches” we’ve looted from “countries we regularly treated like trash and people we treated at less than human.” It’ll take that level of conviction, he thinks, to achieve reform in the senate and the abolition of the Electoral College, among other progressive goals, and to bring the massive center into alignment with such causes, in order to “be better as a people and a country.”
“I really want to be involved in this election and see it through to voting,” Williams concludes, “finding causes and opportunities to bring them into the debate.” At the end of the day, it’s all about creating awareness of an alternative ideology — and showing everyone how popular it is in practice. Then you might hear other politicians talking that way, then mainstream pundits, and, finally, the common voter.
“[Oks] and I have just been waiting for a moment to put it out there, and we found our guy,” Williams says. “It would be amazing if it could break outside of Twitter.”