Two leftist teenagers from New York are tired of what they call the Democratic establishment’s “bullshit” rhetoric and a current field of presidential candidates who they think are merely “aesthetically progressive,” or too politically weak to shift the conversation. So they’re recruiting Mike Gravel, an 88-year-old former US senator, to run for president and push the party further left in 2020.
David Oks, 17, and Henry Wiliams, 18, met in high school and previously ran a mayoral campaign in suburban Ardsley, New York, when Oks decided to run for mayor at 16 to push issues they thought weren’t being discussed enough into the conversation.
The two said that they had been thinking about the possibilities of getting involved in the presidential election and pushing the conversation around policy to the left when they heard one of the hosts of Chapo Trap House, a leftist podcast, talk about Gravel’s politics. Gravel ran an anti-interventionist, social justice–focused long shot campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 that saw him sharply criticize other candidates on the debate stage and embrace the early 2000s Weird Internet vibe — one example: He recorded (and danced to) his own version of the 2007 bop “Crank That (Soulja Boy).”
Oks and Williams had paid close attention to 2018 midterms, which ushered in a new wave of politicians, like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, who were elected with the help of groups like Our Revolution and Justice Democrats. They also saw failed progressive candidates pull policy conversations further left while exciting younger voters by modeling their campaigns after issues pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary.
“You have these really young people getting behind these older candidates that are similar to Eugene McCarthy in 1968. There’s a weird agreement between where Gravel and Bernie are from with this old vision of ’60s/’70s leftist politics and where we are today,” Oks said. “Millennials and Gen Z have grown up in a country where there’s no hope and it’s incredibly difficult to do better than your parents.”
“We’re starting to get to this point in the Democratic Party where we’re in a revolution against the boomers who’ve been dominating American politics since forever,” Oks explained, pointing to those younger politicians.
“I was born four months before 9/11 and a few years before the financial crisis. Our generation has seen America in the state of a constant catastrophe and the collapse of institutions,” he added.
Williams agreed that younger generations of progressive voters are disillusioned and unmotivated by the Democratic Party’s framework of what’s possible. “We saw eight years of the Obama administration followed by a vaguely left-of-center Democratic Party that essentially led to Trump.”
Oks and Williams are setting out to change that, with Gravel as the vehicle.
“We just decided that we’d have a better chance at pushing the party far left from the outside than from inside one of those campaigns,” Williams explained to BuzzFeed News. “We figured, why don’t we reach out to this guy and see if he has any interest in doing this?”
Gravel told BuzzFeed News that he was less than enthused when Oks and Williams initially pitched him on launching another campaign two weeks ago.
He came around to the idea after the two wrote him a memo about pushing the party further left on domestic and foreign policy, assessed the current field of candidates, and laid out that the current policy outlook of the Democratic Party is closer to what Gravel proposed decades ago.
“A candidate who consciously seeks to disrupt the status quo, as Sen. Gravel did in 2008, could attract a surge of attention, especially among the significant contingent of Democrats who are highly dissatisfied with the Democratic Party and with ‘The Establishment’ in general,” the memo outlined.
Gravel gave Oks and Williams his blessing, and they filed paperwork with the Federal Elections Commission on his behalf to start working toward accepting donations to get Gravel on the debate stage. They know the Democratic National Committee’s rules to get onstage — you need to either hit a polling threshold or get 65,000 donations from people in 20 different states. They figured that if candidates like Andrew Yang could clear that bar, they could at least try to get Gravel onstage to critique what they see as a cadre of centrists with immoral legislative pasts. (They often point to Cory Booker’s ties to the pharmaceutical lobby, Kamala Harris’s record as California’s attorney general, and Joe Biden’s 2003 vote for the Iraq War.)
Gravel gave them access to his once-defunct Twitter account after Politico first reported that they had filed the campaign paperwork. Since then, they’ve been roasting other presidential candidates for their policy records, posting memes, and providing takes on the moral clarity needed in the Democratic Party in a Very Online voice that’s grown the account from under 4,000 to nearly 34,000 followers in a week; 200 people have signed up to volunteer for the nascent campaign.
It’s a strategy that’s intentional to connect an 88-year-old leftist to what Oks and Williams see as a new wave of leftism creating a generational rift between older and younger generations of progressive voters and what they deem politically and economically feasible and morally just.
Williams bemoaned the “America has always been great” sentiment that became an antithesis to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan for some during the 2016 campaign.
“A lot of young people say, ‘No way! That’s ABSOLUTE BULLSHIT!’” Williams said. “We are a generation of people who were not even conscious before 9/11, we’ve seen endless wars, and we grew up in the middle of the financial crisis. How much faith do you expect us to have in that kind of politics? How can we possibly say America is already great?”
Oks and Williams are hoping that Gravel could act as a spokesperson on those concerns about endless wars and push for implementing a direct democracy. They believe his voice in the race could move centrist candidates further left on policies like the Green New Deal and reparations while strengthening positions of candidates like Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard on foreign policy issues and providing them a bit of cover before dropping out of the race and endorsing one of the two.
They’re planning on flying out to meet Gravel in California to discuss launching the campaign, which they say could happen as soon as early April with a launch video that they say would recreate a viral 2008 video of Gravel staring into a camera before silently tossing a rock into a pond and walking away.
“There’s a lot going on here, and it’s not just about teens running a Twitter account while listening to Chapo Trap House and making memes for the online left,” Williams explained. “The online left is having a real effect on American politics, and it’s shifting who we think of as an electable candidate and moving the policy discussion.
“We’re becoming a real political factor, and it’s representative of something that’s a lot more interesting than just young people posting memes about politics.”