It is about two hours into my afternoon with David Oks and Henry Williams, the teenagers who persuaded former Senator Mike Gravel to run for president at the age of 88, when Oks, who is 18, mentions that he has a personal assistant who is helping him handle his emails on a volunteer basis. “He’s a high school freshman. Fourteen? Fifteen?” Oks guesses. “A bit of a protégé,” Williams, who is also 18, adds. “David was my protégé, and this kid is his protégé.”
“He is very, very efficient,” Oks says of Clyde, who I soon realize I traded emails with while arranging this interview. That a teenager is fielding press inquiries for slightly older teenagers is just one face of the general weirdness of a presidential campaign run by very young, very online leftists, which is also the reason you’ve maybe already heard about Oks and Williams: two well-read teenagers from the suburbs of New York who heard about Gravel on an episode of “Chapo Trap House,” found his contact information, and successfully drafted him out of retirement to run for president in what is ultimately more of a conceptual exercise about left-wing political horizons than a serious campaign. (Gravel, for his part, says he is a happy participant: “They asked me if it was okay, I said they could do what they wanted, as long as they were doing it and not me,” he told Politico in March.)
I met with Oks and Williams in early May, first at a deli near Columbia University, where Williams just completed his freshman year, and then on campus after the lunch hour rush proved too noisy for my phone recorder. “Most campaigns are not about the candidate winning,” Williams says in between bites of his bagel in a mostly empty student lounge, where a group of cafeteria workers who seem very good at tuning out student conversations are on break. “But by most metrics, we’re doing better than Seth Moulton,” Oks adds.
The Gravel 2020 strategy is a combination of policy positions culled from movements across the left (the conceptual Gravel is the only full-throated anti-imperialist in the primary, and the only candidate to support a repeal of FOSTA-SESTA and the decriminalization of sex work); mean tweets (“Joe Biden’s a bum. A right-wing chauvinist, good time prick, arrogant bastard creep who thinks that because he’s got a $3,000 suit and the cachet of a lifetime sinecure in the Senate we should bow down to his beaming smile,” a recent example reads); and something like a bizarro, very small-time version of the Lis Smith-crafted media blitz behind Pete Buttigieg.
The whole thing is a gleeful political Matryoshka doll: Gravel 2020 is Mike Gravel, the former senator from Alaska whose political tenure includes reading the Pentagon Papers into the congressional record and running as an anti-war candidate in the 2008 Democratic primary; but it is also—and mostly—Oks and Williams, who are also a few dozen volunteers on staff in their 20s and 30s with experience around policy papers, ad-buy strategy, and the financial paperwork involved in managing a campaign. “You know in terms of the day to day, we have a lot of people just churning away at a lot of stuff,” Williams says. “Contacting press outlets, contacting pollsters, putting together graphics packages, and running the Instagram, the Facebook. They do advertising.”
Every candidate is a committee, every elected official is answering to some creditor. Donald Trump is effectively an ill-fitting suit being worn by the Heritage Foundation and a collection of white nationalists. Joe Biden is the health care industry and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops with a toothy smile. So what Gravel 2020 gestures at, successfully or not, is trying to turn popular, robustly democratic mass movements into the people inside the suit.
While the specifics of the campaign are often freak shit—an Instagram post of Mike Gravel dabbing in front of a background of fire and the words: “Shut up centrist,” for example—the basic mechanics are familiar enough. The nesting doll is really what all campaigns are—a collection of people, coming together Transformers-style to create a candidate. The primary difference with Gravel 2020 is that they will tell you as much, whereas Beto O’Rourke will go on a road trip and try to give you the impression that his political choices were born of deep soul-searching.
So when Oks or Williams, explaining the Gravel position on anti-imperialism, says: “You know what we actually want is for us to join a real international, multilateral order. We know that you’re not just going to kill U.S. military presence abroad overnight but that you need to intimate in that direction and talk about what a global order could look like if we weren’t the world hegemon,” they will also list off the people and movements they’re referencing and through which they first encountered the idea. (Noam Chomsky, the People’s Policy Institute, and Bruce Robbins’s “The Sweatshop Sublime” each came up in a five-minute stretch of conversation.) Their online aesthetic is Dirtbag Left, but their approach in person comes across more like a combination of a well-footnoted term paper and an episode of the West Wing if President Bartlet’s staff were all socialists.
The involvement of teens is unusual, and the general viability of the experiment is dubious, but the candor of Gravel 2020's candidate-by-committee approach isn’t actually new.
In Seattle, City Council member and socialist Kshama Sawant often speaks about her council seat and priorities using the words “we” and “our” instead of “I.” She is referring to Socialist Alternative and her commitment to remaining “democratically accountable” to its membership. The language can sometimes sound jarring: “The real strength of what we’ve been able to do [with the Council seat] is that Socialist Alternative, as the political organization that determines our campaigns and what we do in the office, is very clear that we have to be rooted in social struggle and that we cannot betray working people,” Sawant said in an interview last year. I remember being struck by it at the time, and a little put off. But as the interview carried on, I came to think that Sawant’s was a kind of positive, pro-social self-negation. She wasn’t erasing herself so much as placing herself alongside others.
Bernie Sanders is currently doing a subtler version of this: his campaign slogan is “Not me. Us.” Successful or not, the slogan seems to be an effort to move away from the cult of personality that partially defined the 2016 campaign and toward the movement that grew out of it. It was that infrastructure that helped, directly and indirectly, to support the candidacies of an exciting new class of progressive Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar. The campaign then—and its broader ambitions—is a group effort that requires much more than just the presidency to accomplish. “Not me. Us.”
Bernie Sanders is Bernie Sanders, but the Sanders campaign—the one that actually transformed the Democratic Party—was a product of agitation from the Movement for Black Lives, socialist feminists, and others on the left. The younger people working on his campaign staff, the volunteers driving his grassroots base, made him—and are making him—the candidate he currently is. Like Gravel, it’s a collaborative project.
Presidents, like most politicians, do see themselves as the product of and accountable to certain people and movements. It’s just that they’re usually very small groups of extremely wealthy people who want to do things like send themselves to live in space while the planet dies or use your blood to help them live forever.
And so Mike Gravel, at home in California, is part real person and part avatar for Oks and Williams, who are versed and drawing from the accumulated left movements and ideas now taking their tentative (and well-deserved) place on a national stage. The campaign’s collective reach is limited almost entirely to its Twitter and Instagram base (and media profiles like this one), but you can imagine a future, more successful version of the Gravel experiment with a candidate who is not currently 89 (his birthday was in May), who hasn’t spent the decades since his Senate career in relative obscurity, and who hasn’t unknowingly accepted speaking invitations from Holocaust revisionists.
It’s unlikely that Gravel 2020, as a mostly online campaign that seems intent on staying there, will succeed in pulling the Democratic primary left in the way Oks and Williams describe. (This strategy, when it has roots in the movements it is pulling from, has worked elsewhere—as Sanders showed in 2016 and Cynthia Nixon proved in New York’s gubernatorial race in 2018.) But Oks and Williams, in a narrow way, have succeeded at making a crucial point: the Great Man president is a lie.
“That kind of honesty is important to us,” Williams says of dismantling the idea of the candidate going it alone, albeit through memelord methods. “It is that dishonesty about purposes and methods that creates a lot of cynicism about politics.” I don’t think that Joe Biden shitposts are the solution to that kind of mass disaffection, but he’s right to diagnose the problem.