Out of the nearly 20 Democratic candidates who are running for president in 2020, there’s one that is undisputedly different from the others — and it’s because he doesn’t want to win.
You probably haven’t heard of Mike Gravel. If you have, perhaps it’s because you recall his 2008 presidential campaign ad where he stood in front of a lake and stared silently into the camera for a solid minute before turning around, throwing a rock into the water and walking away. Or perhaps you remember him on the Democratic candidates’ debate stage that same year shouting, “These people frighten me!” while pointing his finger at the likes of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
Gravel’s 2008 presidential bid flopped. The media likened him to a “cranky uncle who lives in the attic,” and he found little support in national polls. Ultimately, he performed quite poorly in state caucuses and primaries. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that Gravel ended up leaving the world of electoral politics in 2008.
But through an unusual series of events, the now 88-year-old marijuana company executive has just reentered the world of electoral politics to run for president in 2020. This time, however, there’s a bit of a twist: His campaign is being run by two teenage democratic socialists.
“It’s a weird story — it really is,” Henry Williams, one of the two teens running Gravel’s 2020 presidential campaign told Truthout. “And it’s such a strange dynamic … honestly, I’m not sure there’s ever been anything like it, at least in modern American political history.”
Over a poor cell phone connection from New York City where he is now a freshman at Columbia University studying physics and math, Williams explained how he and his high school classmate David Oks were listening to the popular left-leaning podcast Chapo Traphouse when they heard about Mike Gravel’s 2008 campaign. After looking him up and watching clips from the debates Gravel participated in, they decided to reach out to the senator through his website to see if he would be interested in running again. It was a bit of a shock when Gravel called them back immediately.
“The first time I spoke to him he said, “Do you know how old I am? You gotta be crazy,’” Williams laughed. “But we were like, ‘look we don’t think you should be president — that’s not the point of this campaign. The point is that there’s a market for your message. Let us prove it to you.’”
So, Gravel gave Williams and Oks the green light to form an exploratory committee and handed them his Twitter credentials. “Within a day of filing with the FEC there were hundreds of press networks contacting us, and we gained 15,000 followers,” Williams recalled. “It just exploded, like absolutely exploded.”
This was exactly what Williams and Oks were hoping for when they first convinced Gravel to run. Their aim was to bring attention to a wide variety of policy positions that they felt were not being discussed by the candidates currently running in the Democratic primary. The whole point of the campaign is to shape the national conversation by pushing it further to the left — especially on U.S. imperialism and militarism, issues which the teens feel even candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are not approaching through a sufficiently progressive lens.
They know Gravel doesn’t stand a chance of actually winning — in fact, they are not even pushing for a victory. Actually, running for president tends to require candidates to play an electability game, often leading to modified messaging that attempts to fit into the “Overton window” — the current parameters within which mainstream political discourse is allowed. But without the pressure to win, Williams believes the Gravel campaign’s message can stretch the boundaries of acceptable debate while also exciting a constituency within the Democratic Party that lies further to the left than candidates like Sanders.
“I would make the argument we’re the most progressive platform of any candidate for president right now,” Williams told Truthout.
Gravel’s campaign just released its 2020 platform, and it is indeed full of radically progressive policies. The platform includes many proposals for political reform that span from abolishing the Senate and the Electoral College to instituting national ranked-choice voting. When it comes to racial justice issues, the campaign goes beyond the vague commitments made by other candidates on the issue of reparations by proposing the creation of a National Commission on Reparations that would manage efforts to offer material redress for historically discriminatory U.S. policies, including slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, Native American treaty violations, and segregation in federal employment. The platform also includes a radical version of the Green New Deal and other proposals to counter poverty and inequality.
But the campaign’s most extreme departure from current political discourse within the Democratic party may lie in its foreign policy positions.
“We need to end our foreign policy consensus,” Williams explained. “Some major points of difference we have with even candidates like Sanders and Warren are on foreign policy — our positions are extremely, and I would say radically, anti-war and anti-imperialist.”
These positions include closing all military bases abroad and bringing home every troop stationed in other countries, proposing massive cuts to the military, changing the Department of Defense’s name back to the Department of War (in order to accurately reflect its purpose), establishing a Department of Peace, ending all foreign arms sales, and committing to international justice — to name a few.
“Our foreign policy positions are structured around reshaping and ending all of our murderous wars of choice abroad,” Williams told Truthout. “We’re not under the impression that any of these policies are likely in the near term, but we do believe that by bringing them up and talking about them we have the chance of pushing Bernie and Warren to the left and getting them to adopt some of these things in their own platforms.”
There have been a number of criticisms aimed toward Gravel from the left. The fact that he was a Special Agent in the Counterintelligence Corps in the 1950s doesn’t sit well with many, especially since one of his roles was to infiltrate communist rallies. (Gravel says he signed up to be in counterintelligence as a way to avoid getting drafted to kill Koreans in the Korean War.) He was also on a radio show in 2016 where he expressed the idea that 9/11 was an inside job, causing many to dub him a “9/11 Truther.”
“There are definitely some bugbears in his closet,” Williams admitted over the phone. “We completely disagree with him in regards to believing in conspiracies on 9/11.”
Despite these criticisms, Williams and Oks still feel confident in their ultimate goal — which is to get Gravel on stage for the Democratic primary debates in June and July. Per the rules set out by the DNC, to qualify for this, Gravel must raise money from at least 65,000 unique donors, with a minimum of 200 contributors in each of at least 20 states. These new rules were put into place in order to level the playing field after 2016’s controversial nominating process and to allow for the party’s low-dollar donors to have their voices heard.
Gravel’s campaign has only received around 15,000 individual donations to date, according to Williams, but the campaign is only a few weeks old and Williams feels confident that if they continue with their current momentum, they could raise $65,000 by the deadline. But even if they don’t hit the threshold, or if over 20 candidates end up qualifying, which will trigger a winnowing down of the candidates by the DNC, Williams feels that the effort will still have been worthwhile.
“Everyone on the debate stage is only going to get a couple of minutes to talk, no matter what,” Williams explained. “And so, what really matters from the debates are what clips go viral online. So even if the senator doesn’t make it onstage, we’ll be in a position to leverage our online following by having him live tweet the debates and responding on video to the questions being asked in the debates.”
Of course, online videos and live tweets are not going to have nearly as much of an audience as a nationally televised debate will. However, Williams explains, the point of Gravel’s campaign is not only to push the national conversation to the left, but also to energize the left base of the Democratic party. This is a contingent that pays a disproportionate amount of attention to the news cycle and spends a lot of time on Twitter.
“It’s my hope that this campaign ends up doing a lot of things similar to the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016,” Williams said. “There was a real diaspora of people who leapt out from it and ran for office or became activists or whatever else — it’s really my hope that that’s where we end up from this.”
When Gravel ran in 2008, there wasn’t much of a constituency for his ideas, even within the Democratic Party. But the party’s base has moved steadily to the left since then, and policies that were deemed impossible only years ago — such as universal health care and a $15 dollar minimum wage — have become litmus tests for candidates entering the field. And another important factor is the internet — social media has also provided a space for political debate that was not as available a decade ago.
So, despite explicitly intending to lose the race, Gravel’s candidacy has its sights set on winning over a battle of ideas that has been raging within the Democratic Party ever since a disheveled Bernie Sanders announced his bid for presidency in 2015. Although it’s certainly up for debate whether the strategy put together by Williams and Oks is a helpful way to shape the conversation, there does already seem to be an appetite for the campaign’s message — at least on Twitter. And now that Bernie Sanders has started combing his hair and has apparently become the new frontrunner, Gravel supporters hope there is a place on the debate stage for a non-winning candidate who continues to sound like a cranky uncle — and whose rhetoric on U.S. imperialism is just as radical as Sanders’s was on the failures of capitalism in 2016.