On the podcast this week we sat down with Senator Mike Gravel’s campaign manager, if you haven’t heard of Gravel, read up, if you have, read up also, and either way, listen to the podcast and our conversation with David Oks. It’s a funny story and definitely worth your time.
At this point people are used to politicians they’ve never heard of entering the 2020 Democratic Primary. Milquetoast centrists like John Delaney and John Hickenlooper have entered the race, upping the John quota to near Pod Save America levels. Unknown upstarts like Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang forced their way onto the debate stage through electric media performances and memes respectively.And there is one more candidate that is utilizing the meme strategy to great effect.
Utilizing memes and media is incredibly important, especially because there are over 20 candidates, many of them relatively unknown and worth ignoring, ala Hickenlooper. However, those that have taken off, like Buttigieg and Yang, are worth reckoning with. Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel is another unknown candidate who hopes to capitalize on media and memes and use the attention to secure a spot on the debate stage.
So far the strategy has proved fairly successful, thanks largely to the tenacious shit posting of the 17 and 18 year olds running his campaign. In mid-march Mike Gravel’s long dormant twitter account began a ruthless takedown of the Democratic Party, particular Democratic candidates and the status quo more generally.
The twitter account has attacked the likes of Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris as ineffectual hacks, questioning whether they will actually do anything or if “they will be too scared.” Also lambasting them for their ties to AIPAC. Gravel and the #GravelGang also characterized Beto and his campaign of love and unity as vague and vapid. All things you might hear at the Millennial Review. Additionally the Gravel campaign is bent on attacking American militarism and pushes policy like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and other initiatives championed by Gravel throughout his career, such as Direct Democracy.
The campaign to get Mike Gravel on the debate stage is surely quixotic, but so was Gravel’s entire career and in tone and tenor (and to be frank, in eccentric meme value) the budding Gravel presidential campaign matches the Senator Gravel’s career.
Mike Gravel Then: An Anti-War Crusader Unafraid to Take a Stand
Mike Gravel originally moved to Alaska before statehood because he liked the pioneer feel and newness of it all. He worked as a brakeman for the Alaska Railroad, which is back breaking and difficult work. Politically, Gravel traveled to Washington DC to campaign for Alaskan statehood under the Tennessee plan. Gravel even dressed as Paul Revere to bring a statehood bill to the capital. This was the beginning of his political career, the next step in which was an unsuccessful bid for Anchorage city council in 1960. A precursor to his successful 1962 campaign to represent Anchorage in the Alaska House of Representatives.
While serving in the Alaskan House of Representatives he helped redesign rural Alaskan education and enabled indigenous people in Alaska to attend local schools versus traveling to the lower 48 to attend schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (As an aside, those schools have a tremendously destructive and disgusting legacy, so this is actually huge.) Additionally Gravel worked in real estate before ultimately leaving the Alaskan House of Representatives to run for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Gravel lost the Democratic Party primary election in 1966, but ran for Senate in 1968 and ousted 81-year-old incumbent Ernest Gruening.
Gravel’s Senate tenor really sets him apart and makes him a perfect candidate for shifting the overton window to the left. He was described as “arrogant” by other senators and a “loose cannon” by University of Alaska history professor Stephen Haycox. However this made him the perfect person to take the strong stances and outside the box posturing which are his trademark.
For example, Mike Gravel took strong stances against nuclear power and nuclear testing in Alaska. He also vehemently opposed the draft. Gravel voted to uphold the filibuster despite criticism it was largely used as a tool to block civil rights, something he reminded his opponents when he used the tactic to prevent the passage of a draft renewal bill. Which was eventually passed as the senate voted to overrule the cloture in only the fifth cloture vote since 1927.
Ultimately Gravel failed to stop the draft, but remained a strong anti-war voice in the senate. This anti-war advocacy culminated in Gravel’s reading of the pentagon papers into the record during a time in which litigation at the Supreme Court threatened to block the publication of the papers in major news papers. With the outcome of the case uncertain, Gravel began reading the pentagon papers to a near empty meeting of the Buildings and Grounds subcommittee he chaired. He read until 1 A.M. when tears streamed from his eyes and exhaustion set in, forcing him to quit.
The next day the court ruled the papers could be published and they were, but if they court had blocked such an action Gravel provided a much needed fail safe.
The rest of Gravel’s senate career was spent on the speaking circuit, delivering speeches on free speech, among other topics, to audiences at universities all around the country. Gravel ran for Vice President (yeah, vice president) in 1972, hoping to squeeze enough support out of a brokered convention for the nomination. He was ultimately unsuccessful in that bid. There were other controversies and happenings in his second term, but ultimately his anti-war advocacy is the most important part of Gravel’s record as far as today is concerned.
Because it’s this sort of principled stance that made him the perfect candidate for would-be-presidential campaign running teenagers to convince him to run and shift the conversation left.
Mike Gravel Today: Shifting the Overton Window and Moving the Conversation Left
Gravel’s relative obscurity, gadfly status, and prominent anti-war/eclectic policy views make him the perfect vehicle for the sort of Overton Window shifting campaign his campaign staff has embarked on. His stature as a former senator, and one directly involved in some seriously significant history, has lent the voice of his campaign credibility it might have been difficult to muster otherwise. It’s allowed attacks on other Democratic candidates that other, running-to-win leftists like Bernie Sanders, are hard pressed to make in a Democratic primary.
More importantly though, it gave those attacks legs and attention. The exact ingredients needed to propel Mike Gravel to the debate stage where he can use this unique combination to bring the conversation left.
Using this credibility to speak truth to power, to push the Democrats left and in more genuine support of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, among other policies, is hugely important. Even more important is forcing a serious discussion of American empire and its real human costs. While candidates like Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders might prioritize it at times, taking on the American military industrial complex is rarely the bedrock of a politicians campaign. In a serious way, Mike Gravel based his career on doing just that and now his campaign staff has focused their efforts on very similar messaging.
Mike Gravel might not be a serious candidate in the sense that he’s not seriously running for the White House. But he’s a serious candidate in the sense that he represents serious ideas. Ideas he’s pushed his entire career and ideas that a new generation hopes to harness in order to shift the discussion in American politics to the left. And in doing so enable people to hold mainstream Democrats accountable and inject discussion on ideas like American empire that might go undersold otherwise. For all these reasons, and the inherent power of memes, Mike Gravel and the #GravelGang are a force to take seriously.