Columbia First-Year Henry Williams and his friend David Oks, still a senior in high school, recently recruited Mike Gravel, an 88-year old retired Senator (CC ’56), to run for President in 2020 after hearing about him on the leftist podcast Chapo Trap House. Gravel’s Twitter got 35k followers in less than two weeks. Yes, really. 

Emboldened by the enthusiasm surrounding Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary, those to the left of the Democratic party: Chapo listeners, Jacobin readers, and anarchists with a soft spot for electoral politics, have tirelessly debated the optimal political strategy for our current climate. In 2018, a few high-profile victories, such as Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, boosted morale among leftists by ousting more moderate opponents in the primaries, although most Democratic representatives won office on a more moderate platform of upholding the ACA. And now, as the 2020 Democratic primary heats up, leftists are divided over how best to advance their agenda.

Many leftists are again rallying behind Bernie Sanders, whose fundraising numbers are neck-in-neck with the more moderate Beto O’Rourke (CC ’95). Others seek to coax candidates like Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, both avowed capitalists, further left on such positions as reparations and criminal justice reform. Still others seek to push voters to the left on issues such as abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency or passing Automatic Voter Registration and waiting for the candidates to meet the voters where they are.

Henry Williams didn’t like any of those options. In order for him, a Columbia first-year with limited influence and a history of political stunts, to effect real change, he would have to try something out of the box. And so, along with his friend David Oks, who’s still a high school senior, Williams filed with the FEC to create an exploratory committee for Mike Gravel (which Williams pronounces ‘Grav-ELL’), an 88-year old retired Senator (CC ’56), to run for the Democratic nomination. His aim, as he told me, Twitter, and just about every other news outlet, is not to win, but rather to push other candidates towards anti-interventionist foreign policy goals. And it’s certainly possible to see him on the debate stage; according to rules laid out by the DNC this year, any candidate with 65,000 donors (provided they have at least 200 in each of 20 states) automatically qualifies for the first debate.

I called Williams, who’s currently studying physics, math, and computer science, earlier this week to discuss his political origins, whether or not admitting that you’re running to lose is a valid strategy, and what’s next for his campaign.

This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

What is your background in politics like and how did you get involved?

Basically, in high school, I was close friends with a guy who’s currently a senior named David Oks and he, when he was a junior and I was a senior, staged a mayor for the town that we lived in. That’s how he and I became friends; I was his campaign manager. David and I have always been desiring to get involved at a younger age than most people say is appropriate. We’re both very interested in quixotic endeavors that are really about sending a message and changing the way people think about what’s possible politically. When he ran for mayor, it was largely with the goal of raising issues that are not normally discussed in local elections because in his town there had not been a contested election for mayor with more than one candidate in years.

Since then, he and I have been discussing a lot of different political issues and in particular, we were interested in the 2020 Democratic primary. Both he and I, being quite far to the political left, see this great importance to what happens in that election because what the Democrats put forward, not only in order to beat Trump but also what defines the future direction of the party, is an incredibly important question that will reverberate throughout all of our futures as young people right now. And so he and I were very interested in how we could push the debate in the Democratic party further to the left, in particular, being genuinely anti-interventionist and anti-war, supporting real electoral reforms in favor of direct democracy, and a suite of other issues.

He and I had heard about Mike Gravel from a leftist podcast, Chapo Trap House, and we knew about him already from the history of the Nixon era, which we’re both very interested in. We figured he was someone who has been fighting the good fight for a really long time, and who in a lot of ways was really before his time. If you look at his performance on the Democratic debate stage in 2008, the criticisms that he was articulating of Clinton, of Biden, and of Obama then are the kind of things you hear coming out of the left wing of the party today.

We thought we would contact him, we reached him through his site and he called us back really quickly. We got on the phone with him and spent quite a few hours over two weeks talking on the phone and wanting his position on various issues and really coming to respect him as a political figure and respect all the things he believed in. And so, we proposed the idea of him running an issues-based presidential campaign with the goal of getting on the debate stage and shifting the conversation in the party, obviously not with the intention of winning or contesting primaries but instead to run the kind of campaign that could get his message out there and could really shake up the dialogue inside the party. And so he gave us the green light to file an exploratory committee for him.

We went ahead and did that with the FEC. And what happened was there are reporters who are following FEC filings all the time. So they saw the FEC filing, they started tweeting about it and Gravel had given us his social media accounts as well as a proof of concept that his ideas could have real audience online and then to use that to argue that he should stage his run. We figured, well, they’re already talking about us, it’s already a news story, let’s just go for it. We started tweeting, we started putting a sort of message out there and lo and behold it was massively popular and exploded online super quickly. We’ve gotten over 15 million impressions on our tweets and tens of thousands of views on our website in addition to gaining almost 30,000 followers on Twitter and under a week.

We’re currently working on scaling up the campaign, on getting a series of policy advisers, web developers, and various other people to work on the campaign with the goal of launching it sometime on or before April 8th with Gravel, who we’re going down to visit in California in a few weeks.

Did you expect the campaign to take off like it did?

He [Oks] and I were speculating that there was a lot of potential for something like this. We were both very involved in online leftist circles and we’ve both seen there’s a lot more room on the left than people give credit to. For example. the controversy surrounding Venezuela and Ilhan Omar’s comments about AIPAC have shown that there’s a divide between all the representatives, including Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a genuinely radical left wing of the party that’s not being represented in the debate. You have a field where someone like Bernie Sanders is perhaps furthest to the left of anyone and yet he is still not where some people would like him to be on issues like Venezuela.

Given that, we thought there might be a real market for pushing a candidate who would really appeal not just to that demographic but appeal to making a critique of the center of the party. [They would be] saying the kinds of things you hear people saying in these circles, but really signal-boosting it and forcing people in the mainstream to talk about it. The idea is to attract enough attention and ramp up enough as a campaign that these ideas have to be discussed by mainstream sources, that other presidential campaigns have to address these weaknesses in their platforms and in their positions and hopefully that would make for stronger candidates and a more substantive debate in the party.

We figured that maybe a couple of people would be interested in it but there wasn’t much of a chance of it really exploding. We had no idea that it would go as big as it did as quickly and especially what I was floored by was not just all the people who followed us but also that we got almost 300 resumes emailed to us within a day of opening up volunteer sign-ups. We have seen an outpouring of support from policy people, from intellectuals on Twitter; so many people coming and saying that they like the project that we’re going for and they want to get involved in the campaign.

By admitting that you’re not trying to win, aren’t you giving up the gambit? Why expect candidates to take you seriously if you’re not acknowledged as a threat?

There’s a terrible and toxic way of thinking and talking about politics from the perspective of media in America, and I think that has so much to do with this idea of politics as a horse race, with the idea of primaries as being about strategy and aesthetics, I mean, how much media coverage do we devote to how many donors someone has or how many people show up to their rallies, or poll numbers that are so early on as to be really insignificant relative to what we’ll actually see coming out of the primaries? Even the fact that we don’t have national same-day primaries and that we vote one-by-one so Iowa gets this massive, outsized influence in our process for functionally no reason contributes to the fact that in order to be taken seriously by the mainstream media, you need to say “Oh, I’m a serious candidate, I’m really running to win.”

But, let’s take a slate of candidates: Pete Buttigieg, or even people like Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Andrew Yang; all of them are figures that have minuscule representation in the polls and very little chance of winning. The difference between them and us is that they say that they can win and they’re acting like they’re in it to win but I’d argue that a lot of them are not. A lot of them are in this game really to raise their own political stars, to make themselves seem more important, to get their name out in media. With someone like Andrew Yang, he’s out there largely to advance a single policy issue, that of Universal Basic Income, and he says he’s in it to win but a lot of his campaign message is about getting him on the debate stage and getting the idea out there.

What we’re doing is, in a lot of ways, very similar to what these candidates are doing except we’re just a little more honest about it. We’re just saying we don’t need to pretend to appeal to these horse race politics because there is something about what we do in the primary process, and what we do in the primary process is we debate what the party is about and we debate what the rest of American politics should look like. I think that there’s a tremendous number of voices that are relevant to that conversation even if they have no chance of winning.

It doesn’t matter to me whether the Washington Post takes us seriously, what matters is that there’s a constituency for these ideas. A genuinely, radically anti-war position and a radically reformist position on democracy, someone who’s willing to say from the beginning ‘Abolish the Senate, abolish the Electoral College, abolish these terrible, outdated, and un-democratic institutions that we live with and we tolerate because it’s not acceptable politically to say that they’re wrong.’ If you can put a figure out there, by any means necessary, and that the media will, at the very least, pick up their story and that people through social media will hear about this message and other candidates will have to take note of it, that to me is important regardless of whether they say they’re in it to win. If there were another way to do this, I would do it another way.

What’s next for the campaign?
In the past couple of days we have been massively scaling up the campaign. We’re a totally volunteer-only grassroots campaign,  so there’s no formal staff and we’re obviously never receiving any salaries or anything like that. We’re completely focused on people who are so passionate about this that they just want to get this message out there no matter what it takes. We’ve taken on around five web developers who are currently building our new website. We have an accountant. We’re working with Senator Gravel’s lawyers to get the campaign infrastructure and donations up and running. We have recruited five policy fellows, leftist intellectuals and online leftists figures, that are going to help us put together a platform.

Outside of that, we’re also just looking for a massive grassroots infrastructure of people to be state directors, to fundraise for us, to really get the message out there online and to do design for us to create forums for discussion about these issues.

We’re planning for April 8th, I’m not sure if it’ll be then, it might be earlier than that, to formally launch the campaign, to release our announcement video, and of course to meet with the Senator in person and to formalize what the campaign is going to look like and what his role in it is going to be. As it is, he’s very engaged with what we’re doing, but I think he’s wanted to get himself out there back into the media landscape and advance his views again on a public stage and really be able to talk about these issues he’s been talking about his entire career.

The second we launch, it’s going to be all about getting 65,000 donations as fast as we possibly can with the goal of turning that money back into getting more donations, to getting the message out there. Our goal is to get as many eyes on this platform and on this message as possible, however we can do that. If we don’t end up on the debate stage or whatever else we’re going to use whatever money we have left to continue advancing these issues and then whatever will be left over we’ll be donating to several charities that Mike Gravel works with.

Gravelanche via Wikimedia