Henry Williams is a rising sophomore at Columbia University and the chief of staff for Mike Gravel’s 2020 presidential campaign. Williams is the force behind octogenarian and former senator from Alaska Mike Gravel’s viral presidential bid. Gravel hopes to enter the July Democratic debates with the stated goal of pushing other candidates left on economic and foreign-policy issues. In the final week before the DNC qualifying deadline, we spoke with Williams to understand viral campaigns, direct democracy, and the successes and failures of wild-card candidates in the Trump era.
I was wondering if we could start off, what with your campaign in the homestretch, rehashing the logic of the campaign. What’s the end goal of getting into the debates and pushing the conversation leftward?
The end goal of getting into the debates is to have influence on Democratic Party politics and to bring together three trends. One is that the party is in this status quo creep to the left, in part trying to accommodate a vanguard of people who are substantially further left than many Democratic representatives and politicians. Part of the goal is then advocating for the growing number of young people who represent an increasingly important base for Democrats, especially considering the rapid increase in youth turnout since 2016.
In addition to that, so much of politics, and in particular political journalism, happens online. Another trend is then that Twitter is where a ton of political news comes from. It didn’t start with Trump, but Trump certainly codified it to the point where political news is often just re-reporting things that happen on Twitter.
The third thing we identified is that there is more and more energy for outsider insurgent campaigns that have a weird hook to them. We saw that candidates like Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson were succeeding with heavily online campaigns based around just a couple of ideas that weren’t in the mainstream discussion.
And so the question was, can you unite those three trends. Can you take a certain base of people who are further to the left, unite them with the fact that going viral on Twitter means political journalists begin paying attention to you, and then can you replicate the campaign of someone like Andrew Yang, but instead do it with a really coherent and ideologically sophisticated leftist platform.
On that same point, could you speak about the difficulties of harnessing the power of online virality? It seems like there’s a skill aspect and a knowledge aspect—understanding these intimate online communities—but then also a big piece of it is just luck. Could you talk about how you were able to pursue an online campaign and whether it’s a replicable strategy for other left-wing candidates?
I wouldn’t claim we have a super-unique ability in all that. I will say that really the genesis of the campaign was that we considered the possibility of running a campaign like Andrew Yang but with someone very left-wing, particularly on foreign policy. Someone with a strong record as a serious political figure. Andrew Yang is a tech executive who turned himself into a political figure by force of will. Mike Gravel is a former senator with a substantial anti-war record, in fact probably one of the most anti-war senators to have ever served.
So basically what you need here—the formula to go viral—is to create a narrative that’s compelling to people for multiple reasons. One part of that narrative is that David [Oks] and I were teenagers and that Gravel is 89 years old. Once we started tweeting, it was immediately a news story: Why is an 89-year-old on Twitter running for president? Basically taking something different and surprising and using it for a political end. The reason why Eric Swalwell could never effectively weaponize virality is because he’s just such a standard American politician. He looks and sounds exactly like what you’d imagine an American president to sound like and he’s got nothing going on beyond that.
I think the thing about virality, which isn’t consistent or replicable, is connecting online buzz with novel ideas about legitimacy. Who really defines politics? Who are the serious candidates? Connecting those questions to marginalized and underserved but very vocal and active communities makes something viral. You know these people feel like there is no candidate for them, there is nobody promoting their message, but then all of a sudden they realize there is this community all around them.
A good example of this is sex workers on Twitter who are very involved in advocacy but have no candidates, save for Mike Gravel, who have come out in favor of decriminalizing sex work. Connecting to that community, having Mike be a real candidate for them, suddenly they felt like their section of the online world was granted legitimacy. And that’s the reason they picked up on it.
Could you speak to the novel idea that you have championed, going beyond the sound bite that foreign policy is essential to domestic policy, and really explain the idea that many, if not all of our domestic problems are by-products of foreign intervention?
I think someone like Bernie Sanders gestures in this direction somewhat effectively, but ultimately the core of the left-wing push, embodied by candidates like Warren and Sanders, is all about domestic social programs, it’s about Medicaid for All, consumer financial protection. But leftists’ ideologies have been under development since well before Marx. They’re the product of hundreds of years of scholarship and evolution, so it’s not like these are new frontiers in political thought. They are new frontiers in political communication. Because in America, we don’t have serious left-wing parties because we don’t have a multiparty system.
You know, the most left-wing politics you get in America are ultimately boiled down into a very condensed, Americanized language. They are very self-interested and focused on social democracy. So the argument we try to make is that the unique position of America compared to, for example, European countries’ left-wing movements, is that America is a hegemon. America’s military power and financial dominance mean that it is the cornerstone of politics, and that puts us in a position that means our foreign policy is both more important than other countries’ and more self-harming at the same time.
Tell me about Mike’s conception of direct democracy, which has been sidelined to some extent by his focus on foreign policy.
What I will say is that Mike is a really pragmatic guy. He agreed to this campaign because it’s about issues he cares about and he wanted to signal-boost those issues and help us out. He knew that the anti-war hook is both more connected to his career, his resume, and also is something that immediately stands out to people.
But the argument he makes, and that we support, is that on some level advocating for direct democracy is actually about advocating for other issues. Because any structural change in politics is always premised on some other issue. For example, the women’s suffrage movement was heavily tied to a referendum on Prohibition. There was a political issue, people wanted to see it accomplished, and in order to do so they needed to structurally change the existing democratic system.
So the case for direct democracy that we are going to make at the end of the campaign and the case that Mike is going to make in a book he’s about to release is that what direct democratic reforms do is give people more direct control over policy. Specifically, it gives them control over foreign policy, which, right now because of the War Powers Act, means that the president basically has unilateral control over military actions abroad as long as Congress doesn’t try to stop them (which they have failed to do repeatedly over the past two decades).
Given that people want a say over American foreign policy, whether that’s ending foreign wars, or cutting spending for the Pentagon, the only way to do that is by structurally reforming the way our democracy works, unabetted by the military-industrial complex and structural political forces.
That’s the way we see direct democracy undergirding everything we do. If you want a Sanders-style political revolution, it’s not going to happen if you have institutions like the Senate standing in the way. So the argument, instead of entirely trying to remake Congress, is that you add a higher power in the form of direct referendum that then supersedes decisions made by other branches of government, whereby the people are the highest level of government.
So do you think you will meet the fundraising goal to get into this next debate?
Yes, I’m more confident than ever we can make the fundraising goal. We are in a difficult position because we also need some more poll results to rank high enough to qualify, but look at our donor numbers—I mean look at John Hickenlooper right now. Internal leaks from his campaign say he has 14,000 donors. We have 53,000 at the most recent count, so we have about 12,000 left to qualify. At our current pace, we can make it if we keep it up. We have a lot more stunts for the coming week, just really throwing everything against the wall. If we don’t make it, we will still be carrying out Mike’s political message even though we won’t continue the campaign. We’ll likely form an institute or foundation which will continue to work on advocacy for these issues with the leftover donations.
So you see more campaigns in your future then?
For me personally, I want to keep doing advocacy in this work. I’ve been thinking of working for a leftist publication and certainly see myself working on future presidential campaigns. I’d love to work for Sanders. But I also feel like what we did and our skills can’t exactly be replicated on another campaign. Despite having useful things to do and say on the campaign trail, I think I’d prefer drumming up political advocacy for issues. I think there are a lot more ways to get things done then just running campaigns.