In the age of surrealist memes and viral content, why aren’t more politicians seeking out shitposting tutors?
Mike Gravel joined Twitter on Mar. 30, and has been spicing up the 2020 race ever since. The former Alaskan senator officially added his name to the ever-growing roster of Democratic presidential candidates in a video Monday, calling for a “Gravelanche” to push centrist politicians further left. He doesn’t plan on actually winning; his goal is to simply make it to the debates so he can challenge contenders on their neoliberal policies in favor of more leftist ones.
“My message, centered around an anti-imperialist foreign policy and fundamental political reform, is one that no other Democratic candidate is making the centerpiece of their campaign,” Gravel said in a statement, according to Rolling Stone. “After the first two debates, I will drop out and endorse the most progressive candidate.”
This heavily edited image of a laser-eyed Gravel striking down a fiery Beto O’Rourke, accompanied with the words “BEGONE CENTRIST,” is not what you’d expect of an 88-year-old politician’s Instagram account. It’s absolutely glorious.
How is he doing it? Well, he has a team of teenagers running his entire campaign. His campaign manager, David Oks, is a 17-year-old high school senior. Other staffers include fellow high school senior Elijah Emery and chief of staff/Columbia University freshman Henry Williams.
Oks told the Atlantic that he wanted someone in the race who would openly criticize other candidates’ policies for “positions that are really bad.” He convinced the aging senator to run by promising he wouldn’t have to travel or do many press appearances.
Gravel’s candidacy has been in the spotlight ever since, and his campaign proof that social media literacy works. When asked how he felt about the “memeification of politics” in a Reddit AMA on Friday, Gravel admitted that he didn’t fully understand it, but he noted that viral videos from his 2008 bid for presidency helped get the campaign off the ground.
“I think our political attention spans have been decreasing for decades, way before the internet,” Gravel wrote in the AMA. “If our ideas are shorter and more emotional, then we might just have to make the best of that. Our campaign has capitalized on this to a great effect — and I think it is possible to segway those short statements into more substantive ideas.”
We can have endless discussions about how the fast-paced news cycle affects democracy, but the takeaway here is that politicians need to adapt. Nobody knows how to navigate this digital hell like meme-savvy, extremely online young people — and if politicians want to successfully go viral, they need to learn from them.
Gravel’s Instagram posts all have a delightfully shitposting quality without being embarrassing, because the people who made them are naturally attuned to the weird humor millennials and Gen Z voters love.
When politicians dabble in emulating youth culture, the results can be hit or miss. Barack Obama successfully captured internet’s heart at the end of his presidency with a viral BuzzFeed video, where he posed with a selfie stick, dropped a “Can I live?” when confronted by a staffer, and even quoted the “Thanks, Obama” meme. The video was so well received because it was produced by people who actually understood the pop culture references written into the sketch — if it was created by people who were more offline, the video would have fallen flat.
The Reddit community r/FellowKids serves as a reminder to brands and public figures who try to embrace slang and trendy dance moves: Do it right, or get brutally roasted.
Hillary Clinton’s dabbing lesson with Ellen DeGeneres is a prime example of why politicians need meme tutors. The then-Democratic frontrunner was only seen as out of touch, and was regularly mocked throughout her run for pandering to the youth with incredibly corny slang. Cringeworthy dabbing on national television, forced references to lyrics from Beyoncé’s “Formation,” and the infamous call to “Pokémon Go to the polls” affected her likability as a candidate badly, and her image never quite recovered. Her entire career as a political powerhouse was undermined because she was reduced to a meme.
At that point, her platform was overlooked because she was so widely disliked.
Gravel may not actually want to be president, but his campaign proves that when it comes to emulating youth culture, the youth should be involved. There’s a reason tattoo artists suggest getting a native speaker’s translation before you’re inked in another language. If public figures want to get in on the language of the internet, they need to learn from someone who can fluently speak it.
There’s obviously more to running a successful campaign than just being immersed in internet culture, but understanding it certainly helps — just look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Beto O’Rourke’s mastery of Instagram stories. Politicians don’t necessarily need literal tutors, with structured lesson plans and flash cards about memes, but running those meme-laden jokes by someone familiar with internet culture can prevent another embarrassing gaff.
As Gravel’s campaign shows, candidates don’t need to be young to be popular — they just need to know how to communicate with the youth.