So when Oks or Williams, explaining the Gravel position on anti-imperialism, says: “You know what we actually want is for us to join a real international, multilateral order. We know that you’re not just going to kill U.S. military presence abroad overnight but that you need to intimate in that direction and talk about what a global order could look like if we weren’t the world hegemon,” they will also list off the people and movements they’re referencing and through which they first encountered the idea. (Noam Chomsky, the People’s Policy Institute, and Bruce Robbins’s “The Sweatshop Sublime” each came up in a five-minute stretch of conversation.) Their online aesthetic is Dirtbag Left, but their approach in person comes across more like a combination of a well-footnoted term paper and an episode of the West Wing if President Bartlet’s staff were all socialists.

The involvement of teens is unusual, and the general viability of the experiment is dubious, but the candor of Gravel 2020's candidate-by-committee approach isn’t actually new.

In Seattle, City Council member and socialist Kshama Sawant often speaks about her council seat and priorities using the words “we” and “our” instead of “I.” She is referring to Socialist Alternative and her commitment to remaining “democratically accountable” to its membership. The language can sometimes sound jarring: “The real strength of what we’ve been able to do [with the Council seat] is that Socialist Alternative, as the political organization that determines our campaigns and what we do in the office, is very clear that we have to be rooted in social struggle and that we cannot betray working people,” Sawant said in an interview last year. I remember being struck by it at the time, and a little put off. But as the interview carried on, I came to think that Sawant’s was a kind of positive, pro-social self-negation. She wasn’t erasing herself so much as placing herself alongside others.

Bernie Sanders is currently doing a subtler version of this: his campaign slogan is “Not me. Us.” Successful or not, the slogan seems to be an effort to move away from the cult of personality that partially defined the 2016 campaign and toward the movement that grew out of it. It was that infrastructure that helped, directly and indirectly, to support the candidacies of an exciting new class of progressive Democrats, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar. The campaign then—and its broader ambitions—is a group effort that requires much more than just the presidency to accomplish. “Not me. Us.”

Bernie Sanders is Bernie Sanders, but the Sanders campaign—the one that actually transformed the Democratic Party—was a product of agitation from the Movement for Black Lives, socialist feminists, and others on the left. The younger people working on his campaign staff, the volunteers driving his grassroots base, made him—and are making him—the candidate he currently is. Like Gravel, it’s a collaborative project.

Presidents, like most politicians, do see themselves as the product of and accountable to certain people and movements. It’s just that they’re usually very small groups of extremely wealthy people who want to do things like send themselves to live in space while the planet dies or use your blood to help them live forever.

And so Mike Gravel, at home in California, is part real person and part avatar for Oks and Williams, who are versed and drawing from the accumulated left movements and ideas now taking their tentative (and well-deserved) place on a national stage. The campaign’s collective reach is limited almost entirely to its Twitter and Instagram base (and media profiles like this one), but you can imagine a future, more successful version of the Gravel experiment with a candidate who is not currently 89 (his birthday was in May), who hasn’t spent the decades since his Senate career in relative obscurity, and who hasn’t unknowingly accepted speaking invitations from Holocaust revisionists.

It’s unlikely that Gravel 2020, as a mostly online campaign that seems intent on staying there, will succeed in pulling the Democratic primary left in the way Oks and Williams describe. (This strategy, when it has roots in the movements it is pulling from, has worked elsewhere—as Sanders showed in 2016 and Cynthia Nixon proved in New York’s gubernatorial race in 2018.) But Oks and Williams, in a narrow way, have succeeded at making a crucial point: the Great Man president is a lie.

“That kind of honesty is important to us,” Williams says of dismantling the idea of the candidate going it alone, albeit through memelord methods. “It is that dishonesty about purposes and methods that creates a lot of cynicism about politics.” I don’t think that Joe Biden shitposts are the solution to that kind of mass disaffection, but he’s right to diagnose the problem.