It's the highest-stakes battle between two old white men since every war ever.
Update 6/27/2021: It was announced on Sunday that former Senator Mike Gravel had passed away of Myeloma at the age of 91 in his Seaside, Califronia home.
This is a story of two old white men who became online symbols of political movements — in one case intentionally, in the other...less so.
On the one hand we have Dennis Prager, a talk-radio host in his early 70s who promotes a far-Right political ideology. A Jewish man from Brooklyn, Prager has long aligned himself with America's Christian-Right, going so far as to say — in response to then newly-elected Muslim congressman Keith Ellison swearing in on the Quran — that "America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress."
On the other hand we have Mike Gravel, the former anti-war Senator from Alaska who famously read the leaked Pentagon Papers into the public record during the Vietnam War, and twice ran for president. Gravel is in his early 90s and probably never wanted to be president at all. Rather, his campaigns — in 2008, then again in 2020 — were driven by a goal to promote his left-wing politics, with an emphasis on direct democracy and an anti-interventionist foreign policy.
Both men are known for taking shots at Democrats, and both men have endorsed some fringe ideas in their time. While Dennis Prager continues to promote supply-side, "trickle-down" economics — AKA Reaganomics — after decades of demonstrated failure and has worked to spread "skepticism" about the 2020 presidential election results, Gravel has espoused his belief that "9/11 was an inside job," and pushed to build a 4-square-mile teflon Dome to house "Denali City" during his tenure as Senator.
But what really makes these two men at once so alike and so distinct is their unlikely roles as Internet icons.
During his 2008 presidential campaign, Gravel made headlines from the debate stage by calling out his Democratic colleagues for their complicity in upholding America's military empire and the military-industrial complex — accusations which Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden laughed off in exaggerated displays.
Mike Gravel - On Other Candidates and War www.youtube.com
But where Gravel 2008 really made a splash was in a series of surreal campaign ads. The most iconic of the lot, "Rock," featured Gravel staring wordlessly at the camera for a full 70 seconds before picking up a large rock and throwing it into a lake in the background — followed by an additional minute and change of the former senator walking off into the distance.
Was it profound and inspirational with a cutting political message? Nope. But it was weird enough to catch some viral heat in the early days of YouTube and ended up making an appearance on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Gravel managed to earn just 404 votes in New Hampshire's primary. But his bizarre claim to Internet celebrity, combined with his confrontational debate performances, planted a seed that would sprout into something even stranger more than a decade after the fact.
Mike Gravel - Rock - www.youtube.com
Meanwhile, Dennis Prager was hosting his talk radio show and endorsing John McCain for president. Another year would pass, along with the inauguration of President Barack Obama — before Prager got together with his producer Allen Estrin and decided to test the waters of YouTube themselves, launching their YouTube channel PragerU — short for Prager University — in 2009.
The Rise of PragerU
With the eye-rolling tagline "give us five minutes, and we'll give you a semester," Prager and Estrin set out to make pithy, digestible, hyper-simplified videos to counter the left-leaning politics they saw as dominating college campuses. And while the extent to which they've reached their target demographic of college-aged kids is questionable, they have certainly found an audience.
Twelve years, hundreds of videos, 2.9 million subscribers, and more than 5 billion views later, PragerU has become a force to be reckoned with in the sphere of political YouTube. Thanks to tens of millions of dollars in backing from the likes of fracking billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks — much of which goes to promoting their content on Facebook — PragerU is able to produce slick videos full of animated sequences and official-looking graphs that tend to lack labels, data, and meaning.
Those charts capture the true ethos of PragerU. While their videos are framed as works of rational, academic thought — they even provide study guides and other resources for educators and parents who want to use them for "educational" purposes — they are anything but.
How PragerU Lies to You www.youtube.com
More often than not, their videos actually ignore scientific work on the issues they discuss, preferring to rely on hollow appeals to common sense in order to attack Black Lives Matter, feminism, critical race theory, COVID mitigation, single-payer healthcare, climate science, world history, and much more.
What's worse is that their videos work. According to polling, around 1 in 3 Americans online have seen PragerU's content, and around 70% of PragerU viewers report having changed their minds on at least one topic as a result of PragerU.
With videos presented by Dennis Prager and basically every prominent conservative online — Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, Candace Owens, etc. — PragerU is successfully pulling millions of Americans further Right. And with recent ventures into right-wing children's animation, that effort is getting all the more frightening…
But how do people who dread what that means for the future of America and the world push back? For a long time the answer was response videos (see above). And while there are any number of well-crafted video essays pointing out the lies and inconsistencies that predominate in PragerU's videos, the nature of this kind of methodical breakdown usually produces 20-minute-long, detailed videos — in response to PraguerU's casual 5 minutes.
Responses to PragerU are never as pithy as the original content — let alone as heavily marketed. They relied on the audience to seek them out and to have the patience to sit through them. There was no resource for slick, digestible left-wing political thought on YouTube, and the lack of Leftist petro-billionaires presented a problem for how such an anti-PragerU could even be funded.
Fortunately, the rise of political campaigns funded by small-dollar donations offers a model for solving that problem. Look to Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who held their own against opponents with wealthy backers thanks to a broad base of small-dollar support. Better yet, look to the resurgence of Mike Gravel.
The Teens Running Former Sen. Mike Gravel's Presidential Campaign (HBO) www.youtube.com
The Gravel Teens
Despite his disappointing performance in the 2008 primaries, Gravel's career as a presidential candidate was far from over. In 2019, he was resurrected by a group of teenagers who were inspired by his 2008 debate performance and bizarre campaign ads.
They reached out to the long-retired Gravel, then approaching 90. And suddenly, the campaign for one of the oldest people to ever run for the presidency was being run by what is undoubtedly the youngest campaign staff in history — chief of staff Henry Williams was 18 years old, while campaign manager David Oks was just 17.
Once again, Gravel was not aiming to win, but to get on the debate stage and change the conversation. And "the Gravel Teens," as they came to be known, were attracting support along with tens of thousands of donations — most for either $1 or $4.20 — with a sardonic Twitter presence that mostly consisted of attacks against the mainstream Democratic candidates levelled from the left of Bernie Sanders.
Unfortunately, despite their success in meeting the DNC's donor threshold — and possibly as a result of a deliberate effort to suppress his candidacy — Mike Gravel didn't meet the polling requirements to get on the debate stage. Still, he had once again become an Internet darling, and his team of teens had laid the foundation for something bigger.
How to Defeat PragerU: The Gravel Institute www.youtube.com
How the Left Pushes Back
Enter The Gravel Institute. Like PragerU, it has the official-sounding name, the slick, animated sequences, the weird old white guy mascot, and the digestible, 5-minute political videos. Unlike PragerU, the Gravel Institute has a tendency to rely on actual research, and it's funded not by billionaires, but by normal people pledging a few bucks on Patreon.
While this remains a David vs. Goliath story, The Gravel Institute is growing quickly. They released their first video outlining their mission to push back against PragerU's propaganda last September, and their YouTube channel already has over 250,000 subscribers.
With the help of Leftist journalists, celebrities, politicians, and academics from Emma Vigeland to Bhaskar Sunkara to David Cross and Professor Richard Wolff, The Gravel Institute offers exactly the kind of approachable, entertaining, and educational videos that were missing from the online Left. And they have more coming down the pipeline from the likes of Bernie Sanders, Chelsea Manning, and Cornel West.
David Cross: Why America Sucks at Everything www.youtube.com
It will take a herculean effort to overcome PragerU's toxic influence, but The Gravel Institute is on the right track. Covering topics from mass incarceration to the value of public housing to Uber's destructive business model, they make left-wing politics — backed by actual research and motivated by empathy — seem as simple and straightforward as any of PragerU's "common sense."
Now all we need is a cage match between Dennis Prager and Mike Gravel to really settle things.