The veteran senator was nobody’s idea of a Gen Z icon–until some high-school volunteers and a network of renegade stan accounts got busy.
If throwbacks are in, you can’t get much more old-school than “The Green New Dealmaker,” the 3-minute ad for Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey’s reelection campaign that blew up the internet last week. It’s modeled on a vintage movie trailer, complete with block-font titles and a classic-rock score. Markey, for his part, channels a ‘70s TV action hero, set to restore accountability to a Washington that broke its “sacred contract.”
But the true genius of the ad is the way it cheekily mocks the notion that it’s time for a 74-year-old politician to pass the torch to a new generation. Markey is facing a primary challenge from a Kennedy, after all—U.S. Representative Joseph Kennedy III, 35 years younger—and the ad subverts old JFK language to argue for a workhorse approach to governing. “With 500 laws on the books, you think I’m gonna stop now? They wish,” Markey growls to the camera. He faces the camera for the last words: “With all due respect, it’s time to start asking what your country can do for you.” A shredding guitar solo hits its climax.
The ad feels so fresh and uncannily cool—it even samples the Nine Inch Nails song used in “Old Town Road”—that some people could barely believe it represents a politician. Slate called it the most “incomprehensibly thrilling ad” of 2020. “Political ad goes viral for actually being inspiring,” Mashable’s headline read. One man tweeted that it made him want to “march into hell to defend ed markey from dynastic usurpers.” Another gushed that the ad makes him so fired up that “it makes me want to run through a brick wall.”
To 17-year-old Markey volunteer Jack Dubow, that’s because the message works—as does the footage of Green New Deal rallies and Black Lives Matter protests, alongside Markey speaking at Reagan-era nuclear-disarmament rallies. “A large portion of it is about young people, and the movement that young people have started and Ed supports,” he says. It’s a rare counterpoint to the generational warfare waged on social media in “OK Boomer” clapbacks and Boomer Steve memes: The boomer and the Zoomer as kindred forces.
This new image for Markey is the culmination of an unlikely alliance between a passionate, web-savvy group of young supporters and the official campaign. It’s a simple relationship in the internet age: Each helps the other go viral. While the campaign amplifies the students’ memes, the Gen Z fans convert some of that online energy into real-world organizing, sending likers and retweeters links to campaign sign-up sheets. And the campaign leans into the groundswell of youth energy, crafting an image of Ed Markey as a veteran radical in sneakers, somewhere between ironic and iconic.
At the start of this Massachusetts primary race, if anyone had guessed which candidate was more likely to fire up Gen Z—a millennial Kennedy with a 200-watt smile, or a low-key septuagenarian who has served in Congress for 46 years—most money would have been on the Kennedy. A Boston Globe story on the eve of Kennedy’s entry in the race summed up the conventional wisdom at the time: “Stacks of legislative accomplishments don’t carry the weight they once did. Desire for generational change is coursing through the Democratic base, and Markey … has served in Congress longer than Kennedy’s been alive.”
But as the September 1 election approaches, it’s Markey who has captured the youth momentum, in a way that’s raising his profile nationwide. Harvard Political Review recently declared that young followers are backing Markey “with a never-before-seen level of enthusiasm and creativity,” and laid out the “Markeyverse” of Gen Z-driven-stan Twitter accounts, from @edsreplyguys to @gingers4markey. Teen Vogue likened Markey’s popularity to pop star Harry Styles’.
Granted, many pro-Markey accounts have a miniscule reach, as Twitter goes—and some of the supporters who are feverishly working social media on Markey’s behalf either don’t live in Massachusetts, or aren’t actually old enough to vote. And social media doesn’t reflect all that’s happening in the campaign. It doesn’t capture, for instance, a voter like 19-year-old Manuel Teshe, a newly naturalized Salvadoran immigrant who has been going door-to-door at businesses around Chelsea, Massachusetts, telling the owners, many of them immigrants, that Kennedy will “speak for our community.”
Still, some recent polls suggest that Markey’s internet buzz has translated to true electoral support. An JMC Analytics poll from late July showed Markey with a 50-26 lead over Kennedy among likely Massachusetts primary voters aged 18 to 34. A UMass Amherst/WCVB poll conducted in early August showed that voters 18-29 overwhelmingly favored Markey over Kennedy on a host of issues, from the economy (65 percent to 35 percent); to taking on Donald Trump (60 to 15). (Things are still fluid: A poll released Monday by the market research firm Survey USA showed Kennedy with an 42-31 lead over Markey among ages 18-34.)
The tight nature of the race is itself a surprise, given the state of Massachusetts politics a year ago. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll from September 2019, issued before Kennedy formally entered the race, showed Kennedy leading Markey by 14 points in a one-to-one matchup. Kennedy led in every age group, suggesting an opening for a younger, energetic future Democratic leader.
And Markey’s homegrown reputation never suggested anything close to a cult youth following. He had represented the same congressional district north of Boston from 1976 to 2013, churning out important but un-flashy legislation: setting up oversight of the telecommunications industry, authoring laws that increased fuel economy standards. In the Senate, Markey has been front and center on some national issues of importance to youth: working to insert funding for gun violence research into the 2020 spending bill; co-sponsoring the Green New Deal with the nation’s progressive superstar, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But in his home state, he was often overshadowed by the flashier senior senator, Elizabeth Warren.
It was through Warren, and a kind of progressive-political-junkie’s happenstance, that Dubow found his way to Students for Markey. He had been volunteering for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential bid, and witnessed Markey campaigning for Warren in New Hampshire. When Warren’s campaign ended, Dubow was looking for the next thing, and saw that Markey was defending his seat.
Once he looked into Markey’s platform, Dubow said, he connected with it. As with many of Markey’s young supporters, he first latched onto the Green New Deal, and took note of the credibility conferred by an endorsement from AOC (who says, in a Markey campaign ad, “It’s not your age that counts. It’s the age of your ideas.”) But there were other issues, too, that felt relevant to him, from Medicare for All to net neutrality, internet accessibility, and Alzheimer’s research.
Before long, he and dozens of other high school and college students, many of them veterans of the Warren and Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns, had banded together in an unofficial group they called Students for Markey. They opened Twitter and Instagram accounts and connected to the formal campaign; Markey himself took part in their kickoff call. They took part in standard phone-banking and campaign events.
These days, Students for Markey gleefully tweets and retweets the work of the renegade stan accounts and loosely coordinates with the campaign, often to clear a tweet that feels slightly on the edge. The campaign didn’t respond to questions by publication time, but as Dubow puts it, the students will ask, “Hey guys, this is a little spicy, what do you think?” (Though as Markey campaign fellow Tristan Niedzielski, 17, notes, “a certain degree of spiciness is desired.”)
But students say they also use GenZ-friendly memes as bait to discuss the issues. Threads within the Twitter feeds, they note, are filled with policy discussions, and supporters try to link Markey’s background to issues a high school or college student might connect to. “Without Ed, a lot of us wouldn’t have internet on our desks at school,” Dubow says. (Markey created the E-Rate program in 1996, which helped improve broadband access in schools.) “It’s just pushing the message that Ed works for us.”
The youngest Markey activists are also finding ways to funnel online buzz into the mundane mechanics of field work. Sixteen-year-old Calla Walsh, a leader of Students for Markey, says she’ll put Markey-themed song remixes on her Instagram feed, then DM people who hit “like” with a campaign sign-up sheet—gathering contact information the campaign would never have gotten through a phone bank. (Gen Z voters “frankly don’t pick up the phone,” Niedzielski says.) Dubow says the students recently created a Facebook account, even though they hate Facebook: “We’re using it to reach out to our boomer relatives who don’t understand any other type of social media.”
As the Markey memes flew, the students found themselves in lockstep with a staff that understood how to leverage social media buzz—and a candidate who was game to play along.
The Gen Z-friendly image of Markey has solidified over the course of the pandemic, but in fact, Markey has always been uncommonly digitally savvy; in 2007, he went onto the virtual platform Second Life to deliver an address about global warming to what he addressed as the “Virtual Island of Bali.” Today, he has a presence on TikTok, where one post finds him shooting baskets in baggy khakis; the background track is his voice over a mellow beat, talking about climate change. “THIS SLAPS OMGGG I LOVE YOU,” one person gushed in the comments. Another wrote: “we love you Ed im too young to vote how can I help.”
To Walsh, the turning point for Markey’s new image came in April, when the campaign tweeted a photo of him in a green bomber jacket, grandpa pants, and vintage Nike AirFlight 89s. Walsh recalls thinking that “this is going to go well for young people”—there was something about image that felt at once “cringey” and authentic. Sure enough, the post went viral, even earning a hot take in The Cut, New York Magazine’s fashion vertical, which called the outfit “a sick fit.”
If the campaign realized it had a star on its hands, it helped that Markey had a low profile to begin with—a fortuitous blank slate on which to project this current version. “He was not an extremely well-known candidate with a well-defined image coming into this race,” says Steve Koczela, chairman of the MassINC polling group. “So his campaign had a lot more latitude to build this image for him.”
Now, they leaned hard into Markey’s quirky appeal. His Nikes are now a running intra-campaign meme, students say; he shows off the shoes to young supporters on organizing Zooms, and wears them at campaign events. The official Markey Twitter feed, amid more standard posts about rallies and endorsements, recently put up a photo of his shoes. Gushing comments reliably followed.
As often happens on social media platforms, the online Markeyverse can rise up and act on its own volition. Kennedy supporters complain about Markey’s online fans the way some did about the Bernie Bros; one tweet about Kennedy campaign buttons that evoked the JFK era drew more than one assassination joke. Amelie Butler, a 21-year-old staffer for the Kennedy campaign, said she had to mute some of her own pro-Kennedy tweets because “replies were getting so vicious that it’s not really conducive to mental health.”
In July, when the Kennedy campaign announced a virtual fundraiser featuring some big-name Broadway stars, the reaction was instantaneous. As Niedzielski tells it, a group of largely-teenaged theater fans barraged the actors on Twitter, demanding to know why they wanted to unseat the co-author of the Green New Deal. “I didn’t know how many theater kids I knew before this happened,” Niedzielski says. “They all just rose up around me.”
So many actors dropped out in response that the fundraiser was called off. The Kennedy campaign issued a statement lamenting the “cyberbullying,” and blaming the establishment. “This is a huge part of the reason Joe decided to challenge a 47-year incumbent in the first place,” the statement said. “Because he understands how sick and tired people are of this kind of politics.”
There are still plenty of reasons Kennedy could win. The dynamics of early voting are unknown. Some voters see Kennedy in a future pipeline for Democratic leadership. And polls show that Markey’s lead diminishes with older voters, who are more likely to remember the Kennedy legacy—and, if history is a guide, more likely to vote.
But the tight polls and youthful energy behind Markey suggests that at least one of Kennedy’s early assumptions about the race don’t apply today. Many voters—especially young ones—don’t see Markey’s experience in Washington as a liability.
“The argument that voters want the new and the young, relative to the old, might have worked in a period of more stability,” says Tatishe Nteta, a political science professor at UMass-Amherst and director of the UMass Poll. But this is a pandemic, an unprecedented crisis—not to mention an opportunity for Democrats to take the Senate, Nteta says. “Maybe this is a time when experience … is an asset, is something that people are looking for.”
That’s what the “Green New Dealmaker” ad underscores, merging images of present-day Markey in a mask—and a pointed shot of those Nikes—with old footage of Markey as a Massachusetts state representative and young Congressman. Today, Markey’s hair is grayer, but the haircut is the same. And to some Gen Zers, the campaign has managed to project the message that the spirit remains. “Ed started out as a very young politician,” Niedzielski says. “He was in the State House in his early 20s, he was in Congress in his early 30s.” No torch-passing needed; the fact that he once was young is good enough.
Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/08/18/ed-markey-ad-youth-vote-kennedy-397351