The Memeable Mr. Markey

How a pandemic and the online left tilted the scales in an epic primary fight.

Ed Markey, put simply, had a good social-distancing look.

That’s how The Cut, a vanguard of culture for young liberal women, described what the Massachusetts senator donned for an April 12 tweet. Imploring his constituents to “wear a mask,” Markey modeled his own Boston Red Sox-emblazoned face covering, along with a green bomber jacket, khakis, and an unmissable pair of red and white Nike high-tops.

It was an ensemble a former press secretary had begged Markey never to wear in public. And yet, there was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) sharing the tweet with her 8 million followers and joking that the 74-year-old Markey was planning a “Green New Deal streetwear line.” Joining her was a flock of Gen Z supporters of the Green New Deal, which the two lawmakers jointly authored last year.

“It was like, ‘Oh my god, Ed has the drip, look at his outfit!’” Nora Guzikowski, a high school sophomore from Belmont, Massachusetts, tells me. The 15-year-old had known Markey was her senator, and she was familiar with the Green New Deal—but not much else. “I think people are drawn to him first because he’s a cool grandpa figure,” she says. “And then people who saw that started looking into his policies.”

Guzikowski runs a Twitter account called “Emissions for Ed Markey,” one of more than 70 Markey stan accounts that have emerged in the final weeks of the primary race between the veteran Massachusetts senator and Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a 39-year-old member of Congress whose famous great uncles—Ted and John F.—once held Markey’s seat. This improbable online community, bolstered by the likes of Ocasio-Cortez and the youth-led Sunrise Movement, has become a vocal hub of enthusiasm and organizing as Markey fights to fend off his well-funded challenger with a famous last name.

It’s hard to argue that Twitter fans with follower counts ranging from a few dozen to a couple thousand are single-handedly turning the tables in one of the nation’s most closely watched Senate primaries. But their mere existence is indicative of a larger force at play—one that has already helped erase the comfortable lead Kennedy held for much of the campaign. A pandemic, a presidential primary that disappointed progressives, and Markey’s unlikely alliance with young, vocal climate activists have combined to transform the race.

Democratic senators from Massachusetts tend to rank among their party’s most influential figures. Of the last nine to serve, five have waged formidable presidential campaigns, two have gone on to be the party’s nominee, and one has ascended to the nation’s highest office. During last week’s Democratic National Convention, both a former Bay State senator, John Kerry, and a sitting one, Elizabeth Warren, delivered lengthy speeches.

Ed Markey is not one of those senators. He won his seat with little fanfare in a 2013 special election after Kerry became Secretary of State. Before that, Markey had spent nearly four decades in the House, where he gained some—but not much—notoriety as a leader on net neutrality, denuclearization, and, as the “Markey” half of Waxman-Markey, an ambitious climate change bill that passed the House in 2009 before dying in the Senate. Kennedy, meanwhile, had achieved celebrity status before he was even sworn in for his first congressional term in 2013. In 2018, he delivered the Democrats’ response to Donald Trump’s State of the Union.

According to a poll conducted last August, Kennedy led Markey in a hypothetical matchup by 17 points. Kennedy launched his primary challenge the following month, on the premise that it was time for “generational change.” A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll conducted just before Kennedy’s entrance found that voters believed Kennedy to be “a better fighter for Democratic priorities” and more liberal than Markey.

Neither Kennedy’s challenge nor his image as the progressive fighter sat well with a prominent cadre of climate activists. Markey, after all, had lent his energy and stature to the Green New Deal. That work earned him an endorsement from Sunrise last August, and Ocasio-Cortez followed suit a month later.

“If he was alright with AOC, he was alright with them,” Markey campaign manager John Walsh tells me, referring to the New York lawmaker’s influence on progressive voters who might not have known much about the senator. “This is based on who Ed is, and this energy with Sunrise and others was already in the tank. And all we had to do is figure out how to bring it out.”

Crucial to all of this, Walsh says, was the hiring of digital and creative director Paul Bologna to animate the Markey’s once-paltry social media presence. “The campaign leans into the groundswell of youth energy, crafting an image of Markey as a veteran radical in sneakers, somewhere between ironic and iconic,” as Politico put it earlier this month.

The tricky thing is…Markey isn’t a perfect progressive. Kennedy allies can’t figure out why lefty activists have let Markey off the hook on some of the same issues they slammed Joe Biden over in the presidential primaries: Markey voted for the Iraq war and for the 1994 crime bill, and, as a Massachusetts state lawmaker in the early 1970s, he opposed busing to desegregate schools.

Kennedy’s eight-year congressional tenure is largely devoid of similar blemishes. Like Markey, he supports Medicare for All. He voiced support for the Green New Deal around the same time Ocasio-Cortez and Markey began writing their legislation. Both Kennedy and Markey endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and hometown hero Elizabeth Warren in 2020.

In other words, the contrast with Kennedy isn’t obvious—until you consider that Kennedy is…a Kennedy. That last name is practically synonymous with the establishment and privilege, something the Markey campaign has weaponized against its opponent, “going where few Massachusetts Democrats have dared to go before,” as Politico put it. For added contrast, Walsh focused the campaign on telling Markey’s story, starting with his upbringing as the son of a milkman in the formerly working-class town of Malden, Massachusetts. Team Markey also reached deep into the archives of his five decades in politics to portray a scrappy fighter who put himself through law school and eventually rose through the ranks of state and federal government.

“Probably, people didn’t understand fully who he was,” Walsh tells me. “That’s what campaigns are for.”

When stay-at-home orders forced the campaigns off the trail in March, Kennedy looked certain to dominate in digital; Markey had just 30,000 Twitter followers, for example, compared to Kennedy’s 80,000. But the pandemic happened to coincide with the end of Warren’s and Sanders’ unsuccessful presidential bids, leaving a lot of defeated progressives seeking another outlet for their energies. And now, stuck in their homes, they suddenly had a lot of time to spend on Twitter. With the validation of pacesetters like Ocasio-Cortez and Sunrise, one beneficiary was Ed Markey.

A month into quarantine, Markey’s campaign posted the “wear a mask” tweet. “That image kind of slowly propelled this whole culture around Ed,” Tristan Niedzielski, a high school senior from Marlborough, Massachusetts, tells me. Matt O’Connell, a Holliston, Massachusetts, native who attends Reed College, adds, “We already knew Ed was woke and had great policy, but the campaign’s digital team has really been able to show people that, like, Ed is a cool dude.”

Five days later, Niedzielski, O’Connell, and a handful other young Markey supporters started the “Students for Markey” Twitter account. In the months that followed, the “Markeyverse” was born, all variations on a theme. Joining Guzikowski’s “Emissions for Markey” account are the likes of “Plants for Ed Markey,” “giant rabbits for ed markey,” and “astrology girls 4 Ed Markey.” An account with more than 2,300 followers—“Has Joe Kennedy given a good reason for running?”—echoes a criticism Markey supporters frequently voice.

“With each new account comes a new set of niche memes fine-tuned to its title,” wrote the Harvard Political Review, the first to call attention to the trend. Usually, the posts pack a one-two punch of entertainment and education, often revisiting the greatest hits of Markey’s career, repackaged for the Gen Z set. Other times, it’s quick-and-dirty Photoshops of Markey on the news of the day—very often, with superhero status attached. A line from a well-timed Taylor Swift release—”there goes the last great American dynasty”—has been a wellspring of content.

Some of the most successful tweets lean toward the absurd. Halfway through my conversation with Emerson Toomey, a rising sophomore at Northeastern University, she tweeted a simple “ed markey” from @edsreplyguys, a Twitter account with nearly 3,000 followers that she started in March to do…exactly what the handle suggests. By the time we hung up 10 minutes later, the tweet had been shared and liked nearly a hundred times.

Meme culture enthusiasm is not a stand-in for real-life support. But there’s a way in which the creation and sharing build an authentic online community. Meme armies played a role in Trump’s 2016 victory. Sanders, the original “cool grandpa,” benefited from them during both of his second-place runs for the Democratic presidential nomination. Andrew Yang’s supporters used the messaging app Discord to flood Twitter with memes. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hired his own meme factory during his brief run for president—a project that failed, as Bloomberg lacked that certain je ne sais quoi required to make memes stick.

But the accounts’ real utility, their operators say, is in converting retweets into organizing. The Markeyverse hosts weekly phone banks that typically draw 50 to 75 volunteers, but have brought in bigger crowds since Ocasio-Cortez began retweeting their posts. Whenever a tweet about the race gets attention, the Markeyverse mobilizes to reply to it with a link to a page listing the senator’s socially distanced and virtual events. They also forced Kennedy to cancel a virtual fundraiser with high-profile Broadway stars after Markey supporters swarmed the performers on Twitter to ask why they were helping to oust the co-author of the Green New Deal.

Even more importantly for the incumbent senator, the Markeyverse have transformed a race once defined by generational change into a referendum on who is the better progressive. Markey himself called Kennedy “a progressive in name only” during a June debate. The overall effect, in Kennedy’s own words to The Intercept last month, has been to turn Kennedy into “a mealy-mouth moderate who is running on ambition and my name.” Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts member of Congress, called the distinctions “wildly overdrawn,” adding that trying to label Kennedy as a moderate and Markey as a progressive is “not an accurate depiction of either of their careers.”

For his part, Kennedy says he never expected to have to defend his progressive bona fides to this extent. In this race, the desires of online climate left have become a stand-in for the progressive movement in its entirety, and Kennedy’s chief complaint is that Markey’s record in other areas—particularly racial equity—has not been deeply interrogated. At this “inflection point in our country,” Kennedy tells me, in a race for Senate “between a younger white guy and an older white guy,” scrutiny is called for. “I’ve received a considerable amount of scrutiny, and that’s fine,” Kennedy says. “But I don’t think the incumbent has, and that’s what’s been puzzling.”

Kennedy’s campaign has also accused the Markeyverse of “cyber-bullying,” noting that some Twitter users backing Markey have made graphic references to the assassinations of Kennedy’s ancestors. On Tuesday, Kennedy’s campaign manager asked Markey to issue a statement “instructing his followers to immediately end the attacks” on Kennedy, his family, and his supporters.

The race, of course, will not be won or lost on Twitter; many of Markey’s youthful supporters don’t even live in Massachusetts and aren’t old enough to vote. But the explosion of the Markeyverse seems to have coincided with a reversal in the candidates’ fortunes. A recent UMass Amherst/WCVB poll put Markey 15 points ahead of Kennedy. Another, conducted by SurveyUSA put Markey 2 points ahead.

Perhaps it’s an indication that the young Markey fans’ methods are working. “Our job is to get to people’s kids, and they convert their parents,” Nate Lapointe, a Students for Markey member tells me. “That sounds sinister, but you know, that basically is our strategy.”

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk


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