Calla Walsh still has Ed Markey’s victory speech pinned to her bedroom wall. The 16-year-old from Massachusetts went all-in on the septuagenarian senator’s ultra-progressive campaign in 2020, devoting countless hours toward organizing for his primary victory against Joe Kennedy III.
When Markey won, he credited a movement powered by young people like Walsh, and urged them to stay in the fight. “This is a tribute to young people and their vision,” he said during his victory speech in September. “They will save us if we let them.”
Walsh looks at those words every day, but they ring more hollow now. She and her fellow campaign soldiers have heeded Markey’s call to remain engaged. Their boundless energy just has a new target: Markey himself.
Instead of replying adoringly to his every tweet, former Markey fans and staffers—the heart of an extremely online constellation of Generation Z lefties known as The Markeyverse—are now challenging him and urging others to flood his offices with calls. The reason for this dramatic flip is their belief that the senator hasn’t done enough to address the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The Massachusetts senator is hardly a hawk. But Markey’s diehard backers expected he’d join other left-wing icons like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) in strongly condemning Israel’s deadly attacks on Gaza, signing on to efforts to block U.S. arms sales to Israel and to put conditions on aid to the country.
Markey has not met that high bar. What he has done, in the eyes of his supporters, is embrace an unjust both-sides framing of a conflict they see in stark terms. While Markey hasn’t been an outspoken proponent of Israel, his young fans believe he’s shirked from legislative efforts to counter Israel. It’s the kind of posture they expect from most Democrats—just not the one who explicitly tapped into their energy and enthusiasm to win a brutal primary.
“We really helped rebrand Ed Markey, turn him into this national figure and a leader of the progressive movement,” said Walsh, speaking to The Daily Beast between classes in Cambridge. “I wouldn’t be afraid to use the word betrayal, because I think that’s what this is.”
At the start of his primary, Markey seemed to win over this coalition by quickly aligning himself with Ocasio-Cortez. When she was first elected to office in 2018 at the age of 28, she found an eager Senate ally in a white man who’d been in office since the 1970s and whose haircut and Boston accent hadn’t changed much since. Markey immediately became the Senate sponsor of the Green New Deal, alongside Ocasio-Cortez in the House.
Over the course of Markey’s battle with Kennedy, the young progressives inspired by figures like Ocasio-Cortez helped foster a vibrant online culture that relentlessly hyped a very offline career politician. The Gen Z campaign for Markey was simultaneously thick with irony and completely sincere; a few of their attacks on Kennedy were so vicious that he tried to make it into a campaign issue.
That kind of energy is now turning on Markey. A leading fan account, known as “Ed’s Reply Guys,” once lionized the senator. Now, the header image of the account is the Palestinian flag, and the profile image is a photo of Markey holding up a sign photoshopped to say “Free Palestine.”
The creators of the account now identify themselves as “young people who re-elected @edmarkey (unaffiliated!); now we're holding him accountable.” A typical tweet, sent on Monday, read: “good morning @edmarkey! When will you take action in support of palestine?”
For many, Markey was the first candidate they poured their time, energy, and tears into electing. So the hurt they feel over Israel is deep. “It’s extremely disappointing and frustrating to see that someone who you spent a lot of time working to elect… go ahead and do things that are very much antithetical to the values I have and to the values I trusted Sen. Markey to uphold,” said Alvin Gunnion, a 20-year old former digital campaign fellow from Florida.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Markey spokesperson Taylor St. Germain said that “transparency and accountability are core values for Senator Markey, and he stands by the commitment he made to this powerful movement of young people.”
“We may not always agree,” St. Germain continued, “but it’s important to uphold that commitment, to listen, to value and respect others. Senator Markey will continue to call for lasting peace in the region and urge the Biden administration to further United States engagement to forge a path to a two-state solution so that Palestinians and Israelis can live in peace and with dignity.”
Markey is hardly the first politician to disappoint his supporters. But these particular supporters, who are at the vanguard of an emerging left wing of the Democratic Party, have their own sensibilities. They may have had fun building Markey into an unlikely progressive icon, but they’ll just as gladly attack him if it pushes him in the direction they want to see him go.
“They feel rightfully that the senator owes them for his seat,” said Amar Ahmad, a 31-year old former Markey volunteer who is working with many of the teens and twentysomethings pushing him on Israel. “Now, the senator really has a chance to demonstrate if he meant what he said in terms of listening to young people.”
Walsh put it another way. “This is a test,” she said, “of how much power we have.”
That Markey’s progressive army has chosen Israel as a test of their leverage is notable on its own. During the campaign, Markey fans admitted they didn’t love the foreign policy record he’d amassed over four decades in the Senate and House. What excited them was his leadership on the Green New Deal, not Middle East policy, and Markey had to spend time during the campaign assuaging concerns about his vote for the Iraq War in 2002.
For months, Markey and Kennedy’s camps attacked each other on many issues, but Israel wasn’t one of them. Both subscribed to the Democratic Party’s consensus on the topic. In 2019, for example, Markey co-sponsored legislation targeting the left-wing movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel. Those aligned with pro-Israel groups largely considered Markey and Kennedy to be in the same place, and the community was split during the primary—a departure from many recent Democratic primaries where pro-Israel groups had a clear favorite.
But in the last year, support for Palestinian statehood and human rights has become even more central to the coalition that helped elect Markey. Thanks to developments like the Black Lives Matter movement, young progressives increasingly see injustices at home and abroad as tightly connected. Those in Israel-Palestine advocacy took note when the Sunrise Movement, a leading climate change advocacy group that endorsed Markey early, weighed in on the conflict, explicitly connecting it to climate.
So when the recent warfare in Israel and Gaza broke out and put U.S. policy at the top of the agenda, The Markeyverse was ready to scrutinize his position—and they felt they had every reason to expect he’d align himself with figures like Sanders on the issue.
While Sanders issued a statement on May 11 squarely pinning blame for violence on Israeli settlers, Markey issued a statement that same day hitting the left’s sore spot. He said that while no Palestinians should fear eviction, “Israel has the right to defend itself from indiscriminate rocket attacks.”
The senator issued another statement that was focused more on Israel’s role in stoking violence, but many progressives were already upset. That disappointment was compounded by his reluctance to buy into the legislative pushback campaign brewing on Capitol Hill, especially Sanders’ effort to block a $735 million arms sale to Israel that became public during the warfare, and a bill from Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) to restrict U.S. aid to Israel over human rights violations.
Quickly, Walsh and like-minded Markey alumni put together a petition demanding that Markey embrace these measures, among other things. The scorching text compared his position to that of Donald Trump’s, and said his posture is “antithetical to the Green New Deal and the progressive movement that won him re-election.”
On Twitter and in private group chats, the Markeyverse lit up. It was split, said Walsh, over the pressure campaign. Younger organizers, she said, were almost entirely in agreement that putting his feet to the fire on Israel is justified and worthwhile. Others, she said, “disagree that we should be pressuring him this much.”
Markey’s staff and the Markeyverse dissenters are having conversations about the issue; many on both sides still keep in touch with each other from the campaign. St. Germain, his spokesperson, didn’t answer a question from The Daily Beast about whether Markey is considering any of the demands outlined in the petition. It now has over 1,000 signers, according to Walsh.
Admirers of the young progressives are impressed with how they’ve tackled the issue. “To the extent this is their first L, I’m like, they’re really taking it in stride, they’re not flipping the fuck out,” said Max Berger, a progressive strategist. “They’re not torching Ed online—they’re saying, you should be accountable to us, which is a fair point.”
And Berger said it made sense for them to expend their political capital with Markey on this issue. Their demands are “what you expect from a progressive senator trying to move the needle on this issue,” he said. “The real question is, is this an issue where you think you can move him? You only get so many chances to push before you burn the turf, but they think they can actually move him here.”
Other Democrats, especially those at odds with the progressives on Israel, see it differently.
“No elected official with a conscience is going to go 100 percent of the way, 100 percent of the time, with any group of voters,” said Mark Mellman, the pollster and president of Democratic Majority for Israel, an advocacy group in the more traditional pro-Israel mold. “Senator Markey is a man of integrity and conscience.”
Mellman continued that, on everything that is important to progressives, Markey has a great record. “Just go down the list on issues that animate Democrats and the left, on all these issues, they see a champion in Ed Markey,” he said.
Whether that image, fostered in the heat of the 2020 primary race, can endure remains to be seen. For now, when they aren’t pushing Markey to move on Israel, his onetime progressive superfans are reckoning somewhat with the limits of the culture they created around him.
“There’s been a lot of internal reflection for me and a lot of my friends and people who worked on the campaign, over not just the sincerity of it, but what role we played in maybe… misrepresenting something,” said Gunnion, the former campaign fellow. “When he introduces great legislation on climate change, when he sponsors a bill to cut the Pentagon budget by 10 percent, that’s part of our work, that’s a direct result of work we did. But it cuts the other way, too.”
But that reflection doesn’t seem to have eased the hurt. “I will say,” said Walsh, “this will permanently change the way I interact with Sen. Markey and his office.”