“Meditate on kindness, generosity, justice,” says a voice inside a quiet, sunlit-room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In the middle of a small gathering of cross-legged bodies in yoga pants and loose sweaters sits a woman wearing a dark navy shirt with a list of hot-button political stances printed on the back: “Black Lives Matter/ Innovation Is Vital / Empathy Is Essential / End Mass Incarceration / Reform Education / Legalize Marijuana.”
These are often the values of the young left, but, until recently, you would have been hard-pressed to find them spelled out on a T-shirt. On the other hand, the politico-sartorial condition has changed with the arrival of Suraj Patel for Congress, a political campaign driven by a “woke” marketing approach that winks and waves at millennial voters in New York City—voters who may, on Tuesday, upend a Democratic primary that has been a sure thing for sitting incumbents since Tammany Hall. But until then, goes the thinking behind today’s campaign event, a little mindfulness might help ease the stress caused by real-time Trumpian cruelty.
“Now, dwell on other social justice pursuits,” continues our guide, Lodro Rinzler, the Chief Spiritual Officer of MNDFL, the meditation center where we find ourselves. After a long pause, he tells the assembled staff and volunteers (and other curious attendees) to take three deep breaths before he breaks the silence with the strike of a bell. The campaign’s spokeswoman, Lis Smith, leans in next to me as Suraj Patel moves to the front of the room. “I don’t usually do this kind of shit,” she whispers. “Was that even thirty minutes?”
Patel looks and acts the part of the finance bro—a runner’s frame, white Apple watch, sleeveless down vest, Oxford shirt—who’s adopted the resistance vernacular.
Clutching a mug of tea, Patel explains why his youthful political vision is compatible with one of the more distracted, media-drunk, and advertising-saturated congressional districts in the United States. New York’s 12th District, which includes the East Village, Williamsburg, Astoria, and the Upper East Side, is also one of America’s wealthiest. The representative of this district is Carolyn Maloney, a twenty-five-year Democratic incumbent, who should be voted out of office on June 26, Patel adds, because of her old-hat and mostly absentee leadership. It’s a hybrid political pitch, equal parts personal history, startup bid, and managerial pep-talk (urging you to rock the vote). A former business ethics professor at NYU’s Stern School, with experience running his family’s controversial hotel construction and management business and working as an “advance man” for President Obama, Patel looks and acts the part of the finance bro—a runner’s frame, white Apple watch, sleeveless down vest, Oxford shirt—who’s adopted the resistance vernacular for his first run at political office. The first-generation son of an Indian-American family, he’s promised to defund ICE, push for universal health care, and introduce extensive antitrust and tax reform legislation. It’s a platform cribbed in part from the Bernie Sanders left, although its substance clashes with Patel’s style, especially his habit of rattling off business school axioms with the TED-talk charisma of a screen-ready tech boss. In this respect, his candidacy is an unsanctioned example of the Democratic party’s perennial insistence on fielding former prosecutors, ex-soldiers, or finance sector-approved candidates for congressional races. But, then again, it is perhaps his newcomer status, and not his stacked private-sector CV, that explains why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other establishment kingmakers have refused to give Patel the time of day. No matter, Patel says, looking out at the room’s oversized Monstera plants, “Congress could probably use a few more empaths.”
Patel’s operation, it has been noted, is the Casper of congressional campaigns. It speaks the language of enlightened global design, in other words, relying on sans-serif fonts, flat colors, and ample amounts of calming white space, expressing a messaging slickness rarely seen in a political campaign this side of 2008. For its part, the campaign is proud of its creative braintrust, led by Anjelica Triola, a former designer at the advertising conglomerate Interbrand who has led campaigns for Adidas and Target, among others. “Brands talk about values, but from what I’ve seen most political campaigns just divide people up along racial lines,” she says, before noting that she’s responsible for the first pink political mailer the country has ever seen. The campaign’s pink-and-blue duotone posters paper bodegas and coffee shops across the district. “Two women came into our Greenpoint office recently and asked if our poster was for a real campaign or a Netflix promo,” Patel tells me over beers following the meditation event. “Dead serious, it happened. It was amazing.”
This enthusiasm for “amazing,” disruptive branding extends beyond the renovation of traditional propaganda—the Patel camp has likewise reimagined merchandising. Its imitation Supreme streetwear, for example, has been written up on Racked—causing some items to sell out, the campaign claims. I ask Patel about a button on his vest that reads “New Blood.” “We have some new merch that’s about to drop, it’s going to be dope,” he tells me.
Like Patel’s rhetorical drive, his campaign’s approach to the internet and social media is politically unusual; it appears to be helmed by a native social media addict deeply fluent in emoji and hashtags and user experience. For his nearly four thousand Instagram followers, Patel’s team regularly unveils policy proposals in the platform’s story feature—the more wonkish voters can comb through the full text on Medium. Weekly “town halls” are held at bars across the district during happy hours. More recently, Patel has touted his “Tinder banking” events, where he catfishes unassuming date-seekers on the app to encourage civic—and not romantic—engagement. A “Now This” video of Patel hectoring befuddled young people about their current representatives has gone modestly viral, garnering over a million views in the past month. The campaign’s ongoing series of “wellness series events” across the district, like the meditation session in Williamsburg, are optimized to pull in “social media influencers.” It’s this emergent art of digital marketing, Smith argues, that is lost on the political dinosaurs who still rely on television spots and conventional mailers.
“This is a startup campaign,” Patel confirms. “We don’t have offices at our headquarters. Everyone is everywhere with their laptops. There are no silos. We are nimble and not risk averse. We take data, and we can change on the fly.” Backed by financial contributions equivalent to a solid VC-injection (the campaign has nearly outraised Maloney, pulling in $1.2 million), Patel is attempting to repackage the accepted idea of the vote-seeking candidate into something more Instagrammable and direct. It’s a tactical gambit he has deployed in a district filled with fledgling non-voters. Yet this is precisely why Patel’s “startup” is staking its hopes, and its multi-platform approach, on the scrambled attention spans of the under-thirty-five set, or the “new electorate” as Patel refers to it. “We’ve got one of the largest voting blocs in history here. What are you going to do—shame it for wanting something new? Or welcome it in? To me, this race is a pilot run, a test case, to prove that we can engender a generation of new voters.”
A test case for what? Patel’s campaign may well be an earnest attempt to activate a dormant political constituency, one seething under a Trump presidency. Oppositely, it could be a scheme to sell the Democratic party on an expedient and well-researched ploy meant to rouse a not-yet-emergent market—think of Disney’s recent bid to represent Mexico to itself with the blockbuster Coco. Either way, left-of-center policies are here pleasingly packaged for the convenience of a vote-shy electorate. “If you’re a person of color, someone who’s been systematically marginalized—any underrepresented voice—we’re saying you can be involved. This is for you,” Patel’s campaign manager, Sam Haass, tells me when I stop in at the campaign’s headquarters in early May. The Cooper Square location is the former site of Coup, a bar for resistance-minded activists founded in the days after Trump’s election. There’s an IPA on tap and hand-lettered signs on butcher’s paper reminding staffers that “The status quo is not enough.” Across the room, Patel is vociferously brainstorming behind the bar. “What if we got with Colin Kaepernick, or something, about Rikers?” he shouts, slapping the wood. “Carolyn Maloney won’t even say ‘Black Lives Matter!’”
Haass chimes back, “Mass incarceration has devastated an entire generation of black men, and this is just one reason why Suraj has proposed comprehensive criminal justice reform.” Wearing the nondescript uniform of a professional millennial (grey blazer, V-neck shirt, and light beard), Haass hesitates when I ask if he’d characterize the campaign as “progressive.” It is, after all, a ready-to-wear label affixed to other Democratic “insurgents” like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and as of late March, New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon. “We might not use the prettiest adjectives, like ‘progressive,’ but we are proposing policies that belong in the twenty-first century,” Haass says.
Still, Patel’s user-friendly political delivery hasn’t always meant that his target audience is confident about his platform; potential voters I meet at Patel’s events offer mixed messages about their interest in his run. “What specifically do I like about his positions?” Rinzler, the chief spiritual officer, tries to clarify. “Besides empathy and human concern,” he says, “it’s more that he’s just the right person for us.” At a town hall event held at Greenpoint’s FourFiveSix bar in early May, I speak with attendees following Patel’s stump speech. A mother of two named Flor Ornelas tells me that she’s never been to a political event of any kind before. But, after Trump, she says, “everybody felt it in their soul that they had to do something politically.” For her part, Ornelas sees housing and homelessness as the district’s fulcrum issues. Nevertheless, she concludes: “As he was speaking, I was on the verge of tears, thinking, ‘Yes, this is what we need!’ And yet, actually, he didn’t say anything at all. Not a thing.”
When it comes to Patel’s meta-millennial branding, others are not so much suspicious as repelled.
The more Beltway familiar, too, have been unable to separate Patel’s content from his message-delivery system. The confident ambiguity of his promises, for these onlookers, brings to mind startup solutions for problems that never existed. One of the few people I’ve found tweeting about the race is Brian Van Nieuwenhoven, a member of Manhattan Community Board 6. The thirty-eight-year-old describes himself as an “irreverent” Democrat, already firmly behind Cynthia Nixon’s run for governor. “I always want to hear what new candidates have to say, as someone who places a high value on ‘energy’ and progressive ideology,” he writes over email. For Van Nieuwenhoven, however, Patel has been a “disappointment,” a candidate unable to convey a tangible set of progressive ideals. “I would absolutely be a great person for Patel to strip away from the Democratic establishment groupthink, which is why it’s almost farcical that I have ended up seeing the guy as a clumsy, scheming buffoon whose whole facade is bogus.” For Eve Peyser, a twenty-four-year-old politics writer for Vice News, and a lifelong resident of NY-12, Patel’s approach is suspiciously opaque. “It’s kind of weird, I’m not sure what to make of him, besides the fact that it seems like he’s using Bernie’s momentum to market himself and that it’s clear he’s going for my vote,” Peyser explains. “I’m resistant to marketing like this. I tend to ignore a poster that look like his. Good marketing makes me naturally suspicious.”
When it comes to Patel’s meta-millennial branding, others are not so much suspicious as repelled. Aaron Robbs, a former creative director at Dropbox who also lives in the district, believes this antagonism is a built-in risk for campaigns who try to cram globalized design into the limited space of local politics. “It’s hard to argue with a reductionist, minimalist design approach, especially for companies selling their products all over the world,” he says. “But when you co-opt these trends for a more specific cause and location, especially in a place as vibrant, diverse, and multicultural as New York City, it can come across as superficial and a bit alienating,” Robbs concludes. “There isn’t even a clear call to action on his posters.”
There has been little demand from the Patel campaign to seriously break with the political conventions of the Democratic party. Rather, what Patel more stridently calls for is market and brand renovation, without which, as he told the New York Times, Democrats run the risk of becoming a “legacy corporation.” “The primary is a phenomenal opportunity for us to test new ideas, new energy,” Patel said. “I find the lack of creativity in politics appalling.” Which is to say that, for Patel, the problem is persistently one about newness—and not necessarily rightness. And in his bid to remake the party in his image, substance has become a subset of style.
Patel has been forthright about his desire to build a political brand that will live beyond June 26. To this end, there is a markedly aspirational moment at his events when he declares that “competition fuels Democracy”—a moment that smacks of the disruptorism made familiar to everyone by Silicon Valley. Along these lines, Patel explains that since the campaign’s beginnings, its eye has been trained not on the present but the future: its digital strategy, the data collected, the anecdotal feedback, the style guide—it will all go into a post-campaign playbook, comprising a branding bible that could unlock a new electorate for 2018 and beyond. “By changing our votes, we can change our representation,” Patel says. “Deployed to scale, there can be a sea change in this country.”
Yet there is little belief among staunch observers that Patel has a chance at the polls on Tuesday. “An incumbent with a positive approval rating has never lost,” one explained. Maloney’s most recent challenge of note came in 2010 from Reshma Saujani, the first Indian-American woman to run for a U.S. House seat. Thirty-four years old at the time, Saujani even managed to outraise Maloney before losing by a margin of 62 percent. Peter Feld, who works at The Insurrection, a progressive campaign strategy firm, said that if Patel were to be rolled by a similar margin, it would undo any forward momentum leveraged by his brand. “Half-baked primary challenges like Patel’s only demoralize new voters and volunteers,” he said.
Patel’s laboratory, New York’s immensely wealthy 12th district, bears little resemblance to most other contended districts.
“That’s transparently false,” said New York-based journalist Sean McElwee, citing Hillary Clinton’s loss as a catalyst for a rise in women candidates—many of whom have won. “It’s literal fucking American history.” Obama’s landslide elections were born out of Bush-era activism and persistent demoralization, he argued. McElwee took interest in Patel after he became the first congressional candidate to propose defunding ICE. As McElwee sees it, untouchable Democratic strongholds like NY-12 should be hotbeds of progressive innovation and debate, in part because of the ease with which young voters can join the process. “Young Democrats are always thinking about the future. They want to see candidates that look like them. [Patel’s campaign] is so much more about setting up a base, a volunteer infrastructure, and teaching these kids how to organize, use VAN, to use social media—engaging a new electorate,” he added.
But as the 2018 midterms begin to spit out new and familiar narratives about left and progressive strategy, especially under the miasma of Trumpism, it’s becoming clear that “New Blood” globalized brand design cannot augment or replace the rhetorical force of a committed stance—one rooted in the overwhelming social and economic problems faced by constituents. Of course, Patel’s laboratory, New York’s immensely wealthy 12th district, bears little resemblance to most other contended districts, and this fact alone undermines his claim to the “scalability” of his marketing attack. What’s more, the presentation of global design is not itself without ideological content. Embedded in an Uberish logo, for example, is a reminder of the insecurities born from the gig economy; every act of sanitized global appeal carries with it the erasure of local difficulties.
Late in May, in the same week that the Daily News ran a story about a history of labor violations at Patel’s family hotels, the campaign chose to drop some new merch. Its Instagram feed showed stylized photographs of staffers and volunteers modeling $50 “New Blood” shirts. The text on each shirt was printed in a gooey font, bringing to mind melted strawberry ice cream.
“[Is this a] lifestyle brand or a political campaign?” an Instagram user asked in the comment section.
Patel’s account replied, using the smiling emoji in sunglasses, “Both.”