Don’t count out Andrew Yang, the populist technocrat who wants to be president - Macleans.ca

Don’t count out Andrew Yang, the populist technocrat who wants to be president

Yang and his outsized ideas have electrified the Democrats’ presidential nomination race, making him the X-factor in a fast-narrowing field

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Yang, a Democratic presidential hopeful, walks through the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines (Erin Schaff/The New York Times/Redux)

Last year, around 100 people showed up to the Belknap County Democrats’ annual summer picnic. Many had white hair and walkers and knew each other by first name. This year, on an unseasonably cool August afternoon in the economically debilitated New Hampshire town of Laconia, surrounded by postcard-perfect lakes and roadside sycamores, more than 500 people are visiting Leavitt Park for an extension of that event, called the Summer Blue Bash. Of those 500, four are politicians hoping to replace Donald Trump as the president of the United States. Dozens more are fresh-faced twentysomethings who’ve never supported a candidate before, never even voted before, and spent hours driving here from as far as Vermont, New York and Massachusetts to support one particular candidate. Their fidelity is emblazoned on their hats (“Yang 2020”), on banners reading MATH (“Make America Think Harder”) and on T-shirts screen-printed with the Bitmojified face of an Asian man laughing.

That man is Andrew Yang, and if you’ve never heard of him, you’re part of a shrinking majority.

A populist technocrat whose campaign hinges on a universal basic income to offset the inevitable economic Ragnarök wreaked by automation, Yang may be the biggest breakout star of the Democratic race. He’s soaking up support from an unlikely coalition of socialists, libertarians, alt-right trolls, independents, disaffected Trump supporters and tech-savvy millennials who vote based on which candidate generates the dankest memes. They call themselves the Yang Gang. Elon Musk is a member, as are Tommy Chong, Nicolas Cage, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and YouTube star Casey Neistat. After Yang spent two hours chatting with Joe Rogan on his podcast this past February, Yang’s national support tripled from one per cent to three over a few months, while his second-quarter fundraising nearly doubled to US$2.8 million—a number he’s already nearly doubled again in Q3, days after reaching 200,000 unique donors. His efforts qualified him for the nationally televised debate on Sept. 12. (By comparison, Congressman Beto O’Rourke, a fundraising titan, faltered to $3.6 million in Q2 after having an explosive Q1, while Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., has collected more than $30 million to date. Yet neither man is currently polling above five per cent.)

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Yang’s rapidly growing base comprises (mostly) young (mostly) male supporters. Almost all of them learned about him online from the sometimes-sketchy digital communities of Reddit, 4chan and Facebook. Yang expertly navigates these white waters of the internet, embracing Asian stereotypes others might denounce as racist, capitalizing on virality without pushing negativity. When white nationalists began orbiting his campaign, he flatly condemned them. (“I don’t look much like a white nationalist,” the son of Taiwanese immigrants noted.)

The Yang Gang’s presence marks a paradigm shift for the small-town Democrats of Belknap County. “For a lot of folks who would regularly go to these events for many years, part of their identity is the associations they have with candidates in the flow in a generation of activism,” says Steve Marchand, Yang’s senior national adviser, moments before his candidate takes the stage. “With the Yang Gang, there’s very little of that. I hear it all the time: ‘This is the most jacked up I’ve been about anybody in politics.’ ”

The Yang Gang is generally polite, argumentative, loyal and nerdy. Many are too young to vote. Aimee Alexander, a teacher from Vermont, was introduced to Yang by her 10th-graders, who shouted his name excitedly down the school halls. “I think they just liked his picture and didn’t know much about him,” she says. Now she’s in Laconia to hear him speak for the first time. “I had kind of brushed him off with other candidates after the first debate. But he really caught my attention in the second. And not just mine—my sister, her husband, their college-aged kid. They’re all in the Yang Gang now.”

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A funny story about that second debate: Yang crowdsourced his Reddit fanbase to write his closing remarks. More than one user suggested Yang break the fourth wall and call out the reality-TV nature of America’s political process. Yang took their advice—“It’s one reason we elected a reality-TV star as our president,” he added on the CNN stage, earning laughs and applause—and kicked down the door to the mainstream.

All this emanates from one of Yang’s taglines: “Humanity first.” Digital spaces, sometimes malicious, can also be meeting places for deeply personal connections, and personal connections are Yang’s secret weapon. As soon as he walks onstage in Laconia, he waves his fans over. “Come on up. Gimme some love,” he says, offering high fives and handshakes. “That’s more like it. This is more human.” He’s the personification of the Good Guy Boss meme: supportive, in control and totally normal. Ill-fitting slacks crumple over his old black leather shoes. He never wears a tie. (A fan, unprompted, shouts from the crowd, “Ties are uncomfortable!”) His natural stage presence is both awkward and smooth, marked by quick sentences and deadpan jokes. He snaps his fingers to underscore points; his stump speech sounds like a start-up pitch at Y Combinator.

The Yang Gang, hanging on every word, yells bang-on replies to every rhetorical prompt, as if they’re watching reruns of Jeopardy!

When was the last time U.S. life expectancy dropped three years in a row?

“The Spanish flu!”

How effective is government job retraining?

“Zero to 15 per cent!”

What state already has a type of universal basic income?

“Alaska!”

They’re really specific lines, because Yang’s a really specific guy. On his website, he has fine-tuned more than 150 policies, crafting a whimsically idealistic vision of what America could look like in the coming decade.

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In Yang’s America, for example, 16-year-olds in the brand-new state of Puerto Rico will vote from blockchain-encrypted apps in ranked-ballot federal elections—which they won’t have to skip school for, because Election Day, like Tax Day, will be a federal holiday. Every American adult will get a thousand bucks a month. The government will buy back every gun possible and replace them, free of charge, with personalized guns coded to their owners’ biometrics, so four-year-olds can’t accidentally shoot their friends. University won’t be free, but vocational college will be—to encourage teenagers to become plumbers and electricians. We’ll still need them after robots replace lawyers, accountants, editors, telemarketers, drivers and waiters. (Rule of robots: number crunching is easy; using opposable thumbs is hard.) Breakthrough innovations in thorium nuclear energy will be exported to help polluting nations shrink their carbon footprints. Yang will also reform the stock market (focus less on money, more on happiness), incarceration (end federal private prisons) and health care (Medicare for all). Weed will be legal. Opioids will be decriminalized. The penny will be abolished.

Oh, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association will finally pay its athletes.

“Some of his policies were things that I was already looking at independently,” says Don Jeanes, a 44-year-old roofing contractor and Yang Gang volunteer, citing the penny and thorium nuclear reactors as examples. “No one was talking about them, but for me they were important.” Jeanes is politically independent and doesn’t usually vote, but happily drove an hour to see Yang in Laconia. “I’m kind of an all-or-nothing type person. And once I decided this was my guy—and he’s the only politician I’ve ever found in my entire life that I felt actually cared, could actually make a difference, had plans, had ways to implement those plans—I was like, I can’t be on the sidelines. I have to get involved.”

Yang, fundamentally, is unlike any other politician, because he isn’t actually a politician. He graduated from Columbia Law School and went to a desk at Davis Polk & Wardwell, a prestigious New York law firm. A couple months into the gig, on a Friday at 6 p.m., the company staffing coordinator called him, likely to ruin his weekend with mindless work. He ignored the call. “I was like, I need to find a job where I am actually excited to pick up that phone,” he said on The Rubin Report, a libertarian YouTube talk show. He recalls a joke he made at the time: “This law firm is a temple to the squandering of human potential.” He quit after five months.

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With $100,000 in student debt and his parents’ disapproval, he started his first business in 2000, stargiving.com, a website that helped celebrities raise money for charities with sponsored hyperlinks. Yang doesn’t hide the fact that it bombed, but he doesn’t go into much detail, either. “The company didn’t work out, I’m sure in part because I had little idea what I was doing,” he wrote in Quartz in 2014.

He worked briefly as a nightclub promoter and on the tech side of urban hospitals, eventually joining Manhattan GMAT, a tutoring company. Yang rose to CEO in 2006, facilitated its sale to a massively popular education company in 2009, and resigned in 2012 with millions of dollars to his name.

He left with a new vision of what America needed and outlined it in his 2014 book, Smart People Should Build Things. “We’ve got a problem: our smart people are doing the wrong things,” the book begins. “If we can get them to do the right things, it will transform the country.”

The right thing for Yang was a start-up called Venture for America (VFA), a fellowship program that connected eager entrepreneurs with opportunities in depressed cities such as Detroit, Baltimore and St. Louis. It was a noble idea with a lofty goal of generating 100,000 jobs by 2025, and it earned Yang an invitation from President Barack Obama to the White House.

But Yang’s success with VFA, by his own admission, was mixed. By 2017, when Yang left the start-up to plan his presidential run, VFA’s fellows had allegedly created just 3,000 jobs. (According to an investigation by Recode, that number is “based on how many jobs its partner companies have added since working with a VFA fellow, a highly questionable measuring stick.”) Nearly half of all VFA fellows ended up leaving their host cities; one, in Las Vegas, committed suicide by jumping off a building downtown. By all accounts, the tragedy devastated Yang, who felt personally responsible. He called the man’s parents to break the news himself; then he flew to Alabama to grieve with them in person.

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Looking back, Yang frequently compares his work at VFA to “pouring water in a bathtub that had a giant hole ripped in the bottom.” Throughout his career, he kept trying to do useful things and kept falling short. America’s economic troubles, he realized, cannot be solved by a few thousand plucky entrepreneurs. The death of American malls, pervasive overdoses, rampant capitalism, overpriced colleges, media fragmentation, degenerating mental health—Yang connects all these dots, like an obsessive detective stringing together sticky notes with yarn, explaining that what plagues the country is insidious to the point of invisibility.

“How many of you noticed stores closing where you live in New Hampshire?” Yang asks the Laconia crowd. Most hands shoot up. “And why are the stores closing?”

“Amazon!” the Yang Gang shouts back.

“We automated away four million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa—and if that list sounds familiar, it’s that those are the swing states Donald Trump needed to win and did win,” Yang continues, tying the pieces together. “Donald Trump is our president today because he got many of the problems right. But his solutions are garbage and nonsense.”

Yang hoists a supporter’s sign at a rally in Los Angeles (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Yang’s solutions centre on a universal basic income of $1,000 a month, called the Freedom Dividend, for every American over the age of 18. This will not replace work, he stresses, but will “get the boot off of people’s throats.” It would be funded by a new 10 per cent value-added tax on megacorporations like Amazon, coupled with billions saved from shrunken welfare programs made largely obsolete. Besides, Yang argues, the dividend won’t just disappear—people will spend it, mostly locally, passing a few billion more back to the government in taxes.

It’s a better solution than a $15 minimum wage, he argues, because it helps stay-at-home mothers and those who cannot work, not to mention people earning $16 an hour. Senator Bernie Sanders, the race’s loudest proponent of a minimum-wage hike and arguably Yang’s biggest opponent (both men handily beat Trump in head-to-head polls because of overlapping bases), has shifted his stance on UBI over the years. Sanders sounded open to it several years ago, but these days attacks it as unrealistic, perhaps sensing the need to squash Yang before his gang grows too large. Other hard-left voters have begun taking aim at Yang for his conservative stance on Israel and his simplistic libertarian dream of small government.

For Laconia, an old mill town with a stagnant population and growing opioid crisis, a universal basic income for all 13,500 adult residents would mean a monthly economic injection of $13,500,000. The town could use it. Laconians pay some of the highest property taxes in the country; the poverty rate is over 14 per cent; young people leave without looking back. The town is also in a deeply Republican county. Hillary Clinton barely clung to New Hampshire, but Trump carried Belknap by 16 per cent. The state famously casts one of the first ballots for a presidential nominee, making it critical political territory. And if candidates want to win in New Hampshire, “they have to win places like Laconia,” says Carlos Cardona, chair of the Laconia Democrats. “There’s no path to victory without Laconia and Belknap County.”

It’s also fertile ground for Yang’s radical proposals. When he first rolled into New Hampshire in January, he preached the Freedom Dividend as a panacea. But Cardona convinced him to ease up on that, to pivot instead to local issues of addiction and unemployment. Belknap County suffers the second-highest rate of overdose deaths in New Hampshire, which itself is the fourth most lethal state for opioid deaths. Yang took his advice, and Cardona has watched the candidate’s crowd sizes grow with every subsequent visit. He now draws a through line from financial insecurity to anxiety, depression and addiction. Audience members nod along. They get it. Fifty of them signed up to receive Yang Gang emails after he left the stage. “Live Free or Die,” their state motto goes. To win the nomination, Yang needs voters to agree this is not rhetorical: freedom means a monthly dividend. The alternative, quite literally, is death.


This article appears in print in the October 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Kicking down the door.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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