If you’re paying attention to presidential politics, you should be paying attention to Andrew Yang, a tech entrepreneur running for president as a Democrat.
Yang is worth taking seriously not because he has a real shot at the nomination (he comes in at about 1 percent in most polls), but because, unlike most of the politicians in the field with him, he has a policy agenda that features genuinely new ideas that, even if unworkable, augur interesting times for the future of American politics.
Despite the assumptions of its advocates, the Democratic party’s primary campaign has thus far shown few signs that it is the party of the 21st century. Its freshest candidate, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, is notable mainly for his rhetorical resemblance to Barack Obama. Joe Biden — who’s expected to announce his own presidential campaign on Thursday and who already leads in many polls — is in his mid 70s and appeals to voters for few reasons other than being a familiar establishment face and a callback to the Obama era. At the same time, a handful of Democratic senators are elbowing each other out of the way as they struggle to race as far left as Bernie Sanders, who has been standing there patiently for decades.
But the decidedly nonpartisan Yang hasn’t been hanging around on the outskirts of Congress or in a governor’s mansion waiting for his shot. He’s not in the field because he wants to make a name for himself and become a Democratic-party fixture going forward. He’s there because he thinks he actually has the substance to speak to our current moment. Plenty of people agree that we’re facing cultural disintegration, he says, but too few are proposing an actual plan for recovery.
“Right now, you have a whole confluence of negative forces coming together that are driving economic distress and political and social dysfunction,” he tells me on the phone. “Most of the solutions that people are offering will not move the needle.” Talking to Yang is like talking to your undergraduate economics professor in office hours as he tries to find a way to communicate with students who were too bored to pay attention the first time he explained something in class. He thinks he gets it, and he wants you to get it, too.
Yang has thought through pretty much every issue — even those that have little to no bearing on the average voter — and takes a clear-cut stance on all of them. His website details positions on everything from Medicare for All to paying NCAA athletes, from crypto-asset regulation to “modernizing the grid.” He has a stance on packaging waste (anti), revitalizing American malls (pro), ranked-choice voting in federal elections (pro), algorithmic financial trading (anti), and the penny (very, very anti).
Yang has the least name recognition of any Democratic-primary candidate, with 54 percent of voters saying they’ve never heard of him. He sees that as an upside.
“I’ve raised between $2 and $3 million, and my name recognition is still very low. Most Americans have never heard of Andrew Yang,” he tells me when I ask how he plans to stand out in the field. But his very next sentence is optimistic, paraphrasing elections blogger Nate Silver’s analysis of his campaign: “Based on the fact that he is outpolling and out-fundraising what you would expect given his low name recognition, there’s a chance that Andrew Yang just grows and grows and takes the whole thing.”
Is Yang-mentum a myth? He won’t win the nomination, but he’ll have plenty of chances to evangelize during the primary: In March, his campaign exceeded the 65,000-donor threshold to merit a place in the first Democratic-primary debate, and he’s garnered media coverage from some surprising places.
“Most Americans are still going to be finding out about me when they watch these debates,” he goes on. “They’re going to see me. They’re going to Google me. They’ll be like, ‘Who’s that guy?’” He pauses to chuckle at his own comment. “Then the more people dig into my vision for the country, the better I’m going to do.”
Much of the buzz around Yang is generated by his “freedom dividend,” a universal-basic-income (UBI) proposal to give every American the option of receiving $1,000 per month from the federal government. Unlike the policy proposals of the other Democratic candidates, most of whom seem to be basing their positions more or less on where their next-closest competitor was standing yesterday, Yang’s UBI — though rightly unpersuasive to conservatives on principle — is based on his careful thought about the state of the American economy and the social complications that have arisen as a result.
He describes the status quo in somewhat grave terms, noting that rates of business formation and interstate migration are at multi-decade lows, which he calls “very dispiriting.” He also doubts that things will improve on their own. “It’s likely to get much worse,” he says, “as the stores close and the self-driving cars take over and the robots start displacing warehouse shelvers and all the rest.”
It’s a bit grim, and yet he’s still optimistic. He thinks policy can actually have an effect. The question for policymakers, to his mind, is how to increase economic mobility and dynamism in spite of these factors — and he calls his UBI proposal “easily the most direct and impactful and immediate” way to “put resources in the hands of American families and workers.”
The crude materialism of his “freedom dividend” sidesteps the cultural factors that also may underpin our woes. Yang concedes as much, but argues that his proposal at least makes use of the levers available to government. “What does the cultural restoration look like?” he asks me rhetorically.
For him, the freedom dividend is the chief answer. He sees it as the best available method to “redirect economic resources in a way that does not magically rejuvenate various institutions or restore various cultural values, but at least it provides an environment where that rejuvenation and restoration becomes more possible and more realistic.”
Some conservatives, including Charles Murray, have suggested a UBI as a replacement for the current congeries of social-welfare programs. Yang’s plan doesn’t quite go that far, but he thinks it would effectively consolidate the safety net over time. “My plan is in some ways a hybrid where we offer the freedom dividend universally to every American adult, but if you opt in, then you are forgoing the benefits from the vast majority of our existing programs,” he explains, arguing that this would quickly decrease enrollment in welfare programs.
He acknowledges that his idea will require more government spending up front, but he thinks it would pay off: “We get a lot of that money back in various ways through economic growth and direct costs and the value gains from having a stronger, healthier, better educated, mentally healthier, more productive population.”
Is Andrew Yang going to be the next Democratic nominee? He isn’t saying that, exactly. “I’m going to suggest that going from an anonymous non–public official to 3 percent [in polls] and making the debates is a harder leap than going from 3 percent to contention,” is how he puts it to me. Maybe so.
Unlike the rest of the Democrats, Yang is not fighting for the honor of being the most left-wing candidate on stage. He’s not even especially progressive. He is, ultimately, a technocrat, with a complex explanation for every problem and a corresponding, carefully developed policy solution, which is more feasible in some cases than in others.
Yang is worth paying attention to not because those solutions are the right ones, but because he’s identifying many of the right problems and because his approach deviates from the typical political fare. He matters for what he reveals about our political moment and what is likely to come next. That future will have more politicians, on both sides of the aisle, who sound a lot more like Andrew Yang.