It was easy, initially, to dismiss Andrew Yang as a joke. When he first entered the primary, the startup guy-turned-presidential candidate’s most distinguishing qualities seemed to be his almost pathological aversion to wearing ties and a belief that giving all Americans over the age of 18 a Universal Basic Income, what he called his “Freedom Dividend,” would prepare us for a looming economic collapse driven by robots and automation. (Yang himself often sums up his presidential run like this: “There’s an Asian man running for president who wants to give everyone $1,000 a month.”)
In recent months, Yang also become known for having a number of fans among white nationalists and the alt-right (who seem to favorably interpret his UBI proposal as economic populism for the white working-class and also because, as one put it, “generally speaking, White Nationalists find Asians to be the most agreeable non-white group in our society”); for his stance against circumcision; and for challenging Ted Cruz to a game of pickup basketball. All of this raises some questions, or at the very least some eyebrows, about the sincerity of his stunt-heavy campaign, but he’s built a small—if very vocal—coalition of disaffected young men and techies who are seduced by his so-called nonideological technocratic vision (as well as the cool gleam of being given $1,000 a month). Yang started as a novelty, but now he’s a novelty with some staying power, continuing to poll around two or three percent nationwide. (One outlier has him at eight percent nationwide, ahead of Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris.) It’s hardly a sign of strength, but much like a nagging cold, he refuses to go away.
Much of his appeal, as profiles and campaign reporting have made clear, comes from his apparent earnestness and directness in tackling anxiety-inducing questions about the future of work and the material conditions of people’s lives. Which is why it’s so curious that his policy platform doesn’t come anywhere close to solving the problems he says he cares about. (Plus, it’s hard to take a man who crowdsurfs seriously. Even Beto hasn’t tried that trick yet.)
Yet incredibly, an increasing number of news outlets are taking him very seriously. In The Atlantic, a recent piece by Peter Beinart titled “Why Andrew Yang Matters” described him approvingly as a modern-day Ross Perot, another outsider candidate who believes that the main ills facing America were purely about economics. This is an odd position to embrace at a time when our president has embraced full-on white supremacy, yet Yang is a true believer. “How did Donald Trump become our president in 2016?” Yang asked the crowd at a rally in New York City in May. The answer is, of course, simple math. “I looked at the numbers,” he said, “and Donald Trump is our president for one simple reason: We automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, all of the swing states that Donald Trump needed to win.”
Beinart isn’t the only one who finds aspects of Yang’s campaign appealing, either. “Whether he has a real shot at the nomination or not, Yang is onto something,” CNN’s S.E. Cupp wrote of what she called his “marked incapacity for anger,” in contrast, I can only assume, to candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. She added, without exactly explaining why: “And the frontrunners would be smart to pay attention.”
But we don’t actually need Ross Perot re-invented for 2019 as a tech bro. If Yang cares deeply about inequality and a future on our dying planet, the best contribution he could make right now would be to drop out of the race and throw his support behind candidates who actually have substantive ideas on how to tackle the ways that corporate power has ruthlessly and intentionally diminished people’s lives. Andrew, I beg of you: please stop wasting our time.
Now here’s where I admit that my dislike of Andrew Yang isn’t purely based on policy. Andrew Yang is embarrassing and irritating—to me, a fellow Chinese American. The first East Asian to make a somewhat serious run for president is Andrew fucking Yang? A failed lawyer turned entrepreneur who wants to MATH, (“Make America Think Harder”) and charm white nationalists on Reddit into kind of liking him? I cringe every time he whips out his standard line—“The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian guy who likes math.” I wince every time he cracks stale jokes about being Asian, like he did during the last presidential debate in Houston, lines that haven’t been updated since 1990. “I’m Asian, so I know a lot of doctors,” he quipped before talking about his health care plan. Patsy Mink, he is not! (Full disclosure: my sister used to work with Yang at Manhattan Prep, and my other sister’s husband is apparently some sort of distant cousin to him. If I were Yang, this is where I’d joke that this is proof that all Asian people are related to one another. That’s a bad, boring joke—it’s actually because all Taiwanese Americans know each other.)
I remember the first moment that I thought: Andrew Yang kind of sucks. It was his CNN town hall in April, and Yang once again shared how he was perplexed by his appeal to a number of white nationalists. Asked first by an audience member who had been present during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville what he would do to combat white nationalism, he responded that the key to ending the “tribalism that’s tearing this country apart” would be solved “by getting the economic boot off of people’s throats”—in other words, by his Freedom Dividend. (Also notice, if you will, that the single mothers of color who disproportionately experience the economic hardships Yang describes here have decidedly not become Nazis in the years since the recession.) Here is a man, I thought, who really doesn’t get it.
As he has continued to campaign, it’s become even clearer that his supposedly post-partisan platform—one of his slogans is “not left, not right, but forward”—is an attempt to appeal to a swathe of largely young, white men by sidestepping pesky matters like racism and sexism. Yang decries identity politics as divisive on the one hand and embraces stale ideas of being Asian on the other, which goes a long way towards explaining his recent eyebrow-raising defense of comic Shane Gillis, who was hired and then quickly fired by Saturday Night Live after recent clips of him mocking Asian people—Yang himself included—surfaced. Offering to sit down with Gillis, Yang then shared on Twitter, “For the record, I do not think he should lose his job. We would benefit from being more forgiving rather than punitive.” He then followed up that interesting take with an even more cringey analysis on what is being called “cancel culture” and what I would call entirely appropriate consequences for shitty racist behavior:
It’s also the case that anti-Asian racism is particularly virulent because it’s somehow considered more acceptable. If Shane had used the n word the treatment would likely be immediate and clear.
To Yang, racial slurs are merely “offensive.” He entirely misses the point about the power of racial slurs, which, as Jamelle Bouie put it, are “verbal affirmations of the idea that you, as a member of targeted community, are not quite human, a second-class citizen who does not deserve respect or dignity.” Yang’s muddled posture here is telling, and a line can be drawn from his incoherent stance on Gillis and his position against what he calls “identity politics” to his policy proposals, which purportedly aim to tackle pressing issues of inequality but fail to address one of the fundamental aspects of the way our economy works—which is to say, how racialized inequity has not only accrued over time but is central to capitalism. In words Yang might understand: it’s built into the system, and not a bug.
None of which is to say that he doesn’t also experience racism on the campaign trail: Yang has been treated badly by pundits and cable news networks, who can’t even print his name correctly for chyrons and cut him out of candidate round-ups, despite his polling narrowly above people like Cory Booker. These insults can either be read as people dismissing him and his campaign as that of a wacky outsider or as upsetting reminders that Asians in politics, whether as voters or as politicians, are often an afterthought. (Or likely some combination of the two.)
Still, you can see his lack of perspective on racial justice in his much-discussed UBI proposal. I personally find most UBI evangelists extremely suspect, given that noted humanitarians Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Mark Zuckerberg are among them. (Who’s dumb enough to trust our techno-dystopian would-be autocrats these days?) While Yang’s is not the only UBI proposal out there, and there are champions of different versions of UBI from the left, there are major problems with his. Primary among them? As Yang himself has noted about his UBI plan, one would have to make the choice between accepting the “Freedom Dividend” or keeping one’s existing benefits, like SNAP and disability payments. Instead of becoming a piece of a more robust safety net, Yang’s UBI proposal would help destroy it. There is, too, the separate question of whether a solidly upper-middle-class family would need the infusion of $1,000 per month, or whether it would be best put to use it to, I don’t know, fix our crumbling schools.
So what’s Yang’s motivation for pushing UBI? His vision, to put it mildly, is bleak. “All you need is self-driving cars to destabilize society,” Yang told the New York Times in an early interview, describing it as an event that would “create riots in the streets.” “We have five to 10 years before truckers lose their jobs,” he warned, “and all hell breaks loose.” (To audiences of voters, he describes his UBI plan a little more cheerily as “trickle-up economics.”) According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, truckers make on average about $44,000 per year, far more than what Yang’s Freedom Dividend would provide, which is just a touch under the federal poverty rate. As for automation’s potential to destroy millions of people’s jobs, some experts are increasingly skeptical of that idea, and new research has come out that has dialed down previous estimates of its impact. As Eric Levitz summed it up in New York magazine, “[T]he biggest flaw in Yang’s grand theory is that its foundational premise is (almost certainly) wrong.”
I’m of the personal belief that the only people we should take seriously during the Democratic primary are those with a clear-eyed understanding of how power operates and not only a deep desire to shift more of that power towards the 99 percent, but actual ideas to do so. Andrew Yang is not that person. Consider how he characterizes our corporate overlords’ ruthless drive for ever-increasing profits in his 2018 book, The War on Normal People. “Right now some of the smartest people in the country are trying to figure out how to replace you with an overseas worker, a cheaper version of you, or, increasingly, a widget, software program, or robot,” Yang wrote. He continued: “There’s no malice in it. The market rewards business leaders for making things more efficient. Efficiency doesn’t love normal people. It loves getting things done in the most cost-effective way possible.”
Here, we’re reminded that Yang’s ethos is that of Silicon Valley, where he was incubated, both chirpy technocrat—Freedom! Dividend! To! Unlock! Our! Potential!—and doomsday prophet—ROBOT APOCALYPSE! There’s nothing really in his writing or platform to suggest that Yang understands the real forces driving this ever-increasing push towards productivity and efficiency, nor does he point the blame squarely at the actual people who are making those decisions. As one critic of his UBI proposal put it recently in Longreads, “By talking about disappearing jobs rather than stagnant wages and degrading working conditions, Yang plays into the grandiose self-image of Silicon Valley. Technology only solves problems, according to this view, it doesn’t cause them.” What would Yang’s vision of UBI—which one writer for the New Inquiry described as “a subtle kind of doomsday prep for the tech billionaire”—really fundamentally change? The “smartest people in the country” would get to continue partying on their private islands, stocked with lavish bunkers, while the rest of us “normal people” get our UBI crumbs.
Yang, of course, has other ideas—his policy page lists dozens of them, a weird grab bag of the sensible (making election day a federal holiday) and the hmmm-inducing (the American Mall Act) But I focus on Yang’s UBI plan because that’s what he has focused on as the singular, defining issue of his campaign.
Still, let’s take a look at another issue that he’s spoken about at length—climate change. And here again, I plead: Andrew Yang, please drop out. “This is going to be a tough truth, but we are too late. We are 10 years too late,” Yang said of efforts to curb climate change at a debate at the end of July. He then offered his Freedom Dividend as the solution, positioning a massive, complex issue that requires at minimum a massive government intervention into one best tackled by individual choices: “We need to start moving our people to higher ground, and the best way to do that is to put economic resources into your hands so you can protect yourself and your families.” As Max Read of New York magazine summed it up: “Andrew Yang 2020: The world is fucked, you’re on your own, take some money, head to higher ground. Or as Brian Kahn of our sister site Earther put it: “The Heritage Foundation called, and it wants its white paper back.”
So what are we to make of Yang’s plan? If Bernie’s is a revolution, and Inslee’s was dubbed a blueprint, then Yang’s is Silicon Valley’s entry into how we do this whole climate change solutions thing. It combines unproven technological fixes and magical thinking while also having a bit of a blind spot for environmental justice. It’s a plan that at once makes solving climate change feel hopeless and yet the solutions feel breezy when in some cases, they’ll be anything but. And that heady, strange brew is what still makes this whole thing feel like a house of cards on the beach with a hurricane swirling on the horizon.
Yet Yang’s brand of fake redistributive politics and technocratic fixes is proving remarkably durable. His latest stunt, where he announced a lottery in which he’d select ten families who’d get $1,000 per month for a year, helped him net a cool $1 million in donations and almost half a million new email sign-ups.
It’s clear that Yang is resonating with people who feel left behind. “He got the problems right,” Yang is fond of saying about Donald Trump—his solutions, he adds, were just wrong. This is an incredibly stupid thing to say about the president. But like him, Yang doesn’t get the problems right either. But hey, the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math, right?