Andrew Yang likes to count off the days until you, the voter, can put humanity first.
He stood a weekend ago on the altar of an old Unitarian church, lit up against pale pink walls by a blinding white light and positioned between the Lord's Prayer and Matthew 22 (“THOU SHALT LOVE THE LORD”), explaining these diminishing days.
"Your mission in 33 days is to let the rest of the country know that economic value and human value are not the same things,” he said, “that we have intrinsic value as Americans, as citizens, as human beings ourselves."
Then, after a beat, he added, "I'm glad I'm making this case in— I think we're in a church, is that right? At that point, there should've been like a hymn.
"Someone should've been like, BAANNG. Organ."
This is how it went in New Hampshire, a superstructure of frattiness over nerdiness: 33 short days, 32 short days, 31 short days. Now it's 21 short days until New Hampshire. Yang came, really, out of nowhere to raise millions of dollars and outlast governors and senators running for president. But here at the end, he’ll likely just miss being the real deal. The days get longer, and Yang's time grows shorter. Last week, as the debate calmly proceeded without him in Des Moines, he walked through Chicago O'Hare airport. So what will become of Yang, who plays the Smiths and Whitesnake’s "Here I Go Again" before his events?
This may not be a winning strategy right now — cast off that idea — but Yang’s part of a rising new Political Type. If you look at the way technology and the press evolved throughout the 20th century, the kinds of candidates changed with the media. In presentation and deep-down message, Yang shares more with others entering politics in the post-Obama, iPhone era than many 2020 Democrats do.
Admittedly, by his own emphasis, everything with Yang comes back around to universal basic income (UBI), a policy favored by some libertarians, a handful of progressives, and people who believe the federal government's only true talent is writing checks. If you've followed 2020 at all, you've heard that Yang wants to implement a $1,000/month UBI. ("Forevah?" as one woman asked in New Hampshire. Forever!) Next, maybe, you've heard him talk about how artificial intelligence and self-driving vehicles will put more people out of work, including the potential extinction of the American trucker.
Meanwhile, Yang's jokes about himself that trade in Asian stereotypes have gotten laughs from mostly white crowds and deeply angered some people, Asian American and non–Asian American alike. (They also seem to still be top of mind for some noncritics. "I'm Asian and I don't like math," said one New Hampshire voter. This was after she thanked him for bringing compassion to the campaign, and before she launched into a question about prosecuting fossil fuel companies.)
Yang himself has been often ignored by the media, despite drawing not dissimilar polling numbers to Sen. Amy Klobuchar — something evident in New Hampshire, where the number of reporters was a tiny slice of those who follow the top four candidates. This is possibly a function of Yang running on what's perceived as a gimmick, but he has also been subjected to stuff like TV networks putting a different Asian man's photo in his place in an on-air graphic.
So what you've heard about his pitch, if you've heard it, are UBI and the trucker, and maybe the larger discussion about identity. In a way, UBI and the trucker — again by Yang's own emphasis — sell his actual critique of American life a little short.
When he asks (there's a lot of asking and responding at a Yang event) if voters have noticed stores in their town closing, and why this is so, people respond with one voice: Amazon. He talks about the desolation to come via automated trucking, yes, but the other figure whom he discusses at length is the 39-year-old woman who works in retail. What will happen to her if a self-service kiosk or the entire store closing takes her job away? (Nothing good.) Quite a bit of his discussion about AI is premised on data, but also the idea that Donald Trump has deeply, ruinously smeared immigrants.
"How many of you are parents and concerned about your kids being addicted to screens?" he asked a room full of non–Yang Gangers, mostly white people 40 or older, sitting in folding chairs on a warm Saturday night in Dover, New Hampshire. Many raised their hands. "Yeah, me too," he said. "When I was 12, I was a very nerdy kid. But when I went home, I could close the door and feel I was alone and sheltered from the world. Today, that introverted 12-year-old goes home, shuts the door, and is still feeling like their classmates are in the room with them because they can just pull up their phone and see what they're saying and thinking."
The non-UBI point Yang really argues and comes back around to again and again: Gross domestic product and employment aren't adequate measures for the health of the country, economic or otherwise. He threads this in different ways, from rising measures of drug addiction to data about wages and homeownership to the fact that the value of his autistic son should not be based on whether he can find a job that increases the GDP. The point of parents worried about phones started with a question about rising anxiety among teens. One call-and-response at his events: When was the last time life expectancy declined three years running? The Spanish flu.
All this gloom cuts against the other thing he's known for: Yang is the Guy Having Fun Out There.
Here's the Guy Having Fun Out There: He usually walks onstage in a semi-robot to "Return of the Mack." He'll put on a choir robe during a Sunday service or participate in an aerobics dance class. Onstage, in another call-and-response, he usually asks the following question: “Washington, DC, today is the richest city in our country. Think about that for a second. What do they produce?” In Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, while people threw out "lies" and so forth under their breath, someone shouted distantly, "Bullshit!" And Yang, giggling, said into the mic, “Bullshit." “What a goober,” a friend recently texted me (approvingly) with Yang’s (goober) tweet: “I hereby endorse myself for President of the United States.” A reporter recently posted a video of Yang's birthday being observed in Iowa. Like some kind of Richard Scarry-on-acid thing, the frame suddenly contains: three striped party hats (one placed upon Yang's head, rubber string snapped into place), a cake (presented by a woman on bended knee), a stream of people carrying silver balloons reading "HAPPY," another stream of people in party hats carrying "BIRTHDAY" balloons, two people in "MATH" ballcaps, a glove shaped like a unicorn, a man in a black T-shirt reading "$1K" in gold letters, at least one American flag scarf, and the tall aide who follows Yang in preppy quarter-zips wielding a cake cutter. "I love this question," he told the New York Times editorial board. "Wow, these questions are really fun. Who’s broken my heart?"
New Hampshire wasn't really fun, exactly, because Yang wasn't feeling well. He had to cancel a couple of events on a four-events-a-day swing through the state that knocked me out, and I didn't have to speak. (As I pulled out of the parking lot in Wolfeboro, I caught Yang trudging down the stairs with his American flag scarf on his head, a "frat star down" look I hadn't seen in years.) But there were still his many jokes, still the omnipresent twentysomethings in oversize crew neck sweatshirts and Yang pins, and still the small exchanges that differentiate Yang in some unexpected way.
At a Friday night event, an independent voter told a difficult story about mills closing, drug addiction, and suicide — one she wasn’t ashamed of, and the kind of story she said she knew would be familiar to others in the room. Yang's first response: "Can I give you a hug?" He gave a detailed set-piece answer about, essentially, Big Pharma, a much more aggressive Justice Department, and spending on treatment. But at the end, he came back around to say, "I'm so sorry, again. There's nothing I can do that makes your family whole."
In the middle of catching all these Yang town halls, I took in Elizabeth Warren at an event nearby — the event where a protester started running and screaming at her about how she was "disgusting." She reacted so calmly to the disruption that when she said “It’s good to see you,” the man reflexively responded, “IT’S GOOD TO SEE YOU. I HOPE YOU RESIGN.” Warren's events, no matter where you see her, operate with aircraft carrier–landing precision. The candidate's discipline and confidence convey that even if you don't want her to be president, she certainly could be president. At this particular juncture, Yang lacks this.
Notably, though, during an audience question at that Warren event, she slid into light law professor mode and described corporations as conceptual — something exclusively defined by the rules government puts in place. This is also not a bad way to think about politicians: The parameters of the media — and the kinds of candidates who succeed — change. Certain kinds of politicians seemed more vivid on TV than others. In the 1979 book The Powers That Be, David Halberstam delves into the exact way radio, and then television, changed not just politics — but the actual style of the people who worked in the new eras.
Famously, Franklin Roosevelt spoke in the informal (but practiced) rhythms special to radio. But he also, Halberstam reports, exploited the new immediacy of radio news and growing national papers by constantly flooding reporters with new information, policies, and gossip. Decades later, if and when the frequently losing presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson — who loved "old-fashioned speech and its rhythms and cadences and pauses, a speech that had a classic balance to it" — appeared on television, he read his speeches from the lectern. There's a superficial, external element at work there (how to use TV), but the underlying make and model of politicians has changed.
Stevenson, Halberstam writes, "did not watch television, and his friends did not watch television, and all of them, not watching television, were somewhat contemptuous of people who did." Lyndon Johnson — effectively destroyed by TV's vivid depiction of his Vietnam War — maybe puts this most succinctly in the book. After his presidency, when CBS went to Texas to tape his memoirs, one of the reporters asked him casually what had changed in politics, and was surprised by Johnson's vehemence. "All you guys in the media. All of politics has changed because of you. You've broken all the machines and the ties between us in Congress and the city machines. You've given us a new kind of people," he told the guy. "No machine could ever create a Teddy Kennedy. Only you guys. They're all yours. Your product."
Isn't this “new kind of people” shift happening? Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, chiefly, has brought a fluidity between social media and movement politics that distinguishes her from most other politicians.
It's a little hard to define the difference between her and others, but it might follow these parameters: responsive to the social conversation (even when defying it), visual but for the phone, polished but casual, funny, understanding of the timing and rhythms of mobile communication, sensitive to the issues of technology that involve how people actually use their phones, which intersect with their lives. There's the expectation that Ocasio-Cortez also sees what's blowing up — and if she's ignoring it, that’s an intentional silence. She doesn't need you to tell her. For good or ill, there's a nebulous separation between people like Yang, Ocasio-Cortez, Texas Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw, or Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, and many of the other, slightly older current "young politicians.” (Yang, of course, is a member of Gen X but seems younger.)
At a core level, Yang's running a deceptively traditional campaign: He chose one (1) issue, ran the hell out of it, put it straight into television ads, and spent a million hours doing retail in Iowa and New Hampshire. And if that campaign were succeeding just a tiny little more, maybe he'd be propelled into the true stratosphere — or collapsing under the increased press scrutiny given over toward, say, how exactly UBI would work, and whether you can make a nonregressive value-added tax.
And I'm not exactly arguing this campaign is absolutely the future of campaigning. But in his fratty/nerdy/relaxed way, in style, Yang is a part of what feels like the next generation of candidates. The pitch about the numbers and metrics is ultimately this: You're not wrong to feel things in this country aren’t going the way they should and feel that our system isn’t honoring the actual lives we live; we're just not looking at the right numbers. It’s a highly contemporary message. And the jokes, good and bad alike, operate in the “yes and,” Twitter-joke, “I know what you’re thinking,” TikTok rhythms of 2020.
As Yang jokes at every event, when you call the customer service line of a big company and get the bot or the software, "I'm sure you do the same thing I do, which is you pound zero, zero, zero. 'Human. Human. Representative. Representative. Representative.'" He always asks if other people do it, and almost everyone raises their hands. "Oh yeah, we all do that, because that software is terrible,” he says. “As soon as you hear it, you're like, oh no. And then you're like, I hope this place still employs a human." ●