Ah, the smell of democracy. The sour tang of fish and human sweat fills the air on a heat-stroke-hot Friday night in June. The 2020 presidential circus has pulled into Columbia, South Carolina, for Congressman Jim Clyburn’s “World Famous Fish Fry.” Up onstage, the candidates appear one by one like pageant contestants, donning royal blue Clyburn T-shirts, no exceptions (except Bernie Sanders, apparently). Each is allotted a “generous minute” to kiss Clyburn’s ring and abase themselves before several thousand fish-eating voters in this crucial primary state.
Clyburn, the third-highest-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives and party boss of South Carolina politics, introduces the candidates. When Andrew Yang, the anti-politician of the 2020 race with a cult online following known as the Yang Gang, bounds onstage well after 10 o’clock, the crowd erupts before Clyburn says a word.
AN-DREW YANG! AN-DREW YANG!
Many of the 20-plus other candidates have come and gone with barely a cheer. The sum total of applause for the representatives and governors on hand pales in comparison to Yang’s welcome. Even stone-faced Jim Clyburn can’t resist a smile.
Yang pumps a fist into the air and takes the microphone.
“HELLO, SOUTH CAROLINAAAAAAA!” he yells.
Yang is here, he tells the crowd, “to solve the biggest challenge of our time.”
When Yang announced his candidacy in early 2018, he was a total unknown in American politics. He’d never run for office, never worked on a campaign, and didn’t even vote in the last Democratic primary. (If he had, he would’ve voted for Bernie, he says.) His official motto is “Humanity First,” but his earliest campaign lit bore a more functional message: “Google Andrew Yang.”
A year and a half later, Yang, 44, is still introducing himself. But many of the people who have heard of him, who took in his interview with Fear Factor-host-turned-podcasting-king Joe Rogan or browsed his website’s absurdly long and eclectic list of policy positions, have come away intrigued and, in some cases, enamored. Over a span of months, Yang has ascended from sideshow to a Top 10 candidate in several recent polls. Morning Consult’s latest survey of Democratic primary voters ranked him seventh, tied with Senator Cory Booker; the candidates who trail Yang in that poll have more than 150 years of combined experience in elected office. Yang qualified for the first two Democratic National Committee debates in June and July well before the deadline; he has more Twitter followers than half of the Democratic field; and despite a disappointing performance at the Miami debate (he spoke the least of all 20 candidates), he’s blown past the threshold of 130,000 unique donors for the third and fourth debates this fall.
Yang’s pitch goes like this: Donald Trump got elected because we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in the Midwest, leading to economic insecurity, a declining quality of life, and a sense of desperation felt by millions of Americans who gave voice to that desperation by voting for the political equivalent of a human wrecking ball. And what automation did to manufacturing, he argues, it will soon do to trucking, call centers, fast food, and retail. “We’re in the third inning of the greatest economic and technological transformation in the history of our country,” he likes to say.
Yang’s flagship plan to deal with this transformation, his Big Idea, is a universal basic income. He calls it the Freedom Dividend. (He picked the name because it tested better with conservatives than UBI did.) It’s $1,000 a month, no strings attached, for every American over the age of 18. What this new, multitrillion-dollar program would mean for the existing social safety net — well, Yang hasn’t entirely worked that out yet. But he’s quick to note that the concept of a guaranteed income has been around for centuries, with many famous proponents. (Thomas Paine! MLK! Richard Nixon!) And the appeal of a simple, catchy solution to problems as complex as the rise of robots and AI is obvious. “If you’ve heard anything about me, you’ve heard this: There’s an Asian man running for president that wants to give everyone a thousand dollars a month!” he says at the fish fry. “All three of those things are dead true, South Carolina!”
I recently embedded for three weeks with Yang’s freewheeling campaign, traveling with him in New Hampshire, Washington, D.C., and South Carolina. He invited me to ride around with him and his lean (but growing) team, sit in on private meetings, and hang out with him in the green room at the Late Show With Stephen Colbert. (Reader, the snack spread was incredible.) I sought out Yang for the same reason so many others have, namely, to answer the question: Who is this guy?
But my curiosity was threaded with a sense of guilt: The last time a fringe candidate came along and started to gain traction, I dismissed him as a fluke and a fraud. That candidate was Donald Trump. This time, I figured I might learn something if I looked to the margins. Is Andrew Yang right about the robot apocalypse? Is he a teller of big truths that other candidates won’t touch or just the latest in a long line of TED-talking, techno-futurists scaring people about the End of Work? What does his popularity, however fleeting, tell us about American voters?
By the time Yang nails his go-to punchline at the Clyburn fish-fry — “We have to advance our society and economy as fast as possible, and I am the man for that job, because the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math!” — the crowd is roaring with applause. Even Joe Biden is into it, tapping a friend on the shoulder and nodding approvingly. On the ride back to the hotel, Yang sits shotgun in a tank-size Chevy Suburban, still buzzing from his speech. Zach Graumann, Yang’s campaign manager-slash-driver, pokes fun at him for walking onstage and striking a “Jesus pose,” arms spread wide, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
“I wasn’t emulating Jesus,” Yang says. “It was the lead singer of Creed.” Everyone in the car but Yang bursts out laughing.
“No, Jesus was better,” Graumann says. “Just stick with him.”
“With aaaarms wide open,” Yang sings, launching into one of Creed’s best-known songs. “Everythiiiing has chaaaanged…”
Sitting in the back seat next to the Yang campaign’s documentary filmmaker, I thought of what Graumann, a former Wall Street investor with no previous political experience, had told Yang earlier that night. “I’ve always said this: You can’t just be good, you’ve got to be different. Goddamn it, you are different.”
YANG HAD DECIDED to run for president within months of Trump taking office. One of the first people he told was a friend and filmmaker named Cheryl Houser. Houser had made a documentary, Generation Startup, that followed six entrepreneurs as they launched their careers with the help of a nonprofit that Yang had founded called Venture for America (VFA).
Before VFA, Yang ran a successful test-prep company. He’d watched as America’s brightest graduates funneled into a few elite industries — finance, consulting, law, and medicine — concentrated in three or four major cities. He hoped to create a pipeline of entrepreneurs into cities left behind in the winner-take-all economy.
Founded in 2011, Venture for America expanded to 17 cities within five years. President Obama named Yang an ambassador for global entrepreneurship. Yang divided his time between big cities such as San Francisco and New York City, where he lived, and visiting VFA fellows scattered across the country. A flight from the Bay Area to Detroit or Providence felt like a trip not just across time zones but decades and dimensions.
“If you wanted to persuade someone of climate change, you might bring them to the glaciers in Alaska and see what the heck is going on,” Yang tells me. “If you wanted to persuade someone of the impact of technology and automation on the economy and workers, you might bring them to Youngstown or Detroit or Cleveland or St. Louis.”
He spent much of 2017 finishing his book The War on Normal People, a chart-filled treatise that laid out his argument about the looming threat of automation and why a universal basic income and a “human-centered” form of capitalism was the answer. In late 2017, more than 1,000 days before the 2020 election, Yang filed paperwork to run for president. He officially launched his campaign a few months later. A New York Times tech columnist wrote that Yang, a “longer-than-long shot,” was the only 2020er “focused on the robot apocalypse.”
Mostly, the mainstream media ignored him. He needed an alternative path to get the word out and found it in podcasts. One of his earliest appearances was a June 2018 interview with Sam Harris, the prominent atheist, philosopher, and author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Reason. An episode of Harris’ podcast can reportedly draw a million or more listeners. As it turned out, Yang’s wonky message was well suited to the long-form, conversational style of podcasts. He had all the time he wanted to dispense one alarming factoid after another about the labor-force participation rate, artificial intelligence, and truckers.
The Harris interview brought in new social media followers and donations, and so Yang agreed to appear on any podcast that invited him. And with each appearance, Yang began to amass an online following that his upstart campaign christened the Yang Gang.
I lost track of the number of Yang supporters who told me they first encountered him through podcasts. They said they appreciated that Yang didn’t boil down his ideas into message-tested talking points or TV-ready sound bites. They admired him for saying that he wasn’t in the race because he looked in the mirror and saw a future president; he ran to get his ideas into the bloodstream of the body politic.
There was also a rawness about him — a candidate as actual human being, no spokesperson whispering in his ear, no pollster telling him what to say. “He’s not a politician at all,” Gene Bishop, a Yang volunteer and Trump voter in New Hampshire, told me. “When people ask him questions, he just answers the question. He’s a breath of fresh air.”
Not unlike Trump as a candidate, Yang cast himself as an outsider who could shake up the system and break through the partisan deadlock. “Yang is pulling the same strings, but in a more reflective and serious way,” says Harvard professor and political activist Lawrence Lessig. “People are still desperate to have someone come in and shake this system up.” Yang says people often come up to him and say, ‘You’re what I hoped for when I voted for Donald Trump.’”
In February, Yang appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience. Rogan has a massive platform with the second-most-downloaded show on Apple Podcasts in 2017 and 2018. Now in its ninth year, Rogan draws millions of viewers an episode on YouTube. Some of his most popular interviews — Elon Musk, conspiracy theorist and nutritional supplement peddler Alex Jones, bestselling author and alt-right icon Jordan Peterson, Steve-O from Jackass, boxer-turned-cannabis-entrepreneur Mike Tyson — give you a flavor of Rogan’s bro-ish brand of libertarian politics.
Episode No. 1245 featuring Yang has 3.3 million views (and counting) on YouTube, a modest success by Rogan’s standards. For Yang’s campaign, it was a turning point. His Twitter following skyrocketed. Donations flooded in, including one from Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey. (Actor Nicolas Cage had given $1,000 in early February.) Within weeks of the Rogan podcast, Yang hit the 65,000-donor threshold needed to qualify for the first debate.
But in the process, Yang has also developed a following in the more rank corners of the internet, like 4chan, an uncensored version of Reddit where misogyny and anti-Semitism flourish, and Discord, a chat app used by the alt-right and white supremacists to organize online. White nationalist Richard Spencer tweeted favorably about Yang; the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer took an interest in his campaign.
Which raises a tricky question: How much of this was Yang’s doing, and how much of it was beyond his and his campaign’s control?
Yang has disavowed any support from racists or anti-Semites, and his campaign urged supporters and volunteers to down-vote problematic Reddit posts and share the campaign’s core values which include “integrity and transparency” and “grace and forgiveness.” Graumann tells me, “Instead of saying, ‘You’re a racist’ or ‘That’s racist’ or ‘That’s offensive,’ we say, ‘This is what we stand for.’”
He willingly appeared on some of the biggest podcasts aligned with the so-called Intellectual Dark Web — Rogan chief among them — but Yang’s position was that he said yes to any interview. He was critical of identity politics but did so as the son of Taiwanese immigrants who faced ethnic slurs and bullying as a kid. Was Yang dog-whistling his alt-right supporters when he tweeted about the declining life expectancy of white people — or was he speaking out about a real public health crisis?
The alt-righters and other racists aspiring to join the Yang Gang are a byproduct of the way his campaign was built: He wanted to reach disaffected voters, and he was willing to go wherever they were to find them. That includes online, where almost everybody is looking to connect but nobody is taking tickets at the door. And so when Yang put out a flare for the disillusioned, he found people worried that neither party had a plan for economic security in an automated age. And despite all the rejections, rebukes, and Reddit downvotes, he attracted folks angry that being a white guy with WiFi didn’t afford them the supremacy they’d never deserved but long come to expect.
Yang says he doesn’t want these people and has worked to remove them from the Gang, but he isn’t shy about the fact that his success so far is due to the online communities that rallied behind him. As he tells me, “I came from the internet.”
THE OBVIOUS NEXT question was whether Yang could translate his online support, all those “Yangstas,” as they call themselves, into something tangible. If he held rallies, would anyone come? If he asked for volunteers, would anyone sign up?
A series of big-city speeches in April and May, dubbed the Humanity First tour, settled those questions. Two thousand people showed up to see him at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, followed by 3,000 in Los Angeles, and 4,000 in Seattle. For the tour’s final stop, 2,500 people turned out in the pouring rain at New York City’s Washington Square Park. These crowd sizes exceeded those of some of the senators and governors in the race. The mainstream media tuned in as well: Yang got requests to appear on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN.
I saw Yang for the first time in June on a swing through New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the-nation primary. It was the middle of the afternoon on a rainy Thursday, but 60 or 70 people filled Crackskull’s cafe in the town of Newmarket to hear Yang speak. I overheard a barista say that former Obama cabinet secretary Julián Castro drew half as many people a few weeks earlier.
On the stump, Yang oozes a kind of anti-charisma. Dressed in dark pants, a light-blue oxford shirt, no tie, and a navy blazer — call it venture-capital casual — he doesn’t try to charm or inspire or flatter. He peppers his speeches with bleak statistics and dire warnings. Like Trump, he talks about how Middle America is “disintegrating.” He refers to “my friends in Silicon Valley” a lot and to the technologies they’re devising that will put regular people out of work.
Tech visionaries who stoke fears about the robot apocalypse are nothing new. But in the context of a presidential race, Yang is the only one making this argument, and he’s found an audience for it, judging by the crowds that followed him across New Hampshire. High school kids wore blue MATH hats — short for Make America Think Harder, another one of Yang’s Trump-trolling slogans. At Crackskull’s, Yang’s supporters had memorized Yang’s lines and knew what to say in the call-and-response sections of his stump speech.
He asked if anyone knew the last time America’s life expectancy had declined for three years in a row. “The Spanish flu of 1918!” someone yelled out.
He said that one state already gave its citizens a guaranteed $1,000 to $2,000 each year. “And what state is that?”
“And how do they fund it?”
“And what is the oil of the 21st century?”
The debate inside the Democratic Party about capitalism versus socialism, he went on, was beside the point. “We’re seeing unprecedented changes in the economy, and returning to 20th-century frameworks and solutions will not serve us.”
The Freedom Dividend would help displaced workers transition from the old economy to the new one while at the same time stimulate local economies. What’s more, Yang says he would replace GDP as the key measurement of the economy with an “American Scorecard” that takes into account life expectancy, average income, health outcomes, clean air, and clean water. He said he’d present the results every year during the State of the Union using PowerPoint.
“This is the vision we have to present to the rest of the country as fast as possible,” he says in closing. “As time goes on, people will realize that there’s one candidate who’s drawing thousands of Trump voters, independents, conservatives, and libertarians, as well as Democrats and progressives, and you’re looking at him.”
I hang around after Yang’s appearance to talk with people in the crowd. Keaton Rook, a paraprofessional at a nearby high school who describes himself as “on the outskirts of politics,” tells me this is the second Yang event he’s attended. “Now it’s in-your-face how technology can take away your job,” he says. “It’s one of those things that stays with you weeks later. No other candidate is talking about it the way Yang does.”
People felt drawn to his anti-establishment streak and bluntness about the challenges ahead. They agreed with his message about the disconnect between a soaring stock market, a growing GDP, and the continued economic struggles of millions of Americans. “We know what’s coming,” Jennifer Bailey, a Yang supporter I met at the Clyburn fish fry, tells me. “Let’s not keep putting Band-Aids on. He’s looked ahead. He’s talking about solving the problems of the future.”
But the people who turned out for Yang’s rallies had questions about the Freedom Dividend and the future of work. Given that $12,000 a year isn’t enough to live on, one woman asked him in New Hampshire, what would happen to all those truckers and call-center workers after automation wiped out their jobs?
“There are a couple of things we can do that are going to help a lot,” he responded. “Now, unfortunately, they’re not great fixes.” He talked about the need to “expand the notion of work” and to direct more high school students into apprenticeships and the trades. He also touted the Freedom Dividend’s multiplier effect that would create new jobs in local communities where the money was spent. “The future of work,” he concluded, “is going to be determined over an extended period of time.”
His answer isn’t terribly convincing when I revisit this line of questioning during one of our interviews. He started be saying that there “will not be a job future for many of those truckers” he talks about on the campaign trail. “I read something like nine limo and taxi drivers killed themselves in New York last year, one in front of City Hall,” he says. “It’s just the economics of their existence didn’t work out anymore, and they just killed themselves. We’re in a society where that makes barely a ripple. It’s not like there are legislators right now soul-searching over the lives of those nine drivers. If it becomes 90 or 900 or 9,000, does that cause changes? Unfortunately, in my opinion, we’re likely to find out.”
Yang’s book The War on Normal People — copies of which were given out for free at nearly every campaign event I attended — lays out his views in greater detail but raises as many questions as it answers. He writes that the Freedom Dividend “would replace the vast majority of existing welfare programs.” When I ask him about this, he denies that the Freedom Dividend is a Trojan horse for shredding the social safety net. But he acknowledges that programs like food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, and housing subsidies could shrink if recipients took the $1,000-a-month instead. “There’s no reason to think that you would end up eliminating them entirely,” he tells me. “It is the case that if enrollment were to go down by 30 percent, then over time the bureaucracy hopefully would adjust accordingly.”
Yang’s book also places him firmly in the camp of those who believe economic anxiety played a decisive role in Trump’s election and the rise of white nationalism. In one passage he writes, “The Charlottesville violence in 2017 over the removal of Confederate symbols can also be seen as engendered in part by economic dislocation. The driver of the car that plowed into the crowd, killing a young woman, was from an economically depressed part of Ohio and had washed out of the military.” That’s all true, but for the record James Fields Jr., who murdered Heather Heyer in a fit of rage, was an avowed neo-Nazi who once visited the Dachau concentration camp and remarked, “This is where the magic happened.”
I spoke with half a dozen economists about Yang’s theories on automation, AI, and universal basic income. All of them said he offered an incomplete, if not misguided, picture of what was going on and what to expect. Dean Baker, a co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research who predicted the 2007-08 financial crisis, tells me that Yang’s warnings are “180 degrees at odds with reality.” If full-on automation were eliminating jobs, he says, there would be a rapid spike in productivity; instead, we’re living through a period of low productivity growth. Paul Krugman, the economist and New York Times columnist, tweeted that Yang’s arguments about automation have “zero support from the data.” Not helping Yang’s case is the fact that other countries with high levels of automation — Germany, for example — have yet to see widespread unemployment.
Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, tells me that automation is a “serious concern,” but nowhere near as important as the transition away from fossil fuels or tackling America’s crippling income inequality. He adds that there’s no reason to think it’s a foregone conclusion that technology will replace humans when government has the ability to create policies that shape the path of innovation to help, not hurt, workers.
Daron Acemoglu, an MIT economist who studies automation, says Yang is right to connect the impact of automation to Trump’s victories in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where the most industrial jobs disappeared. But Yang strays, Acemoglu tells me, when he solely blames automation for the disappearance of those 4 or 5 million manufacturing jobs. Yes, automation plays a part, Acemoglu says, but so does the long-term decline of heavy manufacturing industries and trade with China. “My take is we need more people with ideas and more people who try to find ways of making prosperity more shared,” Acemoglu says. “Even if I don’t agree with him, I have time for him.”
Yang tells me he’s open to criticism of his candidacy and that he is trying to spark a discussion about the future. But he can also come off a touch defensive, chalking up some of the criticism he’s facing to political insiders and academics that don’t appreciate an outsider like him edging onto their turf. “One of the big themes of this whole thing is, like, Who the fuck am I?” he says. “Some of these ex-economists or some of these media types have spent years and years cultivating their Washington political hackery. So then if I appear out of the interweb, the reaction is like, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’”
STEP OUT OF the hustle on West 39th Street in midtown Manhattan and into a darkened lobby, pass two guys in suits squabbling about baseball, climb several flights of stairs, then go down a hallway, and you’ve arrived at the offices of Yang for President. They say political campaigns are like startups, and Yang HQ pushes the cliché to its limit. There’s a mini basketball hoop, interns huddled over laptops, résumés strewn across a table, and a pair of black rimless sunglasses taped to the wall, a reference to Morpheus from The Matrix. There are 31 people working for the campaign when I visit, and many of them fill multiple roles. (Sanders’ campaign has more people on the ground in New Hampshire alone.) “The vaguer the title, the more accurate it is,” Carly Reilly, Yang’s deputy chief of staff and online organizing guru, tells me.
It’s a few days before Yang will appear on the second night of the first Democratic debate. The debate is set to be Yang’s coming-out party to the tens of millions of viewers expected to tune in. Reilly tells me that debate week is another inflection point for the campaign. “We’re now turning it into a more traditional campaign structure,” she says. “There’s a need now to mobilize that base around very specific actions.” In short, it’s time to harness the Yang Gang.
Yang and I talk for half an hour before he has to tape an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show. I read back to him something he told Joe Rogan four months earlier: “I’ve been very upfront the whole time that if my ideas and policies become front and center and we get this done, then if I’m not president of the United States, I’m perfectly happy with that.” Did he stand by what he told Rogan, that it was more about ideas than winning?
“I’m becoming increasingly persuaded that the most realistic way to get these across the finish line is for me to become president of the United States,” he says. “I had a greater degree of belief that other people would just take all my ideas at some point. Now, I think that’s less likely. And so it seems more likely that I’m going to have to do it.”
Yang’s debate performance doesn’t help his cause. He later says he had trouble hearing the moderators, which would explain why one of the first things to come out of his mouth was “I’m sorry?” He’d said he was banking on millions of Americans googling “the Asian man standing next to Joe Biden.” But of the outsider candidates it was self-help guru Marianne Williamson who snagged the highest search traffic.
Yang said afterward that his microphone was cut off, which prevented him from forcing his way into the conversation, and his online followers amplified the claim with the hashtag #LetYangSpeak. (NBC denied that it had muted him.) Even then, Yang looked a bit like a deer in headlights on the debate stage. His inexperience showed.
Yang spent the days after the debate on Twitter explaining away his poor performance and subtweeting his fellow Democratic candidates. I get him on the phone a few days later. He says he was struck by the “high performative aspect” of the debate, but mentioned that Biden had come up to him during a commercial break and said he wanted to talk with Yang about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the future of the middle class.
Given that he’ll likely appear in several more Democratic debates, I ask him what happens when the podcasting candidate has to talk in sound bites, opening and closing statements, and 30-second campaign commercials?
“One of the themes of the campaign — and this is a hard thing to balance — is that the only reason why we’re here where we are is because of my being a human being, and that being relatively evident,” he says. “In order to adapt to that format, I have to become like a creature of cable news at least for two hours, which is not what got me to the dance. But, you know, I’m fighting for the future of humanity.”
Yang’s candidacy is a lesson, a warning if only we dare to heed it: The conditions in this country that sent Trump to the White House remain; the racism and the toxic trolls, of course, but also the widespread disgust with politics, the disconnect with elected leaders who act like money-raising automatons, and the hunger for an outsider who will go in and blow up the existing order. Trump hasn’t done it; maybe Andrew Yang could. At the least, Yang is proof that voters will reward a candidate who peers into the uncertain future and urges us to prepare before it’s too late.
The Freedom Dividend isn’t the answer, and Andrew Yang probably isn’t either. But like the last outsider candidate to come along and catch fire, Yang’s candidacy reveals truths about America and its people that we can’t afford to ignore.