Have you been Yanged? Chances are, probably not. In fact, unless you’re a close follower of US politics or a UBI zealot, you may not even know who Andrew Yang is. A peripheral figure with a somewhat geeky public persona, Yang is a far cry from the Captain America mould of previous presidents, but that is exactly what he is hoping to be. With a dedicated legion of supporters called the ‘Yang Gang’, the former tech executive wants to ‘Make America Think Harder’ (MATH) by focusing minds on a potentially apocalyptic future induced by AI and robots.
He faces an uphill battle. Going into the Iowa caucus, starting later today, Yang is polling at around 4%, a long way behind frontrunners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. If progressive and moderate voters in the party continue to coalesce around these two figures, it’ll become more difficult for insurgent candidates like Yang to make an impact.
Ironically, this party factionalism points to Yang’s biggest (and potentially fatal) weakness, but also his biggest strength. His eclectic policy platform, ranging from universal basic income (the ‘freedom dividend’) to nuclear energy to Medicare-for-all, makes it hard to categorise him as a Democrat, let alone a progressive or moderate.
But across the country as a whole, he regularly features as one of the most popular candidates among independents and Republicans. Alongside Bernie Sanders, Yang is the only candidate to have received double digit support in the polls with Republican voters; he is the most popular candidate among Republican and independent college voters, and he is the number one choice for undecided 2020 voters.
His willingness to go ‘not left, not right, but forward’ by appearing on conservative talk shows and refusing to attack, or even mention, Trump also puts Yang at odds with his fellow candidates, many of whom tried (unsuccessfully) to frame themselves as the anti-Trump candidate. Similarly, his refusal to engage in class warfare and identity politics, describing the latter as “counter-productive”, stands Yang above everyone else in the Democrat party.
For Yang, neither billionaires nor immigrants are the problem. The greatest threat facing America, he says, is automation, claiming that four million manufacturing jobs have already been lost as a result. On the campaign trail, he has frequently referred to the three million truckers vulnerable to incoming driverless technology, which could have devastating consequences for the low-skilled labour market.
There is evidence that the message is gaining traction. Last quarter, Yang raised $16.5million, his highest total yet, and he is one of seven candidates to have qualified for the February debate, which is four days before the New Hampshire primary. But for all his bipartisan appeal, he still remains a long shot: he only polls at 3-5%, performs relatively poorly among women, and to suggest that Republican voters would back a candidate in favour of public healthcare, gun control and universal basic income is a tall order.
Something very strange is happening in American politics when Hollywood stars, Silicon Valley libertarians, Oakeshottian conservatives and disaffected rust-belters (not to mention ex-White House employees) all rally around the same Democrat. Whatever happens in the primaries that start today, he is a refreshing presence in the election.