Random Man Runs for President

How Andrew Yang — a moderately successful businessman and complete unknown — made a place for himself in the Democratic field
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Photos by Erik Tanner

The table was set for perhaps 15 people when Andrew Yang arrived at a Manhattan dinner party in the summer of 2017. The dinner’s sponsor was a club that describes its purpose as “exploring the big, bold ideas” of “America’s leading problem solvers.” The evening’s designated topic of discussion was the future of work. Earlier that year, Yang had stepped down from his job as chief executive of Venture for America, a nonprofit organization he founded to send young entrepreneurs to cities in need of economic revitalization.

Yang “came in and, being Andrew, kind of took over the room,” recalls fellow dinner guest Zach Graumann. At the time, Graumann was a 31-year-old wealth manager who ran a nonprofit on the side that Yang sometimes advised. “I think he’s going to give the Venture for America spiel. And he doesn’t,” Graumann says. Instead, Yang talked about how automation has displaced millions of workers in Middle America, and will soon displace millions more, pushing the country into social crisis. “He drops the bomb that most of America’s waking up to now,” Graumann remembers. “He drops what I call the ‘automation bomb,’ and why Trump is our president today, and he starts rattling off his stats and his vision.”

When Yang concluded by announcing that he was running for president, Graumann reacted in disbelief. “I was like: ‘Of America? President of America?’ ” Yang replied in the affirmative. “I was like, all right,” Graumann recalls. “Cool, man, I’ll help. I’m in.”

Graumann would later quit his job to work on Yang’s White House bid full time as his campaign manager. Together, they and two staff members laid the groundwork for the campaign, working out of an ad hoc office in a Midtown Manhattan apartment that Yang’s mother owned. None had ever worked in politics.

Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang signs his book, “The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future,” at an event in Iowa City in March. (Photo by Scott Morgan/Reuters)

In November 2017, Yang registered his presidential bid with the Federal Election Commission. In April 2018, he published a book titled, “The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future.” “We are in the third inning of the greatest technological and economic shift in human history,” Yang often says, arguing that job losses in swing states propelled Donald Trump to the presidency. To survive the invasion of intelligent machines, Yang argues, America needs an economic and social overhaul, which would be spurred by a government-sponsored universal payment of $1,000 a month to every American adult. Or, in the language of nerd: Yang is an underdog hero rising up to fight the robots and save humanity. His weapon: allowance for grown-ups.

Yang now leads thousand-person rallies on the regular. Fans wave signs that say “MATH” to support the self-proclaimed candidate of numbers and data — the guy who wants to Make America Think Harder. “I’m going to be the first president in history to use PowerPoint in the State of the Union,” Yang announced to a crowd in Seattle in early May. “How do you feel about that?” Cheers. “Yeah, break out the PowerPoint chant! No — don’t do it —”

Too late. Fists were already pumping in the air, demonstrating the demagogic potential of Microsoft Office Suite.

“Yes, this is the nerdiest presidential campaign in history,” a triumphant Yang shouted. “We did it!”

Another improbable thing Yang has done: catapulted himself, an entrepreneur with few claims to fame and no political experience, into the Democratic presidential conversation. After a viral campaign seeking $1 donations, Yang earned a place in the upcoming primary debates by accruing 65,000 individual donors two months ahead of the deadline. (He celebrated with a cartoon GIF of himself doing the robot amid cascading dollar bills.) CNN hosted a Yang town hall event in April. By the end of May, the polling average at RealClearPolitics showed Yang with 1 percent of the vote — which is small, yes, but puts him ahead of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), who has 0.4 percent, and not far behind such established politicians as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), who has 1.8 percent, and former Cabinet secretary Julián Castro, who has 1.2 percent.

Conservative columnist Matthew Walther has characterized Yang as “Ross Perot for millennials” — “a soft reboot of the Texan businessman’s maverick populist wonkery.” Yang, too, is an improvisational outsider with an out-of-nowhere campaign. But he is also the product of so many colliding forces in contemporary America that comparisons to anyone who came before him are kind of useless. Yang’s ascent from anonymity has been instantaneous in a way that can only exist in the age of social media. (His fans, who call themselves the Yang Gang, sometimes Photoshop him into robot-fighting scenes from science fiction.) His staff credits podcasts for building Yang’s die-hard base almost overnight. Digital media shapes Yang’s worldview and his self-presentation; his website’s prodigious policy section could be recast as a Facebook-friendly listicle, something like “108 Big Ideas That Could Save America Right Now.” (Yes, he really has 108 policy proposals. At least, he did as of press time; the number changes frequently.) His tone blends irony and earnestness in the manner of late-night political comedy. And the source of Yang’s relentless focus — universal basic income — is, at the moment, popular in future-minded circles that take cues from the likes of Pierre Omidyar, Richard Branson and Elon Musk. Yang’s campaign belongs to a mode of popular American discourse that did not exist 20, 10 or even five years ago: He is an emblem of the everyman thinkers of the Internet age.

Yang is exceedingly unlikely to win, and may not even last long in primary season. But his candidacy can still, perhaps, tell us something about the future. Before a rally in Los Angeles in April, Yang took a moment to consider the spectacle he’d created. Three thousand people, according to the campaign’s estimate, had come to see a man who, until very recently, was sort of a nobody. And now he’s preparing to debate the likes of Joe Biden on live TV. “We’ve got a lot of local news stations here,” Yang observed, surveying the crowd. “And I have to say to the people at home, don’t adjust your dials.” He pointed at his audience. “This is real. This is happening.”

Yang greets supporters at a rally in New York's Washington Square Park in May. The entrepreneur has no political experience but has earned a place in the Democratic debates. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Yang, 44, was born in Schenectady, N.Y., and grew up in Westchester County. He is the son of Taiwanese immigrants who moved to the United States and met in graduate school. “I used to think every dad had a PhD growing up, because my dad had a PhD,” Yang told me during an interview at his campaign’s Manhattan headquarters. A physicist, Yang’s father generated more than 50 patents while working at General Electric and IBM.

In childhood, Yang was painfully shy and chronically bullied. “I got picked on a lot because I was the only Asian kid in my grade, and I’d skipped a grade so I tended to be smaller and scrawnier than everyone in my class,” he said. In the third grade, “they asked me to do something in front of the class [and] I burst into tears,” he recalled. “I was probably a little bit too old to be crying.” In “The War on Normal People,” Yang writes: “I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to be young. To be gnawed at by doubts and fears so deep that they inflict physical pain, a sense of nausea deep in your stomach.” He recounts schoolyard taunts about his race, face and body; he remembers peers ridiculing the notion of him experiencing romance or sex. “Perhaps as a result, I’ve always taken pride in relating to the underdog,” Yang writes.

He grew up obsessing about baseball players and playing Dungeons and Dragons. He bused tables at a Chinese restaurant and sold knives for a direct-marketing company. (“I still know the sales patter,” Yang told “Freakonomics Radio.” “What’s really dangerous is not a sharp knife, it’s a dull knife.”) He was close to his brother, two years his elder. When his brother left for college, Yang decided to enroll at boarding school. On the advice of a friend from summer camp — and to the delight of his academically minded mother — he chose Phillips Exeter Academy, a New Hampshire school with a tuition that rivals that of most universities. He was lonely there, too, but excelled at debate. He traveled to London as a member of the 1992 U.S. National Debate Team, a fact he sometimes brings up half-jokingly (but also half-seriously) when discussing the upcoming presidential debates.

Yang graduated from Brown University, followed by Columbia Law School, then spent five unhappy months as a corporate lawyer in New York City. He worked on two start-ups at the end of the dot-com bubble, both of which he characterizes as failures. But he enjoyed success working as chief executive of test-prep start-up Manhattan GMAT, which Kaplan (then owned by The Washington Post Co.) bought in 2009. (Founder Zeke Vanderhoek now runs a charter school.) That’s when Yang said he “became a millionaire.” He wouldn’t specify how many millions, only that “my net worth is probably much lower than speculation would lead one to believe.” He said his financial position is “fairly comfortable,” which is how regular people describe folding chairs and how non-billionaire one-percenters describe themselves.

Yang is the product of so many colliding forces in contemporary America that comparisons to anyone who came before him are kind of useless.

In 2011, Yang founded his nonprofit Venture for America. The organization created thousands of jobs, he says. But most of those jobs weren’t for “normal people,” a designation he applies to demographic majorities, such as the two-thirds of Americans who don’t have college degrees. During his six years at Venture for America, Yang met “three of the last four presidents, senators, governors,” tech moguls, billionaires and people who participate in “think tank sessions.” He became convinced that nobody was addressing what he believed to be a jobs crisis: “Middle-skill jobs” in manufacturing and retail are already in decline, and technology could threaten call centers and truck driving next. Artificial intelligence could replace “high-skill jobs” that involve repetitive tasks such as accounting, administration and some medical diagnoses; Yang’s go-to example is an AI system that can find brain tumors in radiological imaging faster and more accurately than doctors.

Contemporary books on the subject influenced Yang’s thinking, including “Rise of the Robots,” by futurist Martin Ford, and “Raising the Floor,” by labor leader Andy Stern. Both books argue that universal income could stabilize citizens’ finances and thwart economic stagnation as technology reshapes labor.

The workforce was hurtling toward catastrophe, Yang concluded, and America’s leaders were not sufficiently freaked out. “I was, and still am, 100 percent certain that no one is going to try and do anything about [these] sorts of problems,” Yang told me. “So imagine having that certainty. In entrepreneurship language, there are two approaches to something: One, someone else will take care of it. Or two, I’m going to have to take care of it. And in this case, I knew that no one else was going to take care of it.”

Supporters cheer at the rally in New York in May. (Photo by Andres Kudacki for The Washington Post)
A sign backing Yang’s plan for universal basic income — which would result in every American adult getting $1,000 a month — at the rally. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
From left: Supporters cheer at the rally in New York in May. (Photo by Andres Kudacki for The Washington Post) A sign backing Yang’s plan for universal basic income — which would result in every American adult getting $1,000 a month — at the rally. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Evelyn Yang doesn’t remember the first time her husband mentioned running for president. “I think I must just not have taken it very seriously,” she said in a phone interview. That realization dawned later, “probably when he quit his job.”

When Evelyn met Andrew, she was a marketing manager in the beauty industry. “He seemed so earnest and genuine,” she recalled. “I felt like he wore his heart on his sleeve, which was refreshing. I joke with him, now even, it’s like he had no game. He wasn’t trying to game it in any way, and I really love that about him.” They married in 2011.

Today, the Yangs live in a two-bedroom rental apartment in Midtown Manhattan. (Their sons, ages 6 and 3, sleep in bunk beds.) They spend weekends at a country home in the Hudson Valley. Evelyn, a stay-at-home mother, is remarkably chill about her husband’s quest to become the most powerful man on the planet. “When he becomes a man on a mission, he gets very animated and passionate about it, and there’s really no stopping him,” she said. “And the truth is, I didn’t know how far he would get. But I believed in what he was trying to accomplish.” She sounded thoughtful, but also like someone describing a spouse’s eccentric hobby or weekend volleyball league. “There’s nothing to do but to be supportive,” Evelyn decided.

Andrew Yang did not vote in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. He would have voted for Bernie Sanders, but, he told me, “by the time the New York primary happened, the election had been all but decided. It would have felt more like a protest vote.” He voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election; like every other liberal he knew, he assumed she would win. “I would not be running for president if Trump didn’t win,” he often says. The Yangs watched the general-election returns from their apartment. “It just killed him to think about all the really sad people at the Javits Center,” Evelyn recalled. The Yangs can see the convention center from their home, which is also three subway stops from Trump Tower.

When Yang was running Venture for America, “occasionally somebody would say to him, ‘Seriously, you should run for some kind of office,’ ” Evelyn recalled. “We would literally be rolling our eyes and laughing our heads off, because the idea of Andrew being a politician was so ludicrous.” I asked why. “I mean, you’ve talked to him, right?” she said, searching for words. “He’s very much after the truth of things and not preoccupied with how others think of him or perceive him.” He occasionally texts her jokes culled from the Yang Gang; Evelyn doesn’t use social media. She suspects some of her friends still don’t know Andrew is a candidate. (Bless her, she really isn’t on Facebook.) Most of the time, she avoids the topic: “Once you say, ‘My husband is running for president,’ it sort of hijacks the conversation.”

One of the first things Yang did as a candidate was hire a consultant to focus-test “universal basic income” against rebrands like “prosperity dividend.” The focus group favored “freedom dividend,” so the campaign used it. When the New York Times published its first story about Yang, in February 2018, the article appeared in the business section. Yang floated a few ideas outside of universal basic income, or UBI, such as turning tax day into a national holiday, but much of his platform was still unformed. On the subject of social issues, Yang told the Times that he was generally liberal and said, “I believe what you probably think I believe.”

The campaign’s strategy, at that point, was to take every meeting and accept every interview. Yang appeared in a few articles and TV segments. He ate beef noodle soup with a pair of Chinese American YouTube stars. But Yang did not hit his stride until he arrived at 2019’s digital media darling du jour: podcasts. Specifically, the long, slow stride of discursive one-on-one interviews for audiences that want a favorite host or intriguing guest to take over their inner monologues for an hour. It’s the type of podcast that is both a product of and a reaction to digital media, the result of a tragic yearning for human connection and “an oasis from our indentured interaction with screens,” as Adam Sternbergh recently argued in New York Magazine.

Public intellectual Sam Harris’s podcast provided Yang’s first boost. Harris, in turn, introduced Yang to Joe Rogan, a comedian who dabbles in mixed martial arts and was the original host of TV’s “Fear Factor.” Rogan’s podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” is one of the nation’s most popular and a staple on SiriusXM. (It’s the one where Elon Musk smoked weed while Tesla stock plummeted.) Rogan interviewed Yang for two hours, focusing almost exclusively on the candidate’s political views. On YouTube, a video of the segment has been viewed close to 3 million times.

His wife, Evelyn Yang, suspects some of her friends still don’t know Andrew is a candidate. Most of the time, she avoids the topic: “Once you say, ‘My husband is running for president,’ it sort of hijacks the conversation.”

The Rogan interview triggered a wave of donations and attracted new followers for Yang. Then, two days later, the Democratic National Committee happened to announce the criteria to qualify for the primary debates: Register at least 1 percent in three polls or receive donations from 65,000 people. Yang addressed his newly growing fan base: “If everyone on this list donates $1 and gets one friend or relative to donate $1, we’re on the debate stage.” He shared daily updates and added a progress bar to the campaign website. The Yang Gang delivered a quarter of a million dollars in less than a week and reached the 65,000 donor threshold in less than a month. Yang has since qualified with the polling method as well.

Yang’s hunt for the cheat codes to democracy is part of his appeal to supporters. He may lack game in matters of the heart, but he made his (undisclosed) millions gaming the test-prep industry. Disciplined behavior targeting the numeric measurements of success is his thing. Gaming the numbers is also, these days, America’s thing: From the quant revolution in sports, to influence measured numerically in followers, to journalism designed to chase clicks, manipulating the metrics of success is something of a national pastime. Speaking in a junior high school auditorium in Des Moines in April, Yang performed a calculation: “I did the math. Do you know how many Californians each of you is worth?” The crowd laughed nervously, as though uncertain whether it was about to be shamed or pandered to. “Between 800 and 1,000 Californians! How many people do we have in this room? I’m going to call it 250? You look around this room, I don’t see 250 people. I see 250,000 Californians,” Yang told them. “If the Democrats of Iowa decide to embrace a different economic vision, it can catch hold like wildfire and sweep the country.” The crowd burst into applause.

By quantifying the pander, Yang had absolved it of shame. “I had a tweet you might find entertaining,” he said when I pushed him on the topic. “I love Iowa and New Hampshire equally, until the data clearly shows I should spend more time in one than the other.” He was quoting himself about his own insincerity and, as predicted, I was entertained.

Yang has the manner of a high school teacher who likes to make students laugh. His speeches are dense with statistics and economic history. True believers shout facts in unison at him. One state has an annual dividend, Yang prompted the audience in Des Moines. “And what state is that?” “Alaska!” “And how do they pay for it?” “Oil!” “And what is the oil of the 21st century?” “Technology!” That sequence illustrates part of Yang’s plan for funding the freedom dividend: value-added taxes. He also wants the freedom dividend to replace most welfare programs — substituting for the network of food stamps, housing credits and disability benefits designed to help the poor. (This part comes up when libertarians make the case for UBI.) But he didn’t talk about that until the Q&A.

Campaigning seems to delight Yang, perhaps because it’s still a novelty. When people chant his name, he sometimes goofily chants back at them, “Chant! My! Name!” Catching a glimpse of a monogram on his shirt cuff, I asked Yang about his wardrobe. He brightened as he described a sort of menswear version of the “Rocky” training montage, in which a frumpy dad rediscovers hair products and reports to a tailor for blue oxford shirts and navy blazers.

Reading Yang’s dispatches from the campaign trail is like watching a beauty vlogger talk about her feelings while brushing on mascara: He performs, analyzes his performance and considers how the performance makes him feel, all at once. His campaign newsletter reads like a diary: “I tend to write these emails in transit from one place to another. I enjoy processing what’s happening in the campaign,” he wrote in an entry about pushing past his introversion. “I was willing to adopt behaviors that were very uncomfortable for me at the time to reach certain goals. Putting myself out there. Selling an idea for a company. Asking women out on dates.” He describes running for president as a natural extension of behavior he practiced at Venture for America: “You have certain goals. You realize that the only way to make them happen is certain behaviors. You get better at those behaviors. Eventually, you find yourself with a goal so big that it is almost impossible — prepare society for the automation of labor that is already tearing us apart. Keep the country whole. There is a vanishingly short list of ways to meaningfully do so.”

Yang during the rally in New York. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

When I visited Yang 2020’s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan in April, the paint was still drying on the walls of the newly acquired second floor. After raising $1.7 million in the year’s first quarter, the team was in growth mode.

Yang’s campaign now has 25 staff members, from more walks of life than the Manhattan dinner party circuit. When I first spoke to press secretary Madalin Sammons, she was driving from West Virginia to Washington, D.C.; this is her first time living outside the state where she grew up. Sammons, who worked on West Virginia state Sen. Richard Ojeda’s congressional campaign, shares Yang’s distaste for “job retraining” efforts. (He thinks people can reboot their work lives more efficiently with direct cash infusions.) Andrew Frawley, who is 25, moved out of his San Francisco “hacker house” after conversing with Yang about the automation crisis. He lived peripatetically for a summer, attending lectures and seeking wisdom from economists, then joined the campaign in the autumn of 2017.

Deputy Chief of Staff Carly Reilly, 25, was working on a screenplay for a political workplace drama with a universal-income subplot when she attended a Yang event. “I went for a 13-mile run that night,” she told me. “I heard Andrew speak, and I was so hyped up, I couldn’t stop running.” She ran from Chinatown to Harlem and back again. Reilly’s job includes directing Yang’s advance team and coordinating with the Yang Gang’s 200-plus chapters across the United States and in seven other countries. She credits much of Yang’s success to his being “incredibly authentic,” citing the campaign’s 100-plus policy proposals. More proposals mean more room for disagreement, Reilly pointed out, “but it’s authentic. He has these opinions and he is putting them out there.”

Yang takes a selfie with a supporter after a Black Caucus meeting in Columbia, S.C., in May. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
Yang greets attendees at a Reaching Rural Voters Forum in Stuart, Iowa, in April. (Photo by Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)
From left: Yang takes a selfie with a supporter after a Black Caucus meeting in Columbia, S.C., in May. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images) Yang greets attendees at a Reaching Rural Voters Forum in Stuart, Iowa, in April. (Photo by Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)

Yang told me his policy operation currently involves “maybe a dozen” people who assist his research or point him to those who can. And people he meets on the campaign trail generate ideas, too: “I’m like, ‘Hey, someone says this is the problem, and this is the solution we should be looking at. Can you see if they’re onto something or if that’s stupid?’ ”

As is true of most things online (and perhaps off) Yang’s output is a visibly updating work-in-progress. His policy proposals have a spaghetti-test quality to them, as though Yang is throwing every good idea he has heard at a wall to see what sticks. Some proposals call for major reform: statehood for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, term limits for Supreme Court justices, data property rights, automatic voter registration, ranked-choice voting, lowering the voting age to 16, a Cabinet-level technology secretary. Others are quirkier: A proposal called “Modern Time Banking” would reward citizens for socially positive behavior like volunteering; an idea labeled “Automatically Sunset Old Laws” would attach “success metrics” and timetables to new legislation to help weed out “harmful, useless, or underperforming laws.” He wants to declare a state of emergency for the opioid crisis, empower mixed martial arts fighters to unionize and standardize cryptocurrency regulations. He’d also like to abolish the penny and eliminate daylight saving time. (“Let’s just pick the time and stick to it.”)

When ideas fail the spaghetti test, Yang amends or abandons them. After a proposal to appoint a national “News and Information Ombudsman” triggered outcry about free speech, Yang defended the policy for a while, then decided his critics had a point and removed the item from his website. The campaign is still workshopping that policy. Expect revised information on misinformation soon.

When I asked Yang what his go-to news sources are, his first three answers were the Atlantic, Business Insider and long-form article recommendations from Pocket, an app for saving and sharing reading material. “A lot of the policies are just based upon my reading over the last number of years,” Yang explained. “I would read something and be like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t make any sense.’ And, ‘Oh, we should totally do this, we should totally do that.’ ”

Tracing the genesis of Yang’s beliefs is a good case study in how people form and announce opinions in 2019. Take his position on circumcision, which he sort of stumbled into through a combination of social media kismet and algorithm. The reason he has a public position on the subject at all is because a Twitter user named Jellyfish Rave asked, “Do you have an opinion on routine infant circumcision?”

“Negative on it,” Yang replied.

Jellyfish Rave pressed him to clarify what he was “negative” on.

“Against the practice,” Yang replied. A reporter from the Daily Beast noticed the exchange and interviewed Yang, who described himself as “highly aligned with the intactivists.” He concluded, “History will prove them even more correct.”

Yang’s “intactivist” alignment began before the birth of his first son and at Evelyn’s behest. A pediatrician had described circumcision as an aesthetic decision, which shocked Evelyn: “Why would I [have] a surgery performed on him for something strictly aesthetic?” With this thought in the back of her mind, Evelyn was browsing Netflix when she saw a documentary called “American Circumcision.” “I have no idea what we were watching to have ‘American Circumcision’ be a recommended movie,” she told me, but she watched. Andrew’s memory is that he “watched at least half of that documentary and then was like, ‘Yup, I find this convincing, too.’ ”

When Andrew used the word “intactivist,” the anti-circumcision world went wild. Online, intactivism is the source of rancorous debate supercharged by “humanity’s most persistent weaknesses: sexual insecurity and resentment of one’s parents,” as Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern wrote in 2013. Die-hard intactivists characterize circumcision as genital mutilation and say the practice should be illegal. After facing backlash about religious freedom and anti-Semitism, Yang tweeted that he supports “the freedom of parents” and has personally attended a bris. This, in turn, triggered an intactivist backlash. Yang’s website does not list an official stance on the issue. Nevertheless, some intactivists still herald him as a hero. At a Yang rally in New York’s Washington Square Park in May, a man waved a homemade sign that read, “Foreskin for the Win!”

When I asked Yang whether he fears that his sons will someday resent him for going on the record on this issue, he said no. “I think the ratio of kids who are circumcised or uncircumcised is fairly well balanced now, and so it’s like, who cares?”

Yang insists his campaign is more than a conversation starter about the robot apocalypse and universal basic income. He’s in the Democratic primary to win and to govern. “The lame way to look at it,” he said, drawing out the “a” in “lame,” “would be like, ‘We’ve already won because we’ve already moved the conversation forward.’ But that’s the lame way to look at it. You can’t talk yourself into success. You have to have concrete goals.” As the candidate of mathematics, he does admit the probability of a Yang presidency is small. Lately, he has added a talking point to his speeches that cites his low name recognition, which he says means he has room to grow. Or it could mean he has room to fall apart: He hasn’t garnered enough attention yet to face serious attacks.

It’s hard, in the end, to take seriously a novice politician who doesn’t even try to avoid questions about foreskin. (I came to our first interview prepared to strong-arm Yang into revisiting l’affair foreskin, but he was so comfortable talking about it that I became uncomfortable and had to change the subject.) It’s also hard to take seriously a presidential candidate who seems skeptical about gaining and wielding power, in general. Within five minutes of meeting me, Yang had asked if I’d read a 2017 Atlantic article called “Power Causes Brain Damage.” “They actually looked at the physiology of people’s brains who’ve been in positions of power and it actually showed that their centers of empathy had eroded,” Yang said, breaking into laughter. “That story actually had a profound effect on me. It was scientific, it was real, and it explained a lot to me. Because I’ve met a lot of powerful people, and a lot of them have had what I call ‘the force field,’ where you say something to them and it doesn’t really sink in. It’s like things are bouncing off. I’ve always been conscious that I never want that force field.”

Yang believes he has avoided campaign-related brain damage thus far but acknowledged his bias by singing a few bars from “I’m So Humble” by the musical-comedy group the Lonely Island: “It’s like that pop star song, ‘I’m so hum-ble, so hum-ble.’ No? You haven’t seen that?” he asked. I stared blankly, as did Graumann, who was sitting beside Yang. But moments later, Graumann turned to his boss. “You’re living the dream,” he said. “Every American wants to get up on the debate stage and talk sense to the politicians.”

While I am skeptical that the American Dream includes moderation from CNN, Graumann is not wrong about public sentiments on politics. To live under a government gridlocked on every level is frustrating. To feel powerless in this nation — whose raison d’etre was supposed to be empowering the people — is galling. For a random citizen to challenge this state of affairs by stepping into the marketplace of ideas and actually becoming a viable candidate — that’s sort of the point of self-governance, right? But until a few years ago — until the Internet and social media and online donations and podcasts — such a candidate getting noticed would have been implausible. Yang’s style of success is so new that it’s thrilling; so basic that it’s refreshing; and so easy that it’s terrifying.

At every dinner party, there is a moment when politics comes up. Everyone will complain about failures of government and the blind spots of leaders. They will gripe about the president. They will criticize the people running to replace the president. They will offer opinions on better ways to govern. Inevitably some guy (and usually it is a guy) will hijack the conversation to lay out the one thing everyone in Washington doesn’t understand, the one problem nobody is talking about, and the one way to fix everything. Seriously! Even I would be a better president, he might exclaim. Or maybe someone else will say it for him. Inevitably, that guy will be a polarizing figure. Nine times out of 10, he is arrogant, obnoxious, and ruins the dinner party. But every now and then, in the right circumstances, he is the life of the party. Andrew Yang is what happens when that guy actually runs for president, in a country reshaped to make that viable.

Maureen O’Connor is a writer in New York.

Credits: Story by Maureen O'Connor. Photos by Erik Tanner. Designed by Michael Johnson. Photo Editing by Dudley M. Brooks.