What Andrew Yang means

How to interpret the staying power of a long-shot presidential candidate.
Joan Wong for The Washington Post

I winced — just a bit — the first time I heard Andrew Yang deploy what would become his most reliable applause line. We were in the warehouse of a newspaper in rural New Hampshire in February, and, in front of several dozen white folks, he delivered his now-familiar refrain: “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math!"

As a wave of laughter rolled through the room, lingering a few beats longer than the joke probably deserved, I watched the faces in the crowd exude relief, even gratitude, over the permission they’d just been granted to treat the good-at-math-Asian-guy stereotype as benign, even funny. For the crowd, the joke was cathartic, releasing a tension most would not have quite known they were feeling before he dispelled it. By leaning into the stereotype, Yang effectively said: Remind me — why should I be on the defensive about this?

Outlook • Perspective
Wesley Yang is a columnist for Tablet and the author of “The Souls of Yellow Folk.” Follow @wesyang

The line is now shouted in unison by the boisterous crowds he draws to his rallies. Members of the #YangGang, as his admirers are known, are among the most energized factions supporting any presidential candidate on social media: They wear blue hats and shirts emblazoned with “MATH” — an acronym for the slogan Make America Think Harder. They chant “PowerPoint,” and they pumped $10 million into Yang’s coffers in the third quarter of this year, putting a once-unknown candidate who’s never held elective office ahead of multiple governors and members of Congress in fundraising. He’s tied for sixth place with 3 percent support among those planning to vote in the 2020 primaries and caucuses, according to the most recent Economist-YouGov poll.

The symbolism of his messaging — at once joyous, ironic, weirdly earnest, self-deprecating and proud — should be instantly clear to anyone who has labored in a white-collar workplace. Yang is casting himself as a proverbial spreadsheet jockey who is going off script and demanding to be put in charge immediately, because the alphas and apple-polishers who call the shots are failing.

It’s fitting that such an unexpected political movement would have an Asian American man as its underdog figurehead. Yang is a stand-in — and hero — for all the people who have acquired a deep understanding of how things actually work while toiling away in the obscurity where others are content to keep them confined, running the technical infrastructure. That’s the role in which we are most habituated to seeing Americans of Asian descent: hyper-competent but deferential, best suited for those essential but essentially subordinate roles — and no other.

What were all those spreadsheet jockeys, data modelers, computer programmers, lawyers, consultants and investment bankers doing in the 1990s and 2000s? They were optimizing American capitalism. They were pricing out credit default swaps and bundling mortgage-backed securities. They were building the legal and technical pathways of overseas supply chains. They were constructing industrial robots in factories in the Midwest. “The reason why Donald Trump’s our president today is that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin,” Yang says. And what are they doing today? They are building next-generation technologies to do the same thing to call-center workers, truck drivers, retail employees and fast-food workers — to millions of middle-aged, middle-income Americans, particularly those with no more than high school educations. Yang calls it “the fourth industrial revolution,” the “greatest technological shift in human history” and the most pressing issue that almost no one has been talking about.

Yang is a kind of defector from the knowledge-worker class he once epitomized as an Ivy League-educated corporate lawyer and chief executive of a test-prep company. The seven years he spent building a nonprofit called Venture for America, matching graduates of top colleges with start-ups in Rust Belt cities, made him acutely conscious of both the injury that his cohort has done (and is working tirelessly to expand) in the service of corporate America, and the volatile reaction this injury has stirred up. His campaign is an attempt to fashion a technocratic response to populist demands — by simply giving people money. The overt emphasis on being an Asian American math nerd frames his signature policy, a universal basic income (UBI) of $1,000 per month for every American adult, as a responsible, sober-minded and data-driven measure to “rebalance the economy,” rather than the giveaway it looks like. The core mission of Yang’s campaign is to get people to see UBI, which he calls the “Freedom Dividend,” as the former rather than the latter, and he’s exploiting every angle he can — including stereotypes — toward that end.

Frustration with how little conventional politicians have done to address the onslaught from the next wave of technological disruption drove Yang into the presidential race. It’s a phenomenon he describes at length in his book, “The War on Normal People.” He says: “Donald Trump in 2016 said he was going to make America great again, and what was Hillary Clinton’s response? America’s already great,” adding, “That was not the right answer.” In Yang’s view, the right answer is a permanent stimulus routed through the pockets of every American to help them build a post-automation economy.

He believes that, eventually, an American working class told to accept an ever-reduced standard of living — while the corporate beneficiaries of our system show indifference toward the despair, suicide, alcoholism and opiate abuse afflicting those left behind — could lash out with a fury that makes Trump look like a mild precursor. When Yang explains that “Trump got many of the problems right,” even if the president gets many solutions wrong, it is this dynamic he has in mind, and it is this economic wound that he proposes to heal with UBI and a raft of other policies focused on rescuing Americans from the zero-sum “mind-set of scarcity” currently deranging our politics.

Andrew Yang speaks to voters at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 9 in Des Moines. His emphasis on being an Asian American math nerd helps him pitch one of his central policy ideas: a universal basic income. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Yang has somehow used the bleakest vision of any candidate to generate the most fun of all the campaigns: He has tweeted video of himself playing Rachmaninoff on the piano, skateboarded, crowd-surfed, done the Cupid Shuffle and challenged Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to a game of one-on-one basketball. The #YangGang calls out instances when their candidate is left off mainstream media infographics — neglect that only feeds their ardor. They love it when he revels in his underdog status, as he did when he tweeted, “It’s all fun and games until Andrew Yang passes you in the polls.”

Yang has cracked the code on how to be something that doesn’t have much precedent in our political culture: an Asian American man able to summon and inspire large, enthusiastic crowds across the country in support of his bid for national leadership, charismatic enough to commandeer a spotlight that no one had wanted to train on him. After interviewing him, Politico senior politics editor Charlie Mahtesian tweeted: “Yang was much better than some of the veteran pols we’ve seen before in the office — easy to see why he’s got a following. Authentic, comfortable in his own skin, able to articulate a coherent reason for running, minimal amount of b.s. in answers to a wide range of questions.” (Two other Democratic contenders, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), have Asian roots but don’t conspicuously frame themselves as Asian American candidates.)

It turns out that being this figure doesn’t entail being a scold about race. As Yang brought his Asian jokes to the televised debates (there’s also the one about knowing a lot of doctors), some Asian American progressives took him to task for embracing a facially positive stereotype that, in their view, is “reaffirming toxic tropes” and traps Asian Americans within a “model minority” framing. These critics were voicing the general strictness on matters of identity to which we are all supposed to defer these days. This month, Yang met with some of them and explained that while he respected and understood their objections, he sees it differently. And he’s not an outlier: In one 2018 study, when asked if people nowadays “don’t take racism seriously enough” or if they’re “too sensitive about things to do with race,” 73 percent of Asian Americans said people are “too sensitive,” more than the 60 percent overall who said the same.

Yang with supporters at a campaign event in New York in May. Their signs reference the candidate's ideas about "human capitalism" and his "MATH" slogan: Make America Think Harder. (Andres Kudacki/For The Washington Post)

The criticisms fundamentally miss Yang’s objectives. His humor breaks the ice surrounding the first thing you notice about him — and the thing audiences are least prepared to parse. It has the paradoxical effect of highlighting how few of the identity-based hopes or antagonisms plaguing other candidacies affect the Asian American guy “who wants to give everyone $1,000 a month.” Asian Americans, only about 6 percent of the population and heavily clustered in a few states, are often overlooked as a group. But given the overheated rhetoric surrounding other identity categories, for Yang, this lack of visibility could turn out to be an asset.

In the hierarchy of the schoolyard, the Andrew Yangs of the world were often the quarry of white bros like podcaster and “Saturday Night Live” washout Shane Gillis. But in the world run by Big Data, it’s Yang who is the New York millionaire with ties to Silicon Valley. When Yang forgave Gillis for mocking him as a “Jew C----,” it wasn’t just out of electoral expediency (though it was that, too) but because he believes that the key to stability between America’s hinterlands and urban areas, to averting the civil disorder he spells out in his book, is a truce. After watching Gillis’s comedy, Yang decided he wasn’t the evil pariah that the progressive consensus assessed but instead “a still-forming comedian from central Pennsylvania.” This magnanimity isn’t a capitulation, it’s a sign of strength.

Yang grasps that, despite the grievances many Asian Americans justifiably hold about discrimination, members of the best-educated and highest-earning group in America shouldn’t linger on victimhood.

In an era when activists debate whether a white man should lead the Democratic Party and pollsters ask voters whether a woman or a minority can beat Trump, Yang arrives without baggage because he’s an outsider to the black-white binary at the core of American racial tension. A country that not long ago elected its first black president to his second term, and Trump to his first, could well find a respite from this whipsaw dynamic in the very marginality of an Asian American candidate. Neither especially loved nor feared by either side of this divide, an Asian American might become what the country can agree to settle on: an honest broker. Accordingly, Yang has received welcoming treatment from Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, Charlamagne Tha God and at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network convention. Once derided as the candidate of NEETs and incels, Yang recently got a thumbs-up from #MeToo oracle Alyssa Milano, who told the hosts of the View, “I love him” because he’s “changed the narrative.”

Yang remains a long shot, and UBI still may be too outlandish for a lot of voters. But his presence in the Democratic debates has propelled his platform from the fringe to the national conversation, and he now has a unique political movement and its accompanying infrastructure. He’s gone from being a novelty candidate to providing a glimpse at a future when Asian Americans become universal figures in American political life, and realize their potential not just to serve but to lead.

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