The political dark horse stands out by putting ideas ahead of rhetoric
No political candidate is a flawless demigod, despite what some hardcore supporters end up believing. With over 100 policy proposals (many of which transcend traditional left-right politics), anyone could likely make a list of likes and dislikes with Andrew Yang’s platform. But this eclectic assortment of ideas is part of what makes Yang so appealing to his supporters. Yang has consistently defied the allure of platitudes, resisting the oversimplifications and holier-than-thou moral certainty of most politicians, in favor of a more mindful, adaptable approach to politicking.
This kind of radical centrism (for lack of a better term) sets Yang apart from most of his Democratic rivals. It’s neither the moderate centrism of Joe Biden, often trying to split the difference between progressive and conservative ideas for the sake of broad appeal, nor is it the highly idealogical, “my way or the highway,” maximalism of Bernie Sanders. Rather, Yang’s heterodoxy is an attempt to reach a quiet, non-ideological majority.
One writer recently dubbed this approach, “technocratic populism,” two unpopular and seemingly contradictory words that only make sense when applied to Yang. It’s an attempt to find ideas that are transformative, popular, and workable, without sacrificing any of the above.
You might also call it “liberalism,” in a liberal sense of the word. Yang’s contemplative approach to policy, his willingness to change his mind when presented with new information and come to conclusions gradually, reflects an inherently liberal sentiment: that there are multiple ways of arriving at the same goal. As the writer Adam Gopnik lays out in his book, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, the liberal worldview begins with intellectual humility. Humans are complicated animals full of contradictions, and politics is a complicated endeavor full of disagreement. Choosing to view people and ideas according to simplistic dichotomies, or see the entire world as a zero-sum struggle is neither productive nor true.
It’s a campaign theme that is well-suited to this day and age. As Yang himself has pointed out, he is essentially running on the same premise that Trump ran on in 2016, without the bigotry and scapegoating. Yes, says Yang, unemployment numbers are low, but they fail to tell the whole story. Lots of people are still really struggling to make ends meet. Jobs have been destroyed and lives upended not because of immigration or trade, but automation. Around 40% of Americans say they wouldn’t have $400 to spare in an emergency. Many are chronically underemployed, working part-time jobs without benefits. These are facts that would not necessarily be negatives if people had some kind of safety net, allowing them to take risks and make bold choices without fear of losing everything.
Amazingly, this idea didn’t seem too unrealistic in 1930, when economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that by the 21st century, most people would be working less than 15 hours per week, and their biggest concern would be what to do with all of their free time. Regrettably, things failed to pan out exactly as Keynes envisioned them.
As far as developed, democratic countries go, the US is an especially difficult place to be poor. If you are an able-bodied adult between the ages of 18 and 65, you don’t really have a safety net to fall back on. This makes the pursuit of happiness an expensive, highly risky endeavor for most ordinary people. Add onto that our country’s long history of institutional racism (including, but not limited to, our wildly counterproductive criminal justice system) and other forms of bigotry, plus all the ways in which we actually penalize poverty and raise the cost of living while dolling out massive sums of money to the wealthiest among us, and the “right” to pursue one’s own happiness begins to sound like a cruel joke.
So how do we go about creating a society in which we are free to pursue whatever makes us happiest in our short, fleeting lives? The philosopher John Rawls’s classic “veil of ignorance” thought experiment can help us here.
Try to imagine that you are about to be born. Where and who you end up is unknown and completely random (all possibilities in terms of wealth, ethnicity, gender, etc., are all equally likely), then ask yourself, “Where would I choose to be born?” or, “Under what kind of system would I be the most likely to live a decent life, no matter who I am?” Looking around the world today, the answer seems abundantly clear: a multicultural, democratic country with a mixed economy that combines elements of free market dynamism with social insurance and regulation in the public interest, allowing for a maximum degree of flexibility and personal choice. Exactly how to structure those safety nets and regulations is debatable, but it’s hardly debatable that this type of society, one that provides everyone with a high degree of personal autonomy, is both the practical and ethical winner. Those concerned with human welfare should concern themselves with promoting and advancing these things both in their own societies and globally.
As I’ve said before, labels can be tricky things. Terms like “capitalism” and “socialism” have been tossed around so carelessly that they’ve been reduced to nearly meaningless epithets. Does “capitalism” mean mass accumulation of wealth and consolidation of corporate power into the hands of a few powerful players, or does it simply refer to any kind of voluntary exchange in the marketplace (buying something from my local coffee shop)? Does “socialism” refer to an all-powerful state’s domination over all industry, or simply a system of strong safety nets and labor protections? Depending on which definition you’re using, the same person can be a capitalist and an anti-capitalist, a socialist and an anti-socialist all at once.
Some people may choose to spend hours arguing over their true meaning, but when push comes to shove, these terms are little more than a distraction. When lifespans are facing a staggering multi-year decline, due mostly to spikes in suicides and drug overdoses, intellectual disputes over political labels begins to look like a luxury only the privileged can afford.
These unfortunate trends notwithstanding, it is generally true that living conditions in the US, and indeed most of world, have improved over time. Being born in the 21st century is better for most people than being born the 20th, which was better than the 19th, and so on.
The most thoughtless way to interpret this is to assume that progress simply follows some kind of natural Tao, and that the future will always be better than the past simply because it always has been. This is certainly a nice idea, but reality is, of course, more complicated.
Living standards have continuously improved because people have put their blood, sweat, tears into fighting for a better future. To say that 1964 was a better time to be alive than 1864, while accurate, in no way undermines the value of the Civil Rights Act passed that year. Saying that 2019 is a better time to be alive than some distant past in no way undermines the potential value of something like universal health care/basic income.
The future will only be better for everyone if people strive to make it better. That fact that some people use historical progress as an argument against progressive ideas is a strange but pervasive kind of confusion.
Progress is not a simple, one-dimensional concept. There are many paths forward that could lead to a more prosperous future, or, if we’re not careful, a turbulent future full of strife and needless suffering. There are laudable aspects of the market economy, and serious downsides. There are good government policies that help people, and bad government policies that harm people. Focusing on what actually works — what pushes us closer to the goal of maximum human flourishing — should be the strategy for deciding what path we end up on. Whether we call it, “human-centered capitalism,” a “social market economy,” or something else makes little difference.
Whichever Democratic candidate gets the nomination, it is all but inevitable that Trump and company will hurl the pejorative “socialist” their way. Democrats need to remain above playing this empty labels game and focus on the real issues.
As former Obama advisor Cass Sunstien once said, “[T]he way of approaching the world that looks through conservative or liberal bias is destructive. We want to have a welfare bias. What is helping people? If it’s helping people, let’s all march together on its behalf.” Or, as Andrew Yang has successfully sloganeered, “Humanity First.”