When Andrew Yang bowed out of the 2020 presidential race, I was fairly ambivalent. As a supporter who had volunteered for his campaign, I obviously felt a bit sad that he would no longer be on the debate stage. But at the same time, I never had any real expectations that he would become the next POTUS.
Yang was a political dark horse whose candidacy was mostly about injecting fresh ideas into the Democratic Party. In that sense, he was successful. Direct cash transfers became a key component of the American Rescue Plan Act, and have grown increasingly popular across the political divide.
When Yang eventually dropped out and endorsed Joe Biden, it didn’t feel remotely surprising or disappointing, at least to me. He had accomplished what he set out to do, and now he was humbly helping the most electable candidate oust a deranged would-be dictator from the Oval Office. Good on you, Andrew.
When I found out that Yang had been defeated in the NYC mayoral race, it felt much different. This time, I was surprised, confused, and frustrated.
For those who rigidly adhere to the left-right paradigm, Yang is a little bit hard to explain. Yang and his staff have often said that when they first launched their presidential bid, they expected to be labeled the farthest “left” in the race. After all, this was a guy who wanted to just give people free money. But what the Yang Gang increasingly found was that they were largely viewed as moderates in the public eye. I think this speaks to the regrettable fact that in the theatrical world U.S. politics, rhetorical strategy tends to matter far more than substance.
So much here is semantic. If “moderate” means “beholden to the status quo,” then Yang is probably the least moderate politician in the country. Innovation is his whole brand, and he always has a detailed policy platform to backed it up. On the other hand, if “moderate” simply means being less ideological, putting pragmatic/utilitarian considerations ahead of flowery rhetoric and empty promises, then one could easily argue that Yang is as moderate as they come. Yang’s UBI proposal may have been extremely progressive in the literal sense, but perhaps that matters less than the fact that it bucks the ideological progressive orthodoxy.
Yang was also not particularly eloquent and had an unfortunate tendency to make awkward, less than fully-formed statements. To my mind, this shouldn’t really matter. I vote for candidates because I think they have good ideas that are going to raise living standards, especially for the least well-off people in society. I have to say, though, I sometimes feel like I’m an outlier in this regard.
When I look at all the criticisms that have been levied at Yang during this campaign season, nearly every one seems to focus on some rhetorical faux pas, rather than any substantive criticism of his policy goals. Yang’s main opponent (and likely winner) Eric Adams did occasionally jab at Yang’s signature proposal by snidely calling it “the UBLie.” This seems straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook. Why bother with evidence-based critiques when it’s so much easier to come up with a snappy insult that people will remember?
And it does bear reiterating that this disregard for substance is in no way unique to Democrats. The GOP’s only real strategy in recent years has been to generate intense fear and resentment towards the other side, then run on the premise of, “Whatever they’re for, we’re against!” Original policy ideas be damned.
It really distresses me, though, when Democrats make the same error by putting so much emphasis on personality and rhetoric. NYC had a chance to elect a truly heterodox candidate as their mayor, and for awhile, it seemed all but certain that they would. So what happened? Yang’s policies didn’t change over the course of the campaign, but he was successfully smeared as a tone-deaf outsider by his opponents. So what if his proposals could have virtually annihilated extreme poverty in America’s largest city? Is it really worth it if the guy occasionally puts his foot in his mouth?
I remember one of Yang’s first slogans when he announced his presidential bid was, “politics doesn’t have to suck.” I’d sure love to believe that, but unless we can somehow fundamentally alter the way most people seem to think about politics, I’m worried that the suckage is here to stay.