At Public Seminar, we haven’t talked much about Andrew Yang: in fact, his name has barely come up. This may be, perhaps, because we are unconsciously very traditionalist in our view of what a legitimate politician is. Senator Bernie Sanders, a socialist running for the nomination of a party that he does not formally belong to, does not violate our principles in this way because he is still a politician. If Sanders, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, imagine the United States government functioning in a strikingly different way than it does now, their collective vision (with its similarities and differences) is recognizable to us, the logical extension of policies that have been debated within formal, electoral politics since the 1932 election. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Mayor Peter Buttigieg are even more recognizable still: let’s take what we have and make it work better, they urge. There is no need to change the system, they argue: only to make it work better and more comprehensibly.
Andrew Yang fits nowhere in this framework, but he does point to what all these Democratic candidates have in common: to one degree or another, they all believe that politics is a conversation about how, not whether, democratic government will be renewed. For the limits of this idea, see an essay by Ian Zuckerman and Daniel Kato in this week’s issue (“Impeachment as National Renewal” (January 28 2020), in which they caution us to remember that not all politics signal democratic renewal. “[C]elebrations of the political potential of impeachment,” they note in a comparison between the attempts to remove Donald Trump and the failed impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868, “elide its undemocratic character and gloss over its problems as a means of democratic renewal.”
To return to Andrew Yang, and his stubborn persistence in the contest for the Democratic nomination, one might note that he seems to occupy that point in the Venn Diagram where the critiques and policy proposals of other candidates mesh, excluding many points of difference. Yang believes that government must be better mobilized as that force for public good, a position that has anchored the Democratic party since 1932. But unlike the other primary candidates, Yang – who has never run for, or been elected to, public office — has a technology-based, outsider’s belief in what our principal national challenge is: the reshaping of our work environment by automation. Today, we propose that you drop all your preconceptions about controversial opinion writer Bari Weiss and read her excellent article about this unusual candidacy, “Did I Just Get Yanged?” (New York Times, January 30 2020), in which she characterizes Yang’s program as a “healthy populism.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, given his nonchalant, blunt, effortless and friendly approach to discussing politics, Yang’s candidacy has become a magnet for a certain kind of young person no longer completely charmed by Bernie Sanders. I first became aware of Yang’s growing influence over the holidays when two of the younger voters in my family (the two who had actually delivered the early alert that Hillary Clinton was going to have a tough time taking out Bernie Sanders in 2016) said that they were switching from Sanders to Yang. But part of what Weiss makes clear is that Yang’s broad appeal rests on his capacity, not just to surf identity politics without either being defined by them or rejecting them, but also to point to how the idea of government must evolve with society itself.
Take Universal Basic Income (UBI), a policy proposal that has perhaps more a psychological than an economic impact, and is thought by some to be regressive rather than progressive. The theory of UBI is simple, if perhaps deceptive: that a poor person remains poor for most of the year, even if that person receives a chunk of money after April 15 that recognizes financial burdens created by medical expenses, eldercare, or childcare. UBI has been kicking around for a while: think, for example of Huey Long’s “Every Man a King” proposal as he was geared up to run against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936, a program which also proposed a UBI that would be paid for by taking the super-rich (in the 1930s, this meant millionaires, not billionaires.) Its contemporary resonance is seductive: by putting money in people’s pockets, it might allow hard-working people to give up that third job, or subsidize expenses that allow them to keep more of the money they earn. More important, it appears to address the fundamental flaw, and legislative complexity, of the “tax break” as a way to address social problems, even if it is actually a tax break in sheep’s clothing.
So go read Bari Weiss’s article about Yang. And while you are at it, take a look at two other articles Public Seminar has posted this week. The first, by historian Katherine Turk, evaluates Virginia’s recent success in passing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), an attempt to amend the Constitution to ban gender discrimination that was dead as a doornail until activists took advantage of the mass mobilization of women after 2016 to revive it. In a second article, Alex Schwartz, Professor of Public and Urban Policy at the Milano School, who has studied New York City’s housing crisis, concludes that supporting low income renters is an impossible burden for cities and must be undertaken by the federal government.
All three of these pieces articulate why, despite the many differences of opinion about what it means to be a Democrat, the Republican Party, like the Farmer in the Dell’s cheese, increasingly stands alone. Politics is about the evolution of governance to meet new and systemic needs. It is not the art of looking backwards to a more family-oriented, ethnically homogenous, and universally middle class nation that never existed in the first place.
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The new School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical. Subscribe to her new Substack, Political Junkie, here.