Politics

The Unexpected Resonance of Andrew Yang’s One-Note Campaign

Andrew Yang smiles.
A reason to smile.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

There’s an old Chris Rock routine about the elixirlike role that the cough syrup Robitussin played in his family’s life: “I broke my leg once. Daddy poured Robitussin all over it. ‘Yeah, boy! Let that ’Tussin get in there. Let that ’Tussin go down to the bone!’ ”

It’s a line that jumped to mind somewhere between the fifth and 50th time that Andrew Yang spoke on a debate stage about the power of his “Freedom Dividend,” a policy proposal deployed at every possible occasion as the answer to nearly all of society’s ills and pitched to the American people with such breezy assurance that you could almost feel the placebo effect seeping into viewers through the TV. A socioeconomic Robitussin. After all, what’s simpler to grok than cash?

What is easy to miss, and may be easy to forget now that Yang has suspended his campaign, is that the power of his pitch was not the idea of a universal basic income itself—though who wouldn’t like an extra grand in one’s pocket every month?—but the worldview that Yang expressed through it, again and again, with almost comic one-noteness (or discipline, depending how you saw it), no matter whether the prompt was about criminal justice, health care, or foreign policy. His small but enthusiastic support was not just about the cash, but how he framed his pet position as one of empowerment and agency: Give people money because they know best what to do with it. Give people money because everyone—everyone—deserves it. Give people money because it will allow them to do what they want. It was an overly simplistic prescription founded on a deep and earnest message of trust, a marked contrast from both the messianic waves emanating from the White House and the structural, punch-upward promises of Yang’s Democratic competitors.

It was also a message of surprisingly optimistic individualism, coming from a man born to Taiwanese immigrants—a generation that broadly speaking can feel in thrall to an ancestral culture that places the self a distant second—at the same time that it was predicated on an idea of hard work and societal usefulness that such a culture would abide. Yang’s instructive contradictions did not end there. Yes, he overstated the flexibility that a UBI would afford. Sure, his accounting of robot-induced industrial job loss is not supported by the research. He was a little bro-y, in an outwardly harmless way (finger guns and smirks, spraying whipped cream into supporters’ mouths) and in a privately dude-boss way that plucked lightly at our toxic-masculinity suspicion strings without setting off full alarms. His flat affect and no-necktie style could be mildly cringey for Asian Americans who try to avoid coming across as a staid stereotype while simultaneously trying not to make that avoidance look effortful.

But his arguments were not what might be conventionally expected from a candidate of color. The racism and xenophobia of Trump’s 2016 campaign were so shocking that they threatened to become a one-size-fits-all explanation for our current straits, a corrective against the pundit position that Trump’s support was driven by “economic anxiety.” Yang granted credence to that economic anxiety, for the sake of aiming his solution directly at it—not on the theory that racism is overstated, but that it’s easier for people to constrain their own racist impulses when they feel economically secure and in control of their lives. Meanwhile, his mockable incantation of “automation” also handily served as a way to redirect anger and fear toward robots and technologized capitalism, and away from competition between groups of people (poor robots). Rather than address racism and its effects head-on, he was trying to dull their bite. You won’t be able to stop some white people from feeling a deep, emotional loss of standing. But you can give them less motivation to blame you for their troubles.

Yang’s proposal was to strengthen the safety net for the most poor and disadvantaged, but to apply it indiscriminately. (Michael Bloomberg would have also gotten a monthly $1,000 check under President Andrew Yang.) His plan to pay for it in part with a value-added tax had the same essential character. His coalition was at least as spread out as the current front-runner’s because his argument skirted the political and moral discomfort of reparation—as does the central pitch of the current front-runner. Universal basic income was broadly uplifting without being redistributive. It allowed a certain segment to acknowledge inequality and financial strain without letting go of an (outdated) sense of fairness. UBI would not solve the racial wealth gap. But it might raise the floor.

That he took this position as a candidate of color made it tempting to write him off from a certain vantage point. (A person of color with a libertarian network emits a powerful odor of either having sold out or lost it.) It also lent him the goofy luster that sticks easily to both Asians and politicians who scramble expectations. He seemed always to be very aware of that sheen he carried and, in a conscious but also offhanded way that saved him from deeper criticism, played with that dual outsider role rather than outright defy it. He crowd-surfed, he skateboarded, he finger-gunned, he math’d, he cried; he seemed, in his weirdness, to defy type and also serve as a reminder that identity politics is about incorporating identity into politics—not about drawing hard lines of identity-based fealty. That it is about expanding our understanding of what informs people’s choices, not restricting it. In many ways Yang confounded the community that claimed him as a pathbreaker, at the same time that his candidacy provoked relief: to realize that for Asians it would actually be OK not to support him. And OK, when it was all said and done, to feel a significant amount of pride.