Faith Ninivaggi / Reuters

Andrew Yang, who used to run a test-prep company, has never held elective office.* Until last year, he was politically unknown. Now, according to the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, he is tied with Beto O’Rourke and leading Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, and Julián Castro in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. To understand why, it’s worth looking at how he responded earlier this month when Shane Gillis, a comedian for Saturday Night Live, referred to him using a racial slur.

Yang urged that Gillis not be fired. He also made an artless comparison between anti-Asian and antiblack racism. That garnered much of the media coverage. But more revealing was Yang’s explanation for why Gillis deserved forgiveness. Gillis, Yang tweeted, “does not strike me as malignant or evil. He strikes me as a still-forming comedian from central Pennsylvania.”

What does central Pennsylvania have to do with it? For Andrew Yang and his supporters, everything. It’s code for economic distress—which Yang believes fuels racism and most of the other problems that menace America.

In his 2019 campaign book, The War on Normal People, Yang warns that as automation destroys American jobs, “conflict born of race and identity” will grow “with automation-driven economics as the underlying force.” Yang’s first example: Charlottesville. “The violence in 2017 over the removal of Confederate symbols,” he writes, “can also be seen as engendered in part by economic dislocation.” Why? Because “the driver of the car that plowed into the crowd, killing a young woman, was from an economically depressed part of Ohio.”

This explanation might seem remarkably economics-centric. But that’s precisely the point. In the culture war that currently cleaves America, there are three sides. There are progressives who believe that racism, nativism, and misogyny powered Donald Trump’s rise and must be defeated. There are conservatives who believe that Trump’s election was a response to “political correctness”—the left’s effort to demonize as bigoted anyone who defends the traditions that made America great. And there’s a third group that thinks it’s all a dangerous distraction, a fight over where to place the chaise lounges on the Titanic. What’s killing America, this camp argues, is bad economics; treat that and the identity hatreds will fade. Over the past quarter century, two presidential candidates have mobilized these economics-first, culture-war-indifferent voters into a potent force. The first was Ross Perot. The second is Andrew Yang.

When Perot died this summer, many commentators described him as the precursor to Donald Trump. But while there are obvious similarities between these two egomaniacal protectionist businessmen, they differed in at least one crucial way. Trump—like George Wallace and Pat Buchanan before him—built his political career on racism. He launched his presidential campaign with a tirade against Mexican immigrants. In the 2018 midterms, Trump made the migrant “caravan” the centerpiece of his campaign strategy, even as allies begged him to talk about the strong economy.

In 1992, Perot did the opposite. He tried to avoid the culture war, which he saw as a distraction from America’s economic woes. Perot, The Washington Post’s obituary recalled, was “evasive on gun control.” While personally pro-choice, he said that when it came to abortion, “the people are ready and willing to put [past] divisions behind us.” In general, the Post noted, Perot “saw little role for a president on such [culture war] issues, saying they mostly should be left to the states.” He “understands the mounting public frustration at how the social issues, especially abortion, have tended to dominate the economic issues that many consider the federal government’s primary responsibility,” noted a 1993 essay in The New Republic.

Instead, Perot focused obsessively on economic mismanagement—a rubric that covered trade deals such as NAFTA and, above all, the national debt. While the Cold War had ended, he declared, “another war is upon us. In this new war, the enemy is not the red flag of Communism, but the red ink of our national debt.” The New York Times observed, “The difference between Mr. Perot's specificity on deficit reduction and his tentativeness in other areas reflects the importance he assigns to economic issues.” An adviser admitted that Perot “never really formulated positions on what he considered the secondary issues, which was basically everything other than the economy."

To a remarkable extent, it worked. In 1992, Perot won 19 percent of the vote, the highest for any third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Perot’s supporters were disproportionately young, white, male, and secular. On culture-war issues, according to a study by FiveThirtyEight, they were all over the map: pro-choice, pro–death penalty, anti–gun control, and anti–affirmative action. What distinguished them was the intensity of their views about “economic nationalism, reform, and the budget.”

Almost three decades later, Yang is assembling a similar coalition with an updated version of Perot’s message. For the Texas billionaire, the root cause of America’s ills was debt. For Yang, it’s robots. “The reason Donald Trump was elected was that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin,” Yang told The New York Times last year. “If you look at the voter data, it shows that the higher the level of concentration of manufacturing robots in a district, the more that district voted for Trump.” For Yang, Trump is only the first big calamity that automation will bring. In the coming years, self-driving cars will replace truckers, then similar technology will dispense with “retail workers, call-center workers, fast-food workers, insurance companies, accounting firms.” In The War on Normal People, Yang predicts riots, if not revolution. “We have five to 10 years before truckers lose their jobs,” he told the Times, “and [then] all hell breaks loose.”

Yang’s answer is a “Freedom Dividend” that would give every American adult $1,000 a month to cushion the blow and help launch new careers, which he’d pay for with a value-added tax of the kind that is common in Europe. Both conservatives (who claim the Freedom Dividend is too expensive and would disincentivize work) and liberals (who say the VAT would disproportionately burden the poor) have criticized Yang’s proposal. But he’s identified an enormously important problem: McKinsey has predicted that automation could destroy one-third of American jobs by 2030.

Few politicians grasp how disruptive this will be. By making automation the foundation of his campaign, Yang is building a populist movement that resembles not Trump’s or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s, but Perot’s. It’s a movement of people alienated from political elites not because they disagree with them on abortion, immigration, and guns, but because they think elites use abortion, immigration, and guns to distract from the economic dangers that matter most.

Yang espouses conventionally liberal positions on noneconomic issues. But he shows little interest in them. Asked to explain his cultural views in an early interview, he replied, “I believe what you probably think I believe,” and, according to the interviewer, “admitted that he hadn’t fully developed all his positions.” In The War on Normal People, Yang says nothing about abortion, gun control, LGBTQ rights, or voter suppression.

Deemphasizing these issues has helped Yang build a support base that resembles Perot’s. According to a Morning Consult poll in September, Yang’s supporters are 39 percent more likely than all Democratic voters to be male, 41 percent more likely to declare no religion, 110 percent more likely to be under the age of 30, and 64 percent more likely to say the economy is their top issue. The clearest difference with Perot is that Yang’s supporters are more racially diverse, in part because he does disproportionately well among Asian Americans.

By putting aside cultural issues, Yang also appeals to that sliver of voters who backed Trump because of his outsider status and economic message rather than his racist and nativist appeals. Some had previously supported Bernie Sanders; exit polls show that one in 10 Sanders primary voters backed Trump in the 2016 general election. But while in his last campaign Sanders downplayed cultural issues—Vox titled a 2015 article “Why Bernie Sanders doesn't talk about race”—the Vermont senator has made them more central to his campaign this time around. Which may have led some Trump-supporting Democrats to switch to Yang. A July Economist/YouGov poll found that while Sanders enjoyed far more support than Yang overall, the gap was much smaller among voters who backed Trump in 2016. And of all the Democrats running in 2020, only Sanders and Yang enjoyed any significant support among Trump voters at all.

To see how Yang peels off Trump voters who are willing to put aside cultural issues, watch the interview he did in March with Tucker Carlson. “I sit with my jaw open, I agree with you so strongly,” the Fox News host gushed after hearing Yang talk about the threat from automation. Later, Carlson said, “I don’t even know what you think on the other issues, and I just support what you said so much.” Unlike Yang, Carlson doesn’t actually want to back off the cultural war. After praising Yang effusively, the cable host pivoted to a segment on MS-13. But it’s not hard to imagine how a Carlson viewer who was willing to declare a cultural truce—and had grown disillusioned by Trump’s inability to deliver on his economic promises—might find Yang appealing.

Critics might note that there’s something awfully convenient about a male candidate with a heavily male support base downplaying the importance of abortion. Yang’s tendency to describe racism as merely a by-product of economic dislocation may also limit his appeal to African Americans. (While Yang enjoys disproportionately high Asian support, his black support, according to Morning Consult, is disproportionately low.) After all, if racism were really just a by-product of economic anxiety, Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out, “postwar America—with its booming economy and low unemployment—should have been an egalitarian utopia and not the violently segregated country it actually was.”

But if Yang’s focus on automation can be myopic, it’s also potent. The more Trump cranks up America’s identity wars, the more some Americans yearn for a more technocratic, bloodless, “nonideological” politics. (Nonideological is a favored word for Yang.) When Yang’s crowds chant “PowerPoint! PowerPoint!” as he vows to use the software in his State of the Union address, they’re not only cheering the prospect of a president able to diagnose and address America’s problems; they’re cheering the prospect of an America able to set aside ideology in pursuit of the right answer. This yearning for an objective politics—drained of irrationality and guided by data—is a recurring feature of American history. It was a defining feature of the Progressive era. Long before Yang’s campaign began selling calculators bearing his name, and before Perot filled his campaign infomercials with a “dizzying array of charts and graphs” about the national debt, Woodrow Wilson urged that government be “reduced to a science.”

It never can be. One person’s right answer to a policy problem is another’s moral abomination. But it’s no surprise that Yang’s focus on automation has renewed the American search for a scientific form of governance. When Yang’s supporters “Photoshop him into robot-fighting scenes from science fiction,” they’re dreaming of a president who can use the human brain to outwit the robots whose superior intelligence threatens us all. The robots aren’t going away. Which is one reason that Andrew Yang—or at least Yangism—will also likely be with us for many years to come.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Andrew Yang’s role at a test-prep company.

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