Andrew Yang Doesn’t Have Any Litmus Tests

The former Democratic candidate says his fledgling third party will attract voters who disagree with one another.

Andrew Yang
Adam Glanzman / Bloomberg / Getty; The Atlantic

Andrew Yang—an entrepreneur, a policy celebrity, and a proud nerd—recently co-founded Forward, America’s newest political party. During Yang’s gadfly bids for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and last year’s Democratic mayoral nomination in New York City, his advocacy for a universal basic income gained him a cult following. His nascent third party is focused on democratic reform: restructuring American electoral processes so that elected representatives better capture the public will.

Yang insists that he’s concentrating on building up Forward and enlisting candidates, not on running for office himself. Working with a budget approaching $10 million, Forward is seeking ballot access in 15 states this year, with the intention of eventually gaining access in all 50 states. It plans to release a party platform next year and field its first candidates in 2023 and 2024.

Critics say that Yang’s new initiative is disconnected from how the political system functions. Democrats worry that, in practice, a third-party candidacy could return Donald Trump to the White House, much as the Green Party’s Ralph Nader helped tip the 2000 election toward the Republican candidate, George W. Bush.

This week, I spoke with Yang about how his new party might alter the political system. The transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Annie Lowrey: What is the Forward Party?

Andrew Yang: The Forward Party is a unifying popular movement to try and restore American democracy. There are a group of structural problems that we’re trying to address—a few ways to meaningfully extract ourselves from the polarization we’re seeing and experiencing.

Almost 50 percent of both Republicans and Democrats now view the other side as corrupt and a threat to the country, which makes comity and bipartisanship and working together actually not just unpalatable, but something that gets punished politically. The polarization is being amplified by the way our party primaries are set up and the noncompetitive nature of almost 90 percent of the congressional districts in the country.

There is one-party rule in the vast majority of cities around the country, and up to 70 percent of the 500,000 local races around the country are either uncontested or uncompetitive. Most Americans aren’t experiencing what we think of as either a functioning democracy or even a two-party system.

Lowrey: I am sitting in California, where Democrats hold every statewide elected office.

Yang: There’s just one party in control! If you imagine yourself, let’s say, as a rural Democrat or a Republican in many blue cities, you have no meaningful say.

Lowrey: You say that Forward wants to represent rural Democrats and city-dwelling Republicans. Which policies are you pushing with this centrist party?

Yang: I want to stress that it is the mechanics [of the electoral system] that could improve matters. The only Republican senator who voted to impeach Donald Trump who is on the ballot this November is Lisa Murkowski. She made it through her primary. That was in large part because Alaska had a different process in place. There was a nonpartisan open primary where anyone could vote for anyone. That changed her incentives, because she didn’t have to go through a party primary. If we can make a process change that rewards legislators for serving 51 percent of their communities, as opposed to 10 to 15 percent, that can dramatically affect policy.

Lowrey: But which policies?

Yang: That is one of the more interesting communications challenges for something like Forward. We’re so accustomed to something falling on a left-right political spectrum. You frame it as a centrist party, which does describe a lot of the people that are drawn to Forward. But we’re trying to set up a system where the majority will of the American people actually gets reflected in policy.

Lowrey: Just to be clear, you are not defining the policy center. You’re not setting out any policies as you’re setting this party up. There isn’t a tax proposal or a health-care proposal that captures the will of the people unrepresented by the two parties. What does Forward stand for?

Yang: We stand for what people want to see in their own lives, in their family’s lives, and in their own community. The principles that we are championing are free people, thriving communities, in a vibrant democracy. And it is true that people in Mississippi will pursue those things in a different way than people in California. And we think that’s great.

Lowrey: What about Medicaid expansion? Is the Forward Party for the expansion of Medicaid to all adults in poverty?

Yang: I personally would be for anything that’s going to help people and families. I would guess that the vast majority of the people that are drawn to Forward would similarly be in favor. But we’re not as a movement going to apply litmus tests in that way.

Lowrey: Are there policy positions that would make a politician unwelcome to run under the Forward banner?

Yang: If they were for things that run afoul of the principles of free people, thriving communities, and vibrant democracy. And we’re emphasizing the last pillar, because we do think American democracy is eroding and disintegrating before our eyes.

Lowrey: Here’s a quote from an op-ed you wrote with David Jolly, a former Republican congressman, and Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey, also a Republican. Both are now in Forward’s leadership:

Most Americans don’t agree with calls from the far left to confiscate all guns and repeal the Second Amendment, but they’re also rightfully worried by the far right’s insistence on eliminating gun laws. On climate change, most Americans don’t agree with calls from the far left to completely upend our economy and way of life, but they also reject the far right’s denial that there is even a problem. On abortion, most Americans don’t agree with the far left’s extreme views on late-term abortions, but they also are alarmed by the far right’s quest to make a woman’s choice a criminal offense.

In all three cases, the “centrist” position there is the mainstream Democratic position. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does not run the party, and the veto point among Democrats is a West Virginian who founded a coal business. Democrats don’t want to confiscate guns. They’re not talking about permitting abortion in all circumstances.

Yang: I would make a couple of distinctions. First, the Forward Party would be inclusive of people who don’t agree on an issue, which is a very, very big distinction for a lot of Americans. The second thing is that for people who are supportive of these positions, if you say, “Hey, just vote Democratic,” the obvious question is: If they have been voting Democratic, why aren’t these things being enacted?

Lowrey: Why is Forward a party, not a PAC or a think tank?

Yang: Because so many Americans have been eager for a genuine choice on the ballot. We can improve matters! We’re in a country where 50 percent of Americans self-identify as independents and 62 percent say they want a third party. If we were just another nonprofit saying, “Oh, there should be these reforms,” they would not happen. The way we’re going to make it happen is by fighting for the reforms in both blue and red states, but also presenting people a meaningful actual choice in their politics where they live.

Lowrey: The vast majority of independents are already reliable voters for one or the other party. Pew puts the number of true independents, with no political lean, at 7 percent.

Yang: If you take an independent voter and say, “Hey, does this person lean one way or the other?,” odds are that they probably do. But if you ask that same voter, “Would you like a choice that’s distinct from these two choices?,” they say yes.

Lowrey: Are independent voters and centrist voters the same thing?

Yang: No, I mean, heck, there are some members of Forward who consider themselves independents who are very, very left-leaning. One of our goals with Forward was to build a very broad ideological coalition of people who could say, “Look, this current system is not giving me a voice!”

We need to get off of this current dysfunctional two-party system. But I don’t think the ideal number of political parties in the United States is three—I think it’s probably something closer to five, six, or seven. The current Democratic Party should be two separate parties, the current Republican Party should be two separate parties, and there perhaps would be a party in the middle and one party on either extreme. That system would better reflect the popular will.

Lowrey: I’m certainly not arguing that Democrats don’t gerrymander, because they do. But one party passed a national partisan gerrymandering ban through the House. The other side is trying to overturn the presidential election.

Yang: There are asymmetries. I think you have to try to figure out how to make the system more resilient and sustainable in an environment where one of your two major parties is evincing antidemocratic tendencies.

One approach is to say, “Let’s try to defeat that party in all districts from now until the end of time,” which I’m going to suggest is probably not a sound approach. Or you could look at the system and say that it is extraordinarily prone to authoritarianism, so let’s get to the root causes of that. I’d totally agree that there isn’t symmetry between the two sides. But the measures you’d need to make the system more genuinely resilient and lowercase-d democratic will run afoul of Democratic interests in different locations.

Lowrey: I know that you know about Duverger’s law, which suggests that without a system of proportional representation, politics tends to become dominated by two parties. How do you plan to overcome that? Ross Perot runs. He gets one in five, one in six, votes. He gets zero votes in the Electoral College.

Yang: We prefer ranked-choice voting. That would enable there to be a winner with majority appeal, and no spoiler effects to be concerned about. Ranked-choice voting has been demonstrated to help women candidates and candidates from underrepresented communities. It is pro-moderation, making it harder for someone who can really animate 25 percent of people to win.

Lowrey: In practice, how would a third-party option make ranked-choice voting more likely?

Yang: Say there’s a critical mass of voters—Forward voters, who might be registered Republicans or Democrats or independents—coming together. There are two candidates in a race, a Democrat and a Republican. And Forward says, “We’ll get behind anyone for ranked-choice voting, because it’s better for reducing extremism.” One says yes. The other says no. You have an enormous win, whether there’s a Forward candidate on the ballot or not! Or maybe both candidates say yes. I am incredibly excited about this, because it shows we can make a positive change in the functioning of democracy without having a candidate win or even run in a particular race.

Lowrey: In 2016, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein got 5 percent of the vote in Michigan, which Trump won by less than one percentage point. How do you think about the possibility of Forward tipping a close presidential election one way or another?

Yang: Our focus is on the 506,000 locally elected officials around the country where, again, the vast majority of Americans do not have a meaningful voice. Why do people jump to the presidential? I get it because, hey, I ran for president. But this is not where Forward’s attention is, nor is it where my attention is. Our genuine mission is to create meaningful choices for people in communities around the country.

The ideal situation for the entire country would be to have voting in the presidential election where you can vote for whomever you want, and if your candidate doesn’t win, then your vote flows through to the second person. There is absolutely nothing stopping us from doing that. There are other countries that already do that. But instead, we’re clinging to this creaking, increasingly dysfunctional duopoly. And then when someone says, “Hey, maybe we should modernize and upgrade the system,” then people point a finger at them and yell, “Ralph Nader!”

Lowrey: But yes, Ralph Nader! What if Forward helped reelect Trump?

Yang: Our intention is to make extremism less likely and dominant in races and communities around the country. We’ll be acting in that direction.

Lowrey: You tweeted that the raid on Mar-a-Lago would raise the hackles of millions of Americans who would see it as unjust persecution. Could you unpack that for me? It seems the raid was justified by violations of the Espionage Act.

Yang: I said it would inflame and activate a group of Americans who would see it in a certain light. It doesn’t necessarily mean the raid was the wrong course of action.

Lowrey: What do you think should happen with Trump?

Yang: Trump, unfortunately, is the most visible manifestation of tendencies that are going to outlast his time on the political scene. There are now dozens of people who have seen Trump’s path and are trying to follow in his footsteps in various ways. Our goal has to be to build a modern, representative, resilient, democratic system that can not just resist Trump himself, but also will be able to make it through what comes after.