The Pull of Andrew Yang’s Pessimism

Once derided as a “novelty candidate,” the outsider Democrat is poised to hang on longer than many senators and governors in the 2020 primary race.

Andrew Yang enjoying a turkey leg at the Iowa State Fair
Andrew Yang enjoying a turkey leg at the Iowa State Fair (Scott Morgan / Reuters)

CLEAR LAKE, Iowa—The Best Western Holiday Lodge off Route 18 in northern Iowa feels like the right place to talk about how maybe it’s too late. Accept it, deal with it, Andrew Yang tells me, but try to make the best of it, and maybe we’ll even get somewhere decent along the way. But there’s no “patching the dam,” as he put it. “The world has changed; the world is changing. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, try as we might or wish as we might,” he told me. “We have to start dealing with the world as it is.”

(Our conversation can be heard in full on the Radio Atlantic podcast below.)

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Yang has already qualified for the third Democratic-primary debate next month, while most of his competitors will not. Several candidates who fail to make the cut are expected to drop out by the end of September. Yang believes his support is much greater than polls can measure, claiming that his supporters—the “Yang Gang”—primarily use cellphones instead of the landlines that tend to make up the average polling groups. The Tesla founder Elon Musk tweeted “I support Yang” last week. “We’re going to shock the world come next February,” Yang told me, referring to the Iowa caucuses on February 3, 2020.

Yang thinks he’s tapped into a new strain of politics. He insists he’s not a fatalist or a nihilist. He figures himself to be an optimist, just one who sees how terrible things are and how much worse they can get, and he believes that the only way to get to the light is to acknowledge the darkness. “When you accept the circumstances that we’re going to be competing against technologies that have a marginal cost of near zero,” Yang told me, “then quickly you have to say, ‘Okay, how are we going to start valuing our time?’ Like, what does a 21st-century economy look like, in a way that actually serves our interests, and not the capital-efficiency machine?”

This is the message coming from a 44-year-old former corporate lawyer from New York who spent years running a nonprofit investment firm. He has zero political experience and doesn’t pretend otherwise. “If you’re a politician, your incentives are to make with the happy talk and then get elected—and then solving the problems is secondary, because you have to raise money to try and get reelected, but no one ever back-checks you,” Yang told me. “The incentives are to say, ‘We can do this; we can do that. We can do the other thing.’ And then, meanwhile, society falls apart.”

Yang says that former Vice President Joe Biden is living in a fantasy of returning America to the way he remembers it. “We have to turn the clock forward,” Yang told me. He believes that no matter what Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont propose, there’s no real way to fight against corporate investment or technological advancement. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington and others talk about being the first generation to experience climate change and the last that can do something about it; Yang’s version is, “We’re the last generation to do anything about it. But it’s also correct that we’re late to the game.”

But this fatalistic perspective also informs some of Yang’s policy proposals: Why not begin to move “our people to higher ground” because sea-level rise is inevitable, as he said at the Detroit debate last month? Or tax Amazon to pay for a $1,000-a-month universal basic income for every American because physical stores can’t compete with the online retailer? Or trust that engineers and investors will close the 2 percent crash rate on automated vehicles by themselves? “The picture that the data paints is quite clear and dark and dystopian,” Yang told me. “Unfortunately, the dystopia is set to accelerate, because we’re just now having artificial intelligence leave the lab and hitting our big businesses … It’s about to get really hairy and nasty.”

Presidential campaigns tend toward optimism, from Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” to Barack Obama’s messages of “hope” and “change.” Donald Trump’s dark vision of America and his messianic casting of himself in 2016—from his “I alone can fix it” Republican National Convention speech to his “American carnage” inaugural address—reset that. Running against Trump, many Democrats talk about America’s deep problems, but no one appears to see as much going wrong as Yang.

Not having political experience has created some odd moments for Yang out on the trail, like when the self-declared nerdy candidate bounded onto the stage of South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn’s fish fry last month and leaned back with the microphone cupped in both hands, pro-wrestler-style, screaming, “Helloooooo, South Carolina!”

Last Saturday in Iowa, Yang broke down in tears after hearing a mother at Everytown’s Presidential Gun Sense Forum talk about children being shot, saying he was envisioning his own sons getting killed. A few minutes later, he took on another tone entirely, telling reporters, “I challenge Donald Trump to any physical or mental feat under the sun. I mean, gosh, what could that guy beat me at, being a slob?” An aide tried to pull him away, but Yang kept going, the tears gone. “Like, what could Donald Trump possibly be better than me at? An eating contest? Like something that involved trying to keep something on the ground and having really large body mass? Like, if there was a hot-air balloon that was rising and you needed to try and keep it on the ground, he would be better than me at that? Because he is so fat.”

The exchange had started with Yang reminiscing about the giant turkey leg he’d eaten at the Iowa State Fair the day before. It ended with him daring Trump to run a mile, but the food photo is what made the rounds. “I can’t think of a better metaphor for Andrew Yang’s campaign than a photo of him literally biting off more than he can chew,” the Late Late Show host James Corden cracked on Monday night.

Though he has 170,000 donors, many of the people who show up for Yang in person are younger, disaffected men—the kind who may seem like they’re looking for a way out of work, or those who attack politics with destructive detachment. I asked Yang what he would say to the people who would look at those supporters—and at Yang himself—and say that they need to just “grow up.”

“I mean, if you think about it, why are we trapped in this subsistence labor model?” he replied. “Why is it that a job is 9 to 5 or 10 to 6? And my wife’s work [stay-at-home mom] is not a job ... Ninety-four percent of the new jobs created in the U.S. are gig, temporary, or contractor jobs at this point, and we still just pretend it’s the ’70s, where it’s like, ‘You’re going to work for a company, you’re going to get benefits, you’re going to be able to retire, even though we’ve totally eviscerated any retirement benefits, but somehow you’re going to retire,’” Yang said. “Young people look up at this and be like, ‘This does not seem to work.’ And we’re like, ‘Oh, it’s all right.’ It’s not all right. We do have to grow up. I couldn’t agree more.”

Friends of mine outside politics bring up Yang’s name often, half of them asking who he is and half telling me that he’s made a point they agree with. A few aides on other campaigns have mentioned to me that they worry about how much support Yang seems to be attracting—not just because they’re jealous, but because they think what he’s pushing is dangerously seductive to people who they think should know better and stick with other candidates.

“I am surprisingly cool with people who would tend to minimize this campaign,” Yang told me. “It just makes our continued rise all the more exciting.”