David Williams

We’re going to get through this, the politicians say. We’ll be stronger than ever, better than ever.

Except maybe we won’t. More than 50,000 Americans are already dead of the coronavirus. That sinking feeling you’ve probably had at some point during the past few weeks? Andrew Yang’s had that feeling for a while. He still sees the world through his cut-the-crap fatalism. (“We have to deal with the world as it is,” he told me last summer, when the world didn’t look this bad). His main mode is a sad but, to him, honest sense that the world isn’t getting better right now, and that everyone needs to start dealing with the consequences. This belief was at the core of his weirdly successful presidential campaign.

Now, after a month and a half spent holed up in his house with his wife and two sons, Yang’s hair has gotten floppy. He’s watched people who need food wait on relief checks while major corporations score bailouts. He’s been reading stories of people who feel the economy crashing on them, who feel like no one cares. He thinks about his mother and his wife’s parents, and how they can’t be with their grandchildren.

“It’s inhuman,” Yang told me. He’s gotten dirty looks walking around in stores, he believes, because of racism sparked by the “Chinese virus” talk. He has struggled with how to respond. He’s one of the most prominent Asian Americans in politics, and came under fire for arguing that the appropriate response is for Asian Americans to be more explicit in showing off their patriotism.

We spoke for an episode of The Ticket podcast.

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Yang’s key policy proposal—a universal basic income of $1,000 a month—went from an idea he was laughed at for pitching to one backed by a list of people that includes Pope Francis and President Donald Trump. But that doesn’t give him much pleasure. I asked him whether he feels as if he won the presidential race in a way. “It’s impossible to feel like a winner when people are suffering so much,” he told me. He’s glad that his campaign advanced the idea, but he’s shocked by how quickly the situation became desperate. He can easily envision how more optimistic politicians could mess up the future by not realizing how bad things have gotten.

“One of the misconceptions that people have is that history is like a pendulum, and that if we go too far in one direction, we’ll go the other direction—where because right now we’re so isolated, we’re going to come out of this more unified and together, and we’ll be able to solve the biggest problems that have been bearing down on us, like climate change, like a dehumanizing economy, like [a] polarized political system,” Yang told me. “That’s not the way it works, really. We’re being tested right now. And the evolution or progress is going to be a fight … just like it was before this crisis. And in some ways, the forces on both sides, I believe, are going to be stronger, because to me, dysfunction is one of the demons that we’ve been struggling with for years, where we have this epidemic of insecurity that is destroying people’s lives and families and communities. But it’s also destroyed any sensible cohesion or sense of common purpose. And this crisis has exacerbated that disintegration in many ways.”

“There is,” Yang said, “a very real chance that we make mistakes on the way out” of the crisis.

After Yang dropped out of the presidential race, he started fundraising to create his own universal basic income pilot program. He partnered with a group in the Bronx to work with 1,000 families in need. The program was overwhelmed by the demand, and adapted to add microloans to the work. Then the coronavirus hit. Even as he pursued new efforts to raise more money, there was still nowhere near enough coming in and far too many stories of people who couldn’t buy food for him to keep to his original plan.

“We just started giving out $20 and sending nice messages saying like, ‘Look, we can’t do everything we want, but here’s $20.’ And we started doing that in part because when we did that little bit, people expressed just how grateful they were that anyone actually is trying to help them,” Yang told me. “There’s such a sense of isolation and hopelessness and despair among many Americans right now that even just getting 20 bucks via PayPal, and like, ‘You’ll be all right and we care about you,’ actually seemed to really help people in a very meaningful way.”

So although members of Congress may feel pleased with themselves for passing three relief bills, the ad hoc system they created along the way is making the crisis of divided, dysfunctional politics worse, Yang said. People he’s heard from “do not think that our institutions are going to help them. They filed for unemployment and have not heard back. They have called day after day and just never gotten through. They’ve filed for a [tax] refund, but it went to their preparer ... or it got sent to an old address,” he said. “There is this sense that … help is on this pedestal, and they’re meant to jump up and try and get it.”

That feeling of being left out was evident in the people who came to be known as the Yang Gang. Yang’s challenge to the “morning in America” style of politics probably got the most exposure in a Democratic presidential-primary debate last July, when he said that his response to climate change would be to accept that it’s here and tell coastal residents they need to move to higher ground. But most of his pessimism derives from a warning that ever-increasing automation will devastate many Americans’ lives.

“We’re experiencing 10 years’ worth of transformation of our economy in 10 weeks. Because if you’re a transportation company or a grocery store or a big company, you’re scaling up your investments in robots and technology, because they don’t get sick,” Yang said. “What I was concerned about is coming true before my eyes in a compressed time frame. And that’s very, very concerning.”

Yang wants to do more to help. He’s not sure how, though. He’s thinking of writing another book (his previous two were already pretty dark). He’ll launch a podcast on Monday, Yang Speaks, and says it’s going to be part of his own search for answers and new ideas. He’ll also be a guest on Joe Biden’s podcast this week.

With all that has happened in the past few weeks, I asked him, does he see a future in politics and government now, or has this shown him that it’s better to be on the outside?

“Does government have massive problems? Yes, it does. Is government necessary to solve the problems we’re dealing with right now? Yes, it is. And you know, both those things are true. So it’s very difficult,” Yang said. For a nonpolitician, I told him, that’s a very politician-type answer. He laughed. “I’m learning,” he said.

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