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Move over, MAGA hat. MATH may be the next big thing in political headgear. At a Washington Square Park rally in New York, some 2,500 supporters cheer when their candidate – a corporate lawyer turned CEO turned philanthropist – starts a sentence with, “I did the math.” The word “rational” comes up a lot in conversation.
Which seems almost ironic, considering Andrew Yang’s banner policy is to give every American adult $1,000 a month regardless of employment status. Mr. Yang frames his “Freedom Dividend” less in terms of political ideology than actionable steps. It’s a counterbalance, he argues, to the millions of middle class jobs that have been and will be lost to automation.
Members of the Yang Gang say his direct approach, attention to policy, and effort to avoid demonizing people are a balm in an era of hyperbole and partisanship. Sure, he ranks near bottom in name recognition among the 23 Democrats in the race.
But supporters say it’s too soon to write him off. To them, he’s speaking the language of Americans in search of bold solutions. “I don’t know that he has a chance,” Jason Yung, a New York University grad student, admits, “but I feel the energy. I’m hopeful.”
Move over, MAGA hat. MATH may be the next big thing in political headgear.
Yes, as in mathematics. Or as 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang suggests at his rain-soaked rally in New York City Tuesday night: “Make America Think Harder.”
The catchphrase is as good as any to describe the people wearing those hats in Washington Square Park. They’re the type to say they’re sick of emotional appeals from career politicians. They cheer when their candidate – a corporate lawyer turned CEO turned philanthropist – starts a sentence with, “I looked at the numbers” or “I did the math.” The word “rational” comes up a lot in conversation.
Which seems almost ironic, considering Mr. Yang’s banner policy is to give every American adult $1,000 a month regardless of employment status or wages. It’s a version of universal basic income, and sounds like something out of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ playbook.
Yet Mr. Yang frames his “Freedom Dividend” less in terms of political ideology than actionable steps. It’s a counterbalance, he argues, to the millions of middle class jobs that have been and will be lost to automation. “I’m a capitalist,” he told The New York Times in 2018, “and I believe that universal basic income is necessary for capitalism to continue.”
The 2,500 supporters at his Manhattan rally dig it. They say Mr. Yang’s direct approach, his attention to policy (his site lists dozens of proposals), and his effort to avoid riling people up or demonizing them are a balm in an era of hyperbole and partisanship. Sure, he’s polling between 1% and 3% and ranks near the bottom in name recognition among the 23 Democrats in the race. And they know he’s faced criticisms about attracting fans from the less-than-savory regions of Reddit and 4chan, the discussion sites where his campaign first started to gain ground.
But supporters say it’s too soon to write him off, especially since he qualified for the first televised debate in June. He may be a long shot, but anything is possible in an era where a reality TV star occupies the White House. To them, he’s speaking the language of Americans in search of bold solutions to the nation’s problems.
“He makes a really radical argument, yet all his reasoning is commonsense, straightforward, non-ideological, very practical,” says Jason Yung, a New York University graduate student in interactive technology who started the Brooklyn chapter of the Yang Gang – what Yang supporters call themselves. “It’s so fresh.”
Universal basic income
Mr. Yang grew up in Schenectady, New York, to Taiwanese immigrant parents who met in grad school in California. He studied economics at Brown, went to Columbia Law, and worked at an international law firm in New York. Later, he launched an internet nonprofit that folded in 2001, then helped run a health care startup before making a small fortune in the test-prep business.
In 2011, Mr. Yang started Venture For America (VFA), an organization that recruits top graduates for companies in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis. What he saw in middle America led Mr. Yang to conclude that economic inequality and dissatisfaction in this country comes primarily from people displaced as industrial technology improves. The Freedom Dividend is the main plank of his proposed solution.
“We automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa. All of the swing states that Donald Trump needed to win and did win,” Mr. Yang tells the crowd. “Donald Trump is not the disease. He is a symptom. He’s a manifestation of this automation wave that’s now ripping through our economy.”
Mr. Yang has been running on that message since he entered the presidential race in November 2017. The idea began making the rounds online, generating memes that celebrated his plan to essentially give people money. The Yang Gang was born.
But it wasn’t until February, when Mr. Yang guested on comedian and mixed martial arts commentator Joe Rogan’s popular podcast, that he really went viral. The episode’s version on YouTube had close to 3 million views as of this writing. At the rally in Manhattan, supporters often cited the show as the place where they either first heard about Mr. Yang or became real fans.
Mr. Yung, the NYU grad student, stumbled onto the Yang campaign for an assignment that involved designing his own political party. “All the stuff I wanted to do, he already has,” Mr. Yung says. When he heard Mr. Yang on Mr. Rogan’s show, “I really was like, ‘Oh my God. He can talk the talk,’” Mr. Yung recalls. He started the Brooklyn Yang Gang shortly after.
Tami Joy Schlichter, a Yang volunteer who spearheaded Tuesday’s rally, also credits “The Joe Rogan Experience,” and the podcast “Freakonomics,” for introducing her to Mr. Yang. Ms. Schlichter runs a digital marketing firm, but her passion is mathematical neuroscience – A.I. – and its effect on worker displacement.
“I was like, ‘Thank God someone is paying attention to this issue,’” she says, holding up a colossal cutout of a $1,000 bill with Mr. Yang’s face where Grover Cleveland’s should be.
“Everyone is tired of all of the emotional drama,” Ms. Schlichter adds. “We just want someone that’s going to pay attention to an issue, do the research, and solve it according to what the data says.”
‘It’s going to be a party’
Hours before the rally starts, a man in a printed jumpsuit, fur hat, and oversize rhinestone glasses hands out Yang 2020 flyers to passersby at Washington Square Park. “It’s going to be a party,” he says.
The man is Paperboy Prince of the Suburbs – Paperboy for short – a rapper and self-professed internet meme activist who caught the Yang bug when he heard Mr. Yang say in an interview that his ideas are more important than winning the race. “That really ignited me,” Paperboy says. So far he’s written three songs for Mr. Yang, the latest of which is called “Humanity First,” after the Yang campaign slogan.
Hamed Salimi, a software developer and Iranian immigrant who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, was hardcore for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Mr. Salimi likes the way Mr. Yang has presented universal basic income as a way to balance out the country’s increasingly uneven economic scales. And though he has no sympathy for President Trump, he appreciates Mr. Yang’s effort to reach conservatives by appearing on Fox News and right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro’s show.
“I really like that he’s not scared and he doesn’t see them as enemies,” Mr. Salimi says.
Mr. Yang often says he’s drawn former Trump supporters into his camp (though none of those interviewed in New York fell into this category). He’s touted it as proof that with the right message, partisan divides can be overcome. But he has received criticism for the attention he’s getting from the internet’s darker corners, where the racist and sexist ideas of the alt-right tend to fester. Buzzfeed reported in March that one of his staffers had been doxxed and harassed by 4chan users who took issue when she tweeted that Mr. Yang’s universal basic income policy is feminist.
The reason appears to be that many 4chan users like the idea of getting $1,000 a month in free money, not that Mr. Yang is courting them or is in sympathy with racist or misogynistic ideology. In fact, he’s repeatedly disavowed these groups. “Anyone who spends, like, five seconds looking into me or my background or my beliefs or my platform would be like, ‘This guy is the least white nationalist dude ever,’” Mr. Yang told Vox.
Indeed, his supporters are less concerned about who else Mr. Yang is attracting than how the media is treating him. “The press is going to get caught with their pants down at the Iowa caucus,” says Benjamin Springer, a former police officer and Army veteran from Point Pleasant, New Jersey, who says he’s given about $200 to the Yang campaign. “He’s known within online communities.”
“I don’t know that he has a chance,” Mr. Yung, the NYU grad student, admits, “but I feel the energy. I’m hopeful.”