Andrew Yang is a popular commentator and former presidential candidate. In his latest book, Forward: Notes on the Future of Our Democracy, he advocates for economic reforms like Universal Basic Income and political reforms like ranked-choice voting.
In this week’s conversation, Andrew Yang and Yascha Mounk discuss how today’s political campaigns are run, why Democrats struggle to connect with voters, and whether or not third parties can be part of the solution.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: We're recording this a couple of days after the election in Virginia, and other places around the United States. What's your overall assessment of those elections and what's going on politically right now?
Andrew Yang: Joe Biden won Virginia by 10 points a year ago. His proxy, Terry McAuliffe, a real establishment figure, just lost to a Republican that no one had heard of a few months ago. You can think of this as an establishment Democrat versus a generic-Republican-Mitt-Romney-type in a +8, or +10 Democratic environment. And the generic Republican won. In New Jersey, it was too close to call for a day, and this is a state that Biden won by 16 points. New Jersey's quite blue. What you're seeing is a very, very negative political environment for national Democrats. If this continues for another year, you would see a red wave where the Republicans would retake the House, and then possibly the Senate. People should know that is the course that we're on right now.
Over the last months, the two most powerful components of the Democratic message have been “Trump is bad,” and managing COVID. Both of those narratives have run out of gas. The American public does not want to hear about COVID. Running against Trump when it's a Mitt Romney-type just did not seem genuine to a lot of people. The Democrats’ primary emotional plea seems to have been fear—and you can't be afraid all the time, forever. Absent those two pillars, then you move on to policy, deliverables, and governance, which haven’t come through. McAuliffe was essentially begging Congress to pass the infrastructure bill, because he thought that would help—Virginia is close to D.C., there are a lot of people who do business in DC. I'm sure Terry knew what he was talking about. If Washington had passed some of these bills, the Democrats would have a positive case to make. But they didn't really have that. This is a very, very tough climate, in part by Democrats’ own lack of positive messaging.
Mounk: Youngkin lambasted the public school system in Virginia for not reopening in person for much of the pandemic. He also warned about some of the changes in school curricula that he claimed were taking place [such as the introduction of critical race theory]. But much of the Democratic response seemed essentially to say these were imaginary concerns, a Fox News culture war, and that they have no basis in reality. What do you think is the truth of those claims, and how could the Democratic Party have responded more effectively?
Yang: I'm a parent. I’ve talked to other parents, and they are very, very angry that schools were closed for so long. This is a critique that really hits home. It did not serve our families well that schools were closed. It seemed like an excess of caution in service of the teachers’ unions, which are close to the Democrats.
The critical race theory argument also hits home for a lot of families. I had a friend casually say over dinner to me that her daughter, who is white, asked why she couldn't be friends with her black classmates, because of what was being taught in the classroom. That appalled her. If these are the kinds of conversations that parents are having, it does lead to some resentment and anger about what's being taught. At least in some contexts, the critical race theory thing is made up, because there are some schools teaching something that’s being defined in misleading ways, and it's kind of a conservative boogeyman, etc. But I have had conversations with parents that lead me to believe that this is a real thing in a number of school districts.
This issue is going to be a consistent loser for Democrats, and they need to have a coherent response. The playbook is being established in Virginia and the Republicans are going to hammer this. I could formulate a more effective response that emphasizes universalism, because that's what most Americans want: “Racism is real, but we should see each other as human beings first and that is what our kids should be taught.” I think that would do the trick. Hand-waving it away, as you say, is not convincing.
Mounk: As somebody who has been a part of that world, can you explain why it is that fifteen candidates running for the Democratic nomination to be president of the United States—who you would think are incentivized to differentiate themselves from each other—end up sounding so similar to each other on many issues?
Yang: A particular set of narratives are embraced by political staffers and journalists and folks on Twitter, and if you don't voice those narratives, then they will snipe at you and attack you, and nobody likes to be attacked. It's much easier to make these gestures towards terminology and identity all the time.
I'll say one thing about running for president that was interesting. I had a social media team who would ping me with tweets about different groups, different holidays, and different celebrations just about every day. One of the things that you would do as a candidate is celebrate Black Heritage Month, Indigenous Peoples Day, Juneteenth, LGBTQ celebrations. I was struck by how frequent these were, and I shrugged and approved the vast majority of them. But every once in a while, I would say that one seemed a little bit not genuine. I think that's the kind of thing that happens to every candidate with staff around them.
Mounk: The theory—which I think also dominated the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign and many others—is to cobble together a majority from all of these different groups. Every speech name-checks them and includes various appeals to those groups. But that seems to stand in contrast with an overarching, grand narrative like the one Barack Obama’s campaign ran in 2008, or even Trump in 2016.
Yang: This goes back to the power and influence of the political consultant class. I ran for president as a total no-name civilian, and there wasn’t a consultant that would come within a million miles of me until we raised lots of money. And then, all of a sudden, they came out of the woodwork. What they do is they slice the electorate into various categories, and then say, “Okay, here's where you're weak. You have to do something to shore up your popularity with women, parents of young children, the military, etc.” Whatever the group is, you incorporate something specific into your remarks. Before you know it, you've got a nice hodgepodge of various appeals that you're making to the different groups. Those things do work when you speak to Democratic audiences in terms of applause lines, because Democratic audiences have been conditioned to clap when you call out a particular group, even if they're not in that group. Mentioning teachers is one of the surest applause lines. I agree with you. Obama had a master narrative. Trump has a master narrative. I like to think I had a master narrative because there are a lot of Americans that are just sick of this compartmentalized approach to politics that's driven by consultants, and they kind of recognize that. They see through it. They think it's bullshit.
You're the candidate. Let's say you're working on a group like military veterans. What your team will do is set up an event with a military veteran group, and you will spend some time with them. You will listen to them, they will take photographs, and then your campaign will put out those photographs in the hopes that the folks in that group will think “OK, he is speaking to people like me.” This is professional politics the way it's played today. And if you say, “Look, I don't think that's effective,” you're disputing the existence of a whole lot of people in this industry who literally get hired to interface with a particular community. They're paid consultants whose entire job it is to get the candidate in front of this particular type of person or this type of leader.
One of the things I'm proudest of is that I reached people that were very unlike me, but who felt like I was on their side. When I was back in Iowa, just a few weeks ago, a server came up to me who had taken a shift off and spent her own money to come to my book talk. She said, “Thank you for being one of the only candidates that genuinely seemed like they were fighting for the little person like me.” She said that the only people she felt that way about were me and Bernie. That made me really proud, because she saw in me someone who genuinely just wanted to make things better for her. But that's the opposite of the way politics operates right now, in large part because of the political-industrial complex that's arisen.
Mounk: How representative do these groups tend to be of the people they actually speak for?
Yang: There's a layer of people who are highly engaged on social media, and who will see the interaction and interpret it in the way that the consultants intend. But the average person in that group may or may not ever see it. There are certain organizations and people that actually do speak for a very large audience. I think the most compelling example of that in this past cycle was Jim Clyburn in South Carolina. Some endorsements mean a great deal. As a candidate, I have to confess it's hard to tell which is which. But it's crystal clear that the Jim Clyburn endorsement ended up swinging the dynamics of the entire race. That's a rarity. For the most part, if you have some person who's part of a community who endorses you, it's not going to move the entire community. But there are a few people that will take their cues from that person. If I recall the Democratic nomination cycle, I don't think that Joe led in a lot of these endorsements, but he got the one that mattered in the form of Jim Clyburn.
Mounk: What's the difference between Jim Clyburn and the many, many endorsements that don't matter?
Yang: There are a lot of voters in South Carolina who aren't that engaged. But they do trust the Clyburns. If Jim Clyburn says, “Joe Biden's our guy,” then a lot of people down there would just say “I trust Jim. Let's go with Joe.” I heard that over and over again in South Carolina. When Clyburn made his endorsement, everyone moved in that direction. That is very, very unusual.
I can't think of an endorsement that would parallel it in Iowa or New Hampshire, in part because the people there are very, very engaged and had been meeting candidates and been making up their own minds for months. With the Asian-American community, I'm not sure that there is a level of engagement or unity where the entire community would move on the basis of any individual organization, because there are so many organizations. But the voters we should be most concerned about are the less engaged voters. The problem right now is that there's a massive bias towards the highly engaged online audience, and it's missing all of these folks who are from poor, more rural, or immigrant communities. They're not sitting there glued to Politico. If someone makes a very basic appeal, then they hear it.
Mounk: Tell us a little bit about the book you’ve just written and the kind of solutions we need in order to push our democracy forward. Universal Basic Income is one part of that, but what else should be on the agenda?
Yang: I have become convinced that the duopoly is dooming us. It took me a while to get there, but it really was in researching for my book after I came off the presidential trail that I realized that our two-party system is not designed to actually work. It's designed to polarize us and make us more and more insane. It's designed to inflame us, to aggravate us, to depress us, and to alarm us. Media organizations have the same incentives, and social media pours gasoline on all of it. The United States is anomalous in terms of only having two parties. This polarization is really, really unusual. European multipolar systems tend to have much higher resistance to authoritarianism. One party has to work with another in order to get anything done, which, by the way, was the original vision of the founding fathers, who were very anti-partisan. John Adams said two parties would be a great evil upon the republic in 1780. Fixing it seems nearly impossible because the duopoly defends itself.
I was inspired by the success in Alaska just this past year, where they shifted from closed-party primaries to open primaries and ranked-choice voting in 2020. This had immediate repercussions, because the Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski is the only Republican senator up for reelection in 2022 who voted to impeach Donald Trump. Her approval rating among Alaskan Republicans is, according to one poll, 6%. It is indeed political suicide to go against Trump. But now, she's not subject to a party primary where only the Republicans will vote on whether to bring her back. She can bring her case to the entire Alaskan public, who will decide via ranked-choice voting if she's in the top five, which she will be. That incentive switch freed up Senator Murkowski to vote according to her principles. We can do the same thing in other states around the country as quickly as possible—we have about 12 months to do it. And I then realized that this is the genuine path that could save us from the dysfunction by making it so that our leaders aren't catering to the 10 to 20%—the most extreme voters—but instead 50.1% of the general public.
Mounk: Why do open primaries make such a difference?
Yang: Right now, 83% of congressional districts in the United States are very blue or very red, which is why you have a reelection rate for individual members of 92%, while Congress has a national approval rating of only 28%. Three out of four Americans are upset about Congress, who have a virtually guaranteed path to getting reelected if they decide to stick around which, by the way, most members do, because they seem to love the job. Why is this mismatch so great? In 83% of these districts the game is not to win the general election; you're guaranteed to win the general election if you're the candidate for your party. The game is to avoid losing the primary within your party. If I compromise and reach across the aisle, I'm more likely to lose the primary. If I go against party leadership, I'm more likely to lose the primary. So I’ll just do neither of those things, and maybe while I'm at it, I can cast some blame on the other side. Those incentives would make someone fairly middle of the road seem unreasonable pretty quickly. It's a summary as to why we are so stuck.
If you change from closed-party primaries to open primaries, where anyone can vote, all of a sudden your electorate shifts from the hyper-partisan to the general public, and your incentive is to become reasonable and compromise and try to deliver something for your constituents. Even if you were to have the exact same set of human beings in Congress, this incentive switch would see a great deal more independence from Trump, because a lot of Republicans would say, “You know what? 25% of the people in my district love Trump. But if you open it up to the entire population, it turns out that it's not 51%, and there's a critical mass of people that actually would quite like it if I decided to protect democracy.” The incentives are the game to me, and people don't realize just how distorting these closed party primaries are in terms of shutting off any real incentive to compromise.
Mounk: You compared America, having two political parties, with other countries having many more political parties. But virtually all of the countries you mentioned, Germany, the Netherlands, and others have a proportional system of representation. One of the implications of having a first-past-the-post, majoritarian political system, as we do in the United States, is that, broadly speaking, you should expect to come up with two political parties. You think part of the solution is not just institutional reform, but to actually build up a third party. Why do you think that can work despite those institutional constraints and despite the many failed attempts at third parties in the past?
Yang: First, let me say I'm for the Fair Representation Act, which would shift to what you're describing in terms of proportional representation. I'm just a very practical guy and don't think it's going to pass. I'm for a genuine structural shift that mirrors what is possible in other countries, and I wish that we could do it. I believe we will do it after we make all these other changes. I just don't want to argue for the impossible, so I've found some changes that are very doable. One deep red state already did it. It cost $7 million to run the successful ballot initiative in Alaska, a very small price to pay to save democracy. Now, Alaska is a relatively inexpensive state. But how much is democracy worth? We should probably invest a bit more.
Second, even if this structural fix doesn't result in Forwardists running the joint, merely improving the incentives of the existing body is an enormous win. It’s plausible that if we get 10% of the American public super excited about this movement that we wind up with a handful of representatives and a senator, maybe. How many senators does it take to control an agenda in a polarized country? Maybe one. These things are plausible within our current construct. But I agree with you that I would love to see the entire construction change to enable more parties to emerge. I talked to political scientist Lee Drutman, and he said that the ideal number of political parties in a place like the United States is, in his opinion, between four and six. That's a worthy goal and worthy vision. I think the Forward Party is the first step in trying to change the mechanics so that more parties can emerge.
Mounk: What are the main planks of the Forward Party platform?
Yang: Ranked-choice voting, which is a more modern voting system that enables voters to express their true preferences. It eliminates the spoiler effect. You can rank up to five candidates and the first candidate to get a majority of first-place votes wins. This has the positive effects of making negative campaigning less rewarding, because if I trash you, we both look bad. It rewards coalition builders, people that get along, people that don't turn off large numbers of voters. If ranked choice voting had been in effect during the Republican primary in 2016, Trump probably would not have won, because he was getting 30 to 40% of the vote in a lot of places, but he wasn't many people's second choice. The other candidates were dividing the remaining vote.
If you are in favor of moderation, ranked-choice voting is the system that will help enable it. I think it will help women candidates, because women tend to be more naturally reasonable and prone to building coalitions and not turning off large numbers of voters, in my experience. This is the first pillar of the Forward Party: our goal is to make open primaries and ranked-choice voting the norm around the country. Ranked-choice voting was just adopted in three cities this week. It's an ongoing movement. What's been fun is that the Forward Party has worked hand-in-hand with organizations that are pushing both of these measures, because they are the antidote. We stand for a process change that will enable new points of view to emerge and improve the incentives for our leaders.
Mounk: I imagine that if you ask Americans to define rank choice voting, perhaps 10% would be able to do a relatively good job. How do you start a mass movement for a process change like that?
Yang: This is something I've done once before. I mainstreamed an idea that most people thought was esoteric or marginal in the form of Universal Basic Income. The problem as I define it is polarization: 42% of Republicans and Democrats now regard the other side as evil or their mortal enemies. We can see that political violence is going to become more and more likely, over time. We can see that we're being led to ruin and conflict and strife. 62% of Americans want an alternative to the duopoly. This duopoly is going to ruin us, and this duopoly is made up. It's not in the Constitution. Parties came about decades later. There was a point when they were ideologically similar in the 50s and 60s, and then they diverged, and now they're running amok. They're going to destroy us, and we have to come back from it by taking a spear called the Forward Party and lancing the duopoly.
We have to lead with solutions that people can see would matter to them. When I started running for president, 27% of Americans supported Universal Basic Income. Today that’s 65%. If that were the case back then, I might be president. Attitudes can change towards unifying solutions. When Martin Luther King Jr. was making a case for guaranteed income, he recognized the need to make common cause with poor whites. He wasn't making a case based on any one community. And so the antidote to this type of polarization is universalism—solutions that people can touch and feel. One of the tenets of the Forward Party is grace and tolerance: people can disagree with me and they're still Americans. We don't denigrate anyone. This is a message that a lot of Americans miss. I've gotten outreach from everyone from conservative Republicans to very, very far left liberals and socialists saying that this is what they’ve been missing. They don't want to hate someone, and right now, all of our politics are geared towards hate.
What we need is 10% of Americans to come together and say, “Look, the system is set up to fail us and to turn us against each other, and spend billions of dollars in the process. This is the path out. This is the first major step towards a functioning system.” That's my job. My job is to make people care.
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