There are two enduring images of Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign. First, the only slightly ironic MATH label pasted to his tie-less suit on debate night. Second, the hilarious spectacle of Yang celebrating the opening of his New Hampshire office by spraying whip cream into the mouths of kneeling supporters, a ritual so bizarre that his panicked campaign manager was forced to intervene.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss Yang’s run as a novelty performance. Because Yang had a very important message not only for the Democratic Party but — despite his avowed capitalism — the socialist left. And I don’t just mean his guarantee of $1,000 a month to every American. What he brought to the primary was much more than that.
I’m not entirely sold on Yang’s Freedom Dividend — I’d prefer a massive jobs program — but Yang was correct to form his campaign around a single materialist program of redistribution. He knew he wouldn’t win. He simply believed so strongly in that prescription that he wanted to do for universal basic income (UBI) what Sanders did for Medicare for All.
A basic income is possibly not the best solution to the deinstrustrialization that’s left much of middle America a barren land of perpetual unemployment, suicide, and opioid addiction. But it is a material solution. And that sets him apart from the Buttigieg prescription of empty, soaring rhetoric (with hints of deficit reduction).
Even Yang’s choice to call it a “Freedom Dividend” is a stroke of genius. It poses the welfare state not as charity, but as a universal right and, even more importantly, a precondition of actual liberty, an argument straight out of Thomas Paine. And by calling it the “Freedom Dividend,” it correctly frames the sum total of wealth in our society as collectively generated — not the private property of a few rich people.
These are core socialist principles. And Yang, along with Sanders, who he supported in 2016 and has called “a national hero,” put them on the center stage.
Andrew Yang is far from a socialist. He is, however, a staunch materialist. In our age of airy liberal puffery and radical posturing, that sets him apart. He is a person of color who is, in many respects, the dreaded “class-first bro.”
One of the most surprising moments of the debates thus far was after Elizabeth Warren gave a speech about enduring racism, calling for more anti-discrimination laws (“we need to start having race-conscious laws”). Yang, the son of immigrants, fired back: “With respect, you can’t regulate away racism with a whole patchwork of new laws that are race specific.” Instead, he reframed the debate towards concrete redistribution, invoking the socialist Martin Luther King Jr in a way that no candidate other than Sanders ever does:
There is no way we can prevent this tsunami from wiping out African American net worth unless we put straight cash into their hands sometime between now and 2053. And it’s not just them. It is truck drivers, it is retail clerks, it is call center workers, it is accountants, it is bookkeepers. We are in the midst of the greatest economic transformation in the history of our country. And it’s going to hit black people the hardest. We have to stop nibbling at the edges and start solving the real problem.
Warren was speechless. And so was most of the audience. It was utterly shocking — a rebuttal you’re not used to hearing from a twenty-first-century Democratic candidate.
And yet, Yang is right — you can’t racially oppress people if you don’t first already have power over them. And the primary source of power in a thoroughly capitalist society is economic resources.
Yang also had little patience for Mayor Pete’s half-baked TED Talk-meets-Obama rhetoric. Once again, Yang brought America’s problems away from the spiritual and moral and back to the material: “Pete, you are fundamentally missing the lesson … Donald Trump is not the cause of all of our problems and we’re making a mistake when we act like he is. He is a symptom of a disease that has been building up in our communities for years and decades.”
Here, most Democratic candidates would call the disease in question “hate” or “bigotry.” But Yang was having none of it. He took a structural view instead:
Iowa, a traditional swing state, went to Trump by almost ten points. That’s why Ohio, a traditional swing state, is so red I’m told we’re not even going to campaign there. So these communities are seeing their way of life get blasted to smithereens. We’ve automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs and counting. We’re closing 30 percent of New Hampshire stores and malls. And Amazon, the force behind that, is literally paying zero in taxes. These are the changes that Americans are seeing and feeling around us every day.
What Yang gets is that it’s not about being a model family and telling ennobling stories — it’s about creating a reality where families can be together more often. Not with uplifting narratives but with material freedom. Yes, that means with money.
I saw someone on Facebook call Yang “a communist trapped in a neoliberal soul.” That sounds about right. And compared to most Democratic politicians, that alone puts him on the side of the angels.
I’m going to miss Yang and the Gang. But I hope they’ll come around to the political revolution. They’re already much closer to it than even they might realize.