Once seen as a fringe candidate, Andrew Yang has improbably managed to position himself as an Asian-American everyman.
One of the most striking things about Andrew Yang’s Presidential candidacy, early on, was the extent to which it was not about him. Everyone has a story, and most politicians try to leverage their backgrounds in ways that make their ambition to serve seem inevitable. But Yang, a forty-four-year-old entrepreneur and the American-born son of immigrants from Taiwan, seemed happy to serve as the human emissary of a thought experiment: the “Freedom Dividend,” his market-tested rebrand of universal basic income. In Yang’s plan, every American citizen would be given a thousand dollars a month with no conditions. He has described it as a necessary and humane response to a future in which up to a third of the jobs that Americans have now will be “automated away.” The money would allow people a measure of mobility, or a safety cushion, or even, he has suggested, the opportunity to pursue whatever makes them truly happy. Yang has been giving a Freedom Dividend to families in New Hampshire, Iowa, and Florida; he recently announced plans to provide it to ten other American families.
From the beginning, Yang embraced the novelty of campaigning, frolicking on the trail with a playful wonkiness, steering every conversation back to the Freedom Dividend, bringing the same bemusement to an eclectic range of podcasts and media appearances. His barely serious vibe helped to make palatable proposals that might have seemed radical and strange on paper. With his jaunty affect, he came across as an unfazed expert whether addressing the skeptical libertarians who listen to “The Joe Rogan Experience” or the right-wing trolls who like Ben Shapiro, the liberal acolytes of “Pod Save America,” or the hard-to-impress hip-hop fans of Power 105.1’s “The Breakfast Club.”
In the opening pages of his book “The War on Normal People,” which was published last year, Yang writes about being called a range of anti-Asian epithets as a child. He was “ignored or picked on,” in part because he was “one of the only Asians in my local public school.” (Workplace anecdotes aside, the rest of the book focusses almost exclusively on policy ideas.) In interviews with other Asian-Americans, Yang has talked about the struggle of figuring out his identity.
But when Yang has brought up his identity in front of whiter crowds, it has often been in jest. By the spring, he was repeating a popular line: “the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.” (MATH has become one of the Yang campaign’s slogans—a backronym for “Make America Think Harder.”) He joked about his fondness for tests. At a Democratic debate in September, he quipped, “I am Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.” Shortly afterward, talking to voters about his U.B.I. proposal, he said, “Many of you think this is impossible, that the Asian man is talking magic.” At the end of an NPR Politics podcast, Yang signed off with the normal pleasantries you expect from an interviewee: “Thank you, such a pleasure.” The host replied, lightheartedly, “You did not make it sound like it was a pleasure.” Yang quickly attributed her inability to read his emotions to his “Asian stoicism,” and made a crack about the “unwelcoming” look of his resting face.
I have been watching Yang’s campaign with fascination, largely on account of moments like these. What stands out about them is that they’re less about Yang’s own sense of his identity and more about what he imagines other people assume about him. Even the line about being Trump’s opposite came from a supporter he met on the campaign trail. Yang has said that “most Americans are savvy enough to know” that not every Asian person is good at math, and has described the line as an effort to “reclaim a stereotype that happens to be true in my case.” He’s conscious of preconceptions around high-achieving Asian-Americans, and sees them as an opportunity for a kind of shared joke, rather than a misconception to be corrected.
Yang’s identity has clearly been a part of his appeal, just not in ways that most Americans might consciously register. Yang could afford to be self-effacing and naïve, for instance, because most people would assume that he was a wonky brainiac. Initially, he was regarded as a fringe figure—at best, thanks to his online Yang Gang, “the Internet’s favorite candidate.” In the course of a year, he has become one of the most prominent Asian-American political figures in U.S. history. Last week, his campaign announced that it had raised ten million dollars in the year’s third quarter, nearly twice what the campaign had raised, in total, before the quarter began. His campaign manager told the Times that the haul insured Yang “will have the funding to compete and outperform expectations through Super Tuesday and beyond.” His background and viewpoints will, presumably, begin to receive greater scrutiny from the press and prospective voters. In the meantime, though, he has offered a case study in the assumptions that people make about Asian-Americans, and the accommodations that Asian-Americans sometimes make when telling their stories.
That the political mainstream underestimated Yang doesn’t surprise me; I underestimated him, too. I made my own mistaken assumptions—that he was a Silicon Valley billionaire, for instance, able to dole out these trial Freedom Dividends as a gesture of personal largesse. In fact, Forbes has estimated that his net worth is around a million dollars; even if that estimate is conservative, many of the other Democratic Presidential candidates are probably wealthier than he is. “I know everyone in Silicon Valley,” the esteemed tech journalist Kara Swisher said to Yang at the beginning of an interview this summer. “I don’t know you.”
But Yang never struck me as mysterious, or odd. In some ways, he was overly familiar. His good-natured vibe reminded me of some of the Asian-American kids I grew up with who just really wanted to fit in. His Asian jokes struck me as a recognizable defense mechanism—defusing potential spots of trouble with a little humor, even if you know better. It never occurred to me that this approach to the world could make an extremely unlikely Presidential candidate come across as the rational, middleman-style alternative to polarization and partisanship. It was stranger still to see that Yang’s sense of humor—a surefire way to distinguish himself from the stereotypes around Asians as stiff and robotic—could be deployed to rally a diverse constituency around the Asian everyman.
My expectations were shaped in part by the modest history of Asian-Americans in U.S. politics. Asians built informal political networks in this country as early as the eighteen-forties, but they weren’t allowed to participate in electoral politics until a century later, when Chinese-Americans were granted citizenship and suffrage in a gesture of wartime amity. In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act allowed for the naturalization of other Asian-Americans. During the decades that followed, the personal stories of Asian-American elected officials had to fit neatly within the narrative of the American Dream, accentuating achievements over obstacles.
Hiram Fong, the son of Cantonese immigrants and the first Asian-American elected to the Senate, represented Hawaii from 1959 to 1977. “I’m symbolic of the opportunities afforded to a person in a democracy,” he said. Daniel Inouye, whose grandparents immigrated to Hawaii from Japan, enlisted in the Army soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor as Japanese-Americans were allowed to do so. He lost his arm during the war, and was forced to abandon plans to become a surgeon. He was elected to Congress in 1959, and the Senate four years later; he served until his death, in 2012. Subsequent generations of elected officials, including the former governors Gary Locke and Bobby Jindal, similarly explained themselves as immigrant success stories. Theirs was a patriotism tinged with struggle, the evolution of new Americans.
Yang’s child-of-immigrant predecessors could only succeed in politics by flattering the American system, aggressively mastering its metrics for excellence. Yang embodies something different: though his family was successful, he’s here to tell us that the system is broken. He has mentioned, more than once, that his father immigrated to the U.S. “as a graduate student and generated over 65 US patents for GE and IBM,” calling it “the immigration story we should be telling.” At the most recent debate, on the other hand, he offered a more conventional—though abridged—version of the triumphant immigrant narrative, saying, “My father grew up on a peanut farm in Asia with no floor, and now his son is running for President.”
If Yang’s candidacy continues to gain steam, perhaps he’ll spend more time dwelling on this trajectory, testing ways to align the particulars of his family’s story with the broader history of American immigrants, Asian Americans, or “underdogs” in general. At the debate, however, Yang quickly pivoted from the peanut farm to America’s long-standing appeal as “a magnet for human capital.” It’s a way of speaking that makes everyone the same. Nobody has to feel defensive. The very idea of the universal basic income is, in a sense, anti-identitarian: it treats everyone as though they are in the same boat. “This is not just an us-versus-them thing,” Yang explained on “Pod Saves America.” “This is a human thing.” It lays bare the benefits of being a citizen of the richest nation in human history while also stripping that citizenship of any romantic notions of duty or civil society. Instead, we are reaping our just rewards as national “shareholders.”
There’s a play for universalism here, a bet against identity politics, or extreme partisanship. Yang believes that “normal people,” whose jobs will soon be replaceable by “a widget, software program, or robot,” don’t ultimately care that much about the culture wars. His theory of winning national elections depends on the idea that many of the white voters who were drawn to Trump’s racist message, which scapegoats immigrants as the problem with America, are not only anxious about the economy but seeking a sense of purpose. Perhaps, he suggests, a bit of financial flexibility is what they need to figure out what that purpose is. These voters, Yang seems to assume, are the last constituency who would want a crash course on the nuances of Taiwanese-American heritage. (Earlier this year, a nineteen-year-old Yang supporter—and self-identified “young white man”—told my colleague Emily Witt that one of the things he liked about Yang is that “he isn’t afraid to speak his mind, like making the Asian-man jokes,” and added that Yang being “against identity politics . . . means a lot to me.”)
In September, after the comedian Shane Gillis was hired by “Saturday Night Live,” and online commentators surfaced videos in which Gillis made racist comments about Asians—including Yang himself—Yang, rather than admonishing or defending (or ignoring) Gillis, described the incident as an occasion for understanding and forgiveness. People had begun to call for “S.N.L.” to drop Gillis from the cast, and Yang didn’t think that should happen. Gillis didn’t seem “malignant or evil,” Yang tweeted. He was just a “still-forming comedian from Central Pennsylvania.” This attempt to contextualize Gillis echoed a section in Yang’s book that was excerpted, last year, by Quillette, in which Yang tries to empathize with the nihilistic ethos of the gamer community. But his comments about Gillis seemed theatrically naïve and self-serving, an attempt to reach working-class whites psychically wounded by automation. The message was that culture doesn’t matter all that much, that Gillis was distracting us from the economic anxieties that allegedly mobilize racism or bigotry.
For some progressive Asian-Americans, many of whom were already rankled by the jokes about math and doctors and tests—stereotypes that have been linked to mental-health struggles among Asian-Americans—Yang’s approach to Gillis made it clear that he was willing to sacrifice elements of his own community in order to court a certain group of white voters. Danielle Seid, an assistant professor at Baruch College, noted in an interview with the Times that, although Yang had inserted himself into the Gillis controversy, he hadn’t initially “taken the opportunity to congratulate Bowen Yang,” an Asian-American comedian who had been announced as a featured performer on “S.N.L.” at the same time as Gillis. (He has since acknowledged Yang’s success, in part because the comedian recently portrayed him on the show.) Last week, Yang sat down with Asian-American writers, media members, and activists in Los Angeles for a conversation about, among other things, the ways that he has addressed stereotypes in his campaign. The columnist Frank Shyong attended the gathering, and wrote about it for the Los Angeles Times. “As an Asian-American outsider presidential candidate, he believes he has to make as wide an appeal as possible—even if that means cracking the occasional joke about being Asian,” Shyong wrote, paraphrasing Yang. During a discussion of that meeting on the podcast “Model Majority,” the co-host Tony Nagatani wondered if Yang’s humor might be a conscious attempt to court the part of Trump’s base that delights in his one-liners and punch lines. Social consequences aside, it was still “a successful tactic to get press.”
Back in May, the reporter Matt Stevens interviewed Yang, for the Times, about what it means to be an Asian-American Presidential candidate. Yang, Stevens wrote, hoped that “his blunt acknowledgment of his race—and his bold political ideas—would help him stand out.” He’s clearly still figuring out how these two things fit together, how they can be fashioned into a successful narrative. “In a very crowded field,” Yang told Stevens, “the person who sounds different is going to keep getting stronger and stronger.” And, for now, merely sounding different might be enough. Most politicians sell us dreams; I’ve never heard a politician narrate a future quite so grim as the one Yang describes. I’ve also never heard a big-time politician with a voice like his: casual, tranquil, almost monotone. He’s soothing and relaxed as he questions the wisdom of markets, or our faith in meritocracy. “I get emotional about facts,” he tweeted in February, another joke about supposedly emotionless Asians—and also a critique of modern politics. Embracing stereotypes makes Yang a troubling symbol for Asian-American progressives; it has also made him a surprisingly effective politician. At a time when politics seems defined by passion, he refuses to get emotional. But maybe normal people never expected that from him in the first place.