On December 5, presidential candidate Andrew Yang took the stage in Mandell Hall. After an introduction from a member of his “Yang Gang,” Yang walked on stage, past his seat next to interviewer David Axelrod, jumped off the stage, and ran down the aisle through an audience of students. Some chanted his name; most looked reserved but intrigued. As he hopped back onto the stage and took his seat gracefully, the noise died down and the interview began. It was an interview expertly tailored to the audience. Yang quipped about elite education, Asian American stereotypes, having been a club promoter, and his frequent use of youthful internet slang. He joked about the college-to-consulting pipeline so familiar to UChicago students—at one point joking, “you all came in not knowing what consulting is and now you’re all like, ‘I’m actually more of a Bain person myself.’” He was a candidate either uniquely poised to appeal to college students, or incredibly adept at reading the room.
Throughout his interview, it was clear that Yang was interested not only in promoting his candidacy, but also in changing the political conversation by popularizing once obscure policies.
Yang opened his interview by speaking about his upbringing and identity as the first Asian American presidential candidate. As the son of Taiwanese immigrants, he expressed deep pride of his status as a symbol of the American dream. This pride, however, did not stop him from cracking stereotypical jokes—he quipped “I love education because I’m Asian,” prompting Axelrod to ask him about his views on politically correct culture. He responded that especially online, negative sentiment spreads far faster than positive, and cautioned against dismissing someone entirely based on relatively minor transgressions or misinterpreting lighthearted jokes.
Axelrod then asked Yang about his main policy objectives. Through a combination of personal anecdotes and statistics, Yang emphasized the importance of valuing individuals’ dignity over their economic worth. He explained that his campaign aimed to preserve the quality of life in a changing world that is increasingly automated and impersonal. At times, he spoke very candidly about his personal life, explaining that his autistic son has made him realize the extent to which human worth can diverge from economic value.
Yang also spoke at length about his past experience building Venture for America, a non-profit organization that encourages young entrepreneurs to move to smaller American cities to build businesses and revitalize lagging economies.
Continuing the theme of encouraging job growth and individual prosperity, Yang also spoke in depth about the Freedom Dividend, more often referred to as Universal Basic Income (UBI). Perhaps his most well-known policy, UBI would give every American one thousand dollars per month. While the policy strikes many as radical, Yang stressed that it is a deeply American idea, dating back to American revolutionary leader Thomas Paine, who proposed universal distribution of dividends from a common fund in the eighteenth Century. A similar policy is currently in effect in Alaska, Yang remarked. Aside from relieving financial burdens from individuals, UBI would create a “trickle-up economy” where individuals would revitalize their own communities. Yang asked the audience to imagine a young woman with dreams of opening a bakery but without the ability to take such a financial risk. Instead of risking her own money, UBI would allow her to take the risk. Her neighbors, with their one thousand dollars, might be willing to buy an extra cupcake. Yang also addressed a controversial aspect of his plan when questioned about why the one thousand dollars should be given to everyone, including those who don’t need it—multi-millionaires, billionaires, and the like. He explained that, effectively, the poor would benefit more from the policy; however, giving the income universally would destigmatize the program and allow it to avoid the label of a rich-to-poor transfer.
Yang also stated that he did not support the move towards impeaching President Donald Trump—setting himself apart from other democratic candidates—as he believed it would increase polarization. He also criticized the Medicare for All plans put forth by candidates such as Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders, and came out against a wealth tax, citing its failure in many other countries. Yang argued that he has the potential to be a non-polarizing president, as he is, of the democratic candidates, uniquely popular among Republican voters. He also touched on some of his lesser known policies, including his proposal for introducing free marriage counselling, deemphasizing standardized testing in education, granting individuals property rights over their private data, and giving each American one hundred dollars to donate to a non-profit of their choice, in order to democratize philanthropic initiatives.
Near the end of the interview, a UChicago student asked Yang about his reasoning for running a campaign that is unlikely to be victorious. While at the time Yang maintained that he did believe in the success of his campaign, he also stressed that he took the campaign to be the most effective way of popularizing his policies and bringing them into the public eye.
Yang has since dropped out of the race for presidency. However, his reasoning seems valid. His policies, which were once unthinkable, have become part of the mainstream political dialogue. For instance, a new Califorian bill proposes giving nearly every adult in the state one thousand dollars per month, an idea that strongly resembles Yang’s UBI. Although Yang’s campaign has ended, his voice has clearly permeated the political sphere. Yang has also become a CNN political commentator on the ongoing election, furthering the spread of his ideas.
As the interview concluded, attendees began to chant his slogan “MATH” (Make America Think Harder), both a play on Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and an ode to Yang’s emphasis on research-driven policy and his love for education. Some students held up posters and wore hats. While Yang may not have had the broadest support among the Democratic Party, he clearly appealed to many UChicago students.