Defending against robots? I, Andrew Yang

Yang's message is clear: automation is coming for your job

A photograph of Andrew Yang giving a speech

In a familiar field of Senators, House Representatives, Governors and former Cabinet Secretaries, there stands a candidate in the 2020 Democratic Party Presidential Primary who does not fit the standard mould. Andrew Yang is a young, Asian-American entrepreneur who is seeking to differentiate himself from both the pro-establishment centrists and the divisive personas on the left.

His identity is far from the only thing that singles him out from the pack. His message is also unprecedented. For Yang, Trump’s 2016 election story is one of pure economics: globalisation and large tech companies have automated and devastated millions of jobs, decimating the inhabitants of small towns and rural areas, leaving them incredibly vulnerable to any deified force that professed to have solutions. Such a hypothesis explains why those in Midwestern swing states such as Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin abandoned the Democratic Party, who they perceived to be no more than enablers for the forces that strengthened global elites and thrusted American communities to the sidelines.

Where Trump prescribed the demonisation of immigrants and the reignition of hyper-nationalism as the antidote to the sense of hopelessness across much of the country, Yang’s answer is a Universal Basic Income (UBI). $1000 a month provided to every American is, in his eyes, the answer to the inevitable onslaught of job automation in the coming decades.

Partially funded by a large scale value-added tax on tech giants like Amazon who stand to benefit from automation, UBI will prevent the catastrophic events that inevitably flow from the destabilising process that Yang anticipates. Where neoliberal economists point to the role of re-training programs sensationally transforming a 60-year-old car manufacturer into a budding software engineer, Yang’s reliable, bureaucratically simple safety net is a form of curtailing the devastating effects that long-term unemployment creates. This, according to Yang, is how to rebuild America.

In a country that is characterised by its hyper-partisanship, perhaps the most profound quality of Yang is his ability to appeal to both those on the left and the right. He is unashamedly progressive when it comes to social issues and adopts many of the mainstream Democrats’ economic policy positions such as Medicare for All. Yet, through branding UBI as a “Freedom Dividend” which places the average American as “an owner and shareholder of the richest country in the world”, he seeks to capitalise on traditional American patriotism. It’s for this reason that Yang was able to leave Fox News anchor and Trump loyalist Tucker Carlson in utter agreement when presenting him with the UBI. He has managed to take a left wing policy, rebrand it to appeal to the everyday American, and convincingly prescribe it to both sides of the political spectrum as an antidote to the economic problems faced in America — a policy that is not, in his own words, left or right, but forward.

The left-right paradigm isn’t the only one Yang seeks to destroy. He believes that the entire socialism-capitalism dichotomy is out of date, greying the hairs of labels like ‘social democrat’. Accordingly, the stale ideas of President Sanders or President Warren will fail to address the real problems that will continue to shove the American worker on the losing side of the battle against the widespread automation of working-class jobs.

Despite his growing appeal, Yang is undeniably politically inexperienced: he has never held an elected office and is an outsider to the Democratic establishment. He openly admits that he’s only running as a Democrat due to the historical failures of third party candidates. It is for these reasons that he has been no more than a blip on the radar of mainstream media. He was dubbed a “longer-than-long shot” by the New York Times, the same newspaper who vehemently dismissed the possibility of Trump emerging triumphant in the Republican primary three years earlier. 

This, as well as his background as a well heeled businessman with close ties to Silicon Valley, positions him as, in many ways, both a mirror image of his Republican opponent. Yet equally, Yang is the antithesis of Trump: egoless, authentic, and with a vision of unity rather than division. It is the mixture of these qualities which gives Yang the potential for wide appeal.

Championing a distinctive message and demonstrating the capacity for broad electoral support, Andrew Yang may well be the boat that can sail across the violent sea separating the Democratic Party and disillusioned working-class Americans.