Andrew Yang on How to Avoid 'Civil War 2.0'
The case for ranked-choice voting, open primaries, and third parties. Plus: Dave Chappelle, cryptocurrency, Critical Race Theory, the metaverse, Elon Musk, and more.
Andrew Yang is the most upbeat politician I have ever met. I am also fairly convinced he is a masochist.
First, he decided to run for president of the United States. He lost. Then he decided to run to become mayor of New York City. He lost again. A normal person might consider a career shift.
Not Yang. In October he announced that he was leaving the Democratic Party and embarking on another herculean task: the formation of a new third party called Forward. (His new book has the same name.)
I sat down with Andrew last week and asked him to convince me why a third party was a good idea. And also: why he thinks Democrats just lost in Virginia; whether the outrage about critical race theory is justified; the brouhaha over Dave Chappelle; why he thinks Mark Cuban would be a great presidential candidate; and much more.
Agree with him or disagree with him about the efficacy of third parties, or his signature issues (ranked-choice voting, open primaries, and universal basic income), what’s clear about Andrew Yang is that he is actually trying to fix things.
I loved talking to Andrew. You can listen to our whole conversation here, or read the some of the highlights from our conversation below:
On the Media
AY: I think that there are certain major media organizations that have very powerful corporate vested interests that have relationships with certain candidates and figures. And they will say, “look, we're going to augment, amplify this candidate and their message, and let’s try and see to it that if this candidate doesn’t win, then it’ll be one of these two or three candidates and not one of these other two or three candidates.” I think that is going on at various media organizations.
BW: So it’s a concerted effort to—as you said before—kneecap a Bernie Sanders and maybe put wind in the sails of someone like Joe Biden?
AY: Yeah, I believe that is happening. I think most people would acknowledge that at this point. We’ve kind of seen it happen to Bernie twice. I think that Joe Biden's first fundraiser was with the family that controls Comcast, which I think is the parent company of MSNBC. I don’t know if this sounds like a conspiracy, but I kind of imagine that most people had added two and two at some point. Is that true or not? Have people added this up?
BW: I don’t know. From my vantage point, there wasn't some meeting where people sat down and were like: “We are going to cover this person in this way, and we are going to cover that person in another way.” It’s much more subtle. I remember hearing from colleagues in the newsroom who were covering the election and worked with reporters who refused to even mention you when they were talking about Democratic candidates running because they said they didn’t take you seriously. But voters were taking you seriously and they were sort of making a decision for the readers of the New York Times about how you should be framed and perceived. And what struck me so much about joining you on the campaign and the energy that I felt from your supporters, who were overwhelmingly normies, was that it was a different universe of reality from the perception inside the headquarters of the New York Times.
AY: I think that there are two major things at work. Number one is there are some organizations that have some directives from the powers that be saying to give some candidates the time of day, others less so. And then there is this layer of professional perspective that many journalists bring to the table where they say: My job is to not elevate certain marginal candidates because that’s my role. My role is to elevate the “serious” candidates and demote the “unserious” candidates. And it is up to me who falls into these categories. How do they decide who's serious or not serious? Oftentimes, it's by the treatment that other media figures give them. So it’s very circular. They look around and say: “Hey, other journalists or networks aren't talking about this person, so I should not either.”
On the State of the Democratic Party
BW: I don't know if you watched the recent election night coverage. I looked at some of the clips from MSNBC and CNN, and it was just unbelievable. It was pundit after pundit talking about how this is proof that voters are dumb and racist and bigoted and voting against their own economic interests. Maybe the most galling of all was this case of Winsome Sears, a former Marine, an immigrant from Jamaica, a black woman, a Republican, who just became the new lieutenant governor of Virginia. And you have pundits like Jemele Hill declaring that this is evidence that the country loves white supremacy. As absurd as it sounds, that was the trope. Segment after segment. It seems like every bit of evidence should be telling them: “That’s not the right tack, guys.” Why are they going down this path? How do they not see that blaming voters is not working for them?
AY: I’m going to say that it is working for them as long as you don't imagine that maximizing public well-being is the goal. And one of the hard lessons I learned when I was writing this book was that our political incentives, you would expect them to be towards winning elections and governance and policy. But that’s not really the case. You can benefit politically just by getting people charged up and raising a lot of money and getting a lot of attention and losing. You can make a losing case and still feel like your job is secure. And that’s doubly true for the media organizations, where they get rewarded for giving people what they want. What they don’t want is to hear: “Hey, maybe the ideas we’re talking about aren’t actually appealing to the average American voter.” What they do want to hear is that they are righteous, that the other side is the opposite of righteous. In this case “racist,” I guess, is the description that they might use. And that benefits that media organization commercially. The problem that we’re facing, Bari, is that everyone's adhering to their incentives and their incentives are not around either reality, truth, or public good. It’s about generating energy, money, votes.
BW: Energy, money, votes?
AY: Yeah. It depends upon what level you’re at. If you’re a social media personality, it’s energy. If you're a political consultant or one of these candidates, it’s money. Ideally at some point you win some elections. But the truth is that the two sides can just trade power back and forth and most of the political industrial complex moves on to the next candidate, the next race, and keeps on making money. I mean, in 2020, the two parties spent $2.65 billion on both sides of that race. And so a lot of the money just cancels each other out. You have this group of actors who benefit from the polarization. From making us angry, agitated, depressed and inflamed. So when you start realizing that's what the system rewards and that the rewards have nothing to do with policy or governance, then you start to understand why we feel the way we do. I like to think you and me and other reasonable people would say: “Hey, this message isn't working and we should reexamine.”
AY: But they'll just blame the voters. They'll say these voters are dumb. They're racist. And that's actually a more self-serving version of the world that they can give to themselves, their viewers, their donors, their supporters.
BW: But you would imagine they’d want a win, right? Just take the idea of defunding the police. Every single poll shows that that is essentially a luxury belief held by highly educated, privileged people—
AY: And not by most black people, I can attest.
BW: Yes, exactly. And not by black voters who say “I want my neighborhood to be more safe.”
AY: Yeah, that's what they told me when I was running for mayor. I'd go to a poor black neighborhood in Queens and they would say: “We want a new precinct here.” And I'd say: “I get it. I'll try to deliver that to you.”
BW: “Listen to people's lived experience.” This is the trope that we’re hearing from elite media organizations. Why aren't they doing that?
AY: These average people who are living in this poor black neighborhood don’t work for the media organization. They don't have massive social media followings. And so they will be disregarded or ignored for the most part. The other thing, though, is if you're a part of this activist class (and you know, I like and trust and believe in a lot of these folks) you get rewarded for bringing energy to a particular policy that may or may not be echoed by the average black person living in one of these neighborhoods.
On Critical Race Theory in Schools
BW: The gap that was on most obvious display in the election in Virginia was the question about what's being taught in schools. If you turn on MSNBC or CNN or you read the New York Times, you hear: “Critical race theory is a myth. It’s not being taught in schools. Critical race theory is only an idea that you can find in a law school textbook or in this thousand page tome edited by whomever in its third edition.” Or they’ll say it is real and that it's actually a good thing. So there's different talking points. Regardless, what parents, what voters in Virginia said was: “It is real. We don’t care about the semantic games you're playing on television. What we know is that our kids are getting these weird ideas about re-racializing themselves, re-racializing others, looking at everything through the lens of race, and getting really dangerous bad ideas either about themselves or about their peers based on it. And we don't like it. And we don’t know what it's called. We just know it’s not good.” And if you look at the polls, Youngkin, who ended up winning the the first time Republican candidate he led among parents of children between the ages of kindergarten through 12th grade by something like 15 points.
BW: I’m curious if you followed that aspect of the race, which seemed to be the focal point.
AY: I did.
BW: What do you make of it? How important do you think that was to the outcome of the race?
AY: Oh, it was significant, for sure. There were two related concerns. Number one is parents dislike the fact that schools were shut down for so long. They sensed that it was not for their kids’ well-being, but that it was in service of the teachers’ unions, who we all know are a very powerful group in Democratic politics. And number two is that their children are being taught ideas about race that parents do not agree with. My friend’s 11-year old daughter came home and said: “Why can’t I be friends with my black classmate?” That classmate, by the way, she had been friends with up until recently. And so this parent was very unhappy with the fact that her daughter had come home thinking that she somehow cannot be friends with her black classmate. And so she brought these concerns to the school, and then the school dismissed my friend’s concerns.
BW: Public school or private school?
AY: This was a private school. Hearing that story makes me think that something is happening in these households where kids are coming home, talking to their parents and their parents are alarmed. And the Democrat response—saying this is imaginary—doesn't work for a lot of these parents. Democrats need to accept a definition of critical race theory and then have a stance on it that they can embrace. Trying to hand wave it away is unsatisfactory to a lot of parents, though I will say that there are some school districts where I'm sure nothing is being taught. Is there a conservative boogeyman element in some cases? Almost certainly, yes.
AY: But are there places where something is being taught that parents find genuinely troubling?
BW: Also yes.
AY: The case that I think most Americans would accept would be that race is an important element of American life. Racism is a real problem, but there is much more that holds us together and that we have in common than separates us, and we should not view ourselves as purely these racialized beings. Most Americans would accept that. And then if you were to say our history includes some not so great stuff, most Americans would accept that. The problem is when you try to bring it into a zone where people think that race is the primary determinant of their relationships, of their trajectories, of what their ambition should be. And then that becomes something that most parents have a very big problem with.
BW: You tweeted the night of the election about how the main problem for Democrats is that their main message is fear. It’s the boogeyman of Trump and the boogeyman of Covid. And that's just not working. So if you were running the DNC or all the candidates in the upcoming election, how would you be advising them? What should their main appeal be instead?
AY: Why are we upset? A lot of people are upset because their quality of life has been going down. The cost of various essentials just keeps going up while wages haven't kept pace. So just focus on the common sense stuff, avoid coded language and try to deliver. Let's drop a lot of the cultural jargon.
On the Forward Party
BW: Third parties in this country are either punchlines or dead ends typically, as you well know. Why is Forward party going to be different?
AY: Well, Forward Party is arriving at the right time. We’re the right idea at the right time. Because at this point, the dysfunction of the duopoly is so clear and so glaring that people can't look away. 62% of Americans now want an alternative to the duopoly, but we're being told it can't happen, to your point. We’re told: This is the system, the system cannot change.
BW: Yes. It’s like: Whigs don’t work. Jill Stein doesn’t work. It’s the immediate reaction I get whenever I bring the subject up to anyone.
AY: And I think we’ve been conditioned in that direction.
AY: I also do want to take a step way back. There’s zero about any political party in the Constitution because the founders hated political parties. George Washington was anti-partisanship and warned about it in his farewell address. John Adams said two great parties would be an evil across the Republic. By the way, I think he’s being proven right. The parties didn't really exist in their current form until after the Civil War and then. Over the last number of years, they've suppressed dissent in different ways and convinced people that you can't actually have an alternative. “You don't like us? You’re stuck. And look at the other team. They're evil. Don't make the bad people win.”
BW: Exactly. You’ll be the spoiler.
AY: And there is an extent to which I agree with this. What I present to people is: Let’s solve that problem. If we adopt ranked-choice voting, there is no more spoiler effect. People can vote for whomever they like and their preferences will be expressed better. You’ll have less negative campaigning. You’ll have new political parties and voices emerge. Why not try that? They don’t want to hear it because they say: “No, no, don’t solve the problem. I’m too busy berating you about how you're going to mess it up for my team.” That’s one of the things that has gotten me so convinced that this case is so vital and timely. Because you're seeing the polarization grow to unprecedented levels. We’re at literally civil war levels of political tension. We are going to see political violence and strife and dysfunction.
BW: We already have.
AY: Yes, it’s going to get worse, not better. And so to me, the choices are very clear. We’re either going to ride the dysfunctional duopoly to ruin and strife and violence and Civil War 2.0, which is frankly the path we’re on right now. Or we are going to find a way to rejuvenate our system politically. And any rejuvenation is going to come in the form of a third party movement or an independent movement. I will be the first to say that if the Forward party is successful, the goal is not that the Forward party runs everything. It’s just that the system works better. I’m not after three parties, I'm after four or five or six parties where if, by the way, one party succumbs to terrible leadership, that’s not an existential threat. The problem right now is that all of our political incentives are to follow the leader of your party because “look at the other team.”
AY: It’s one reason why the duopoly is so vulnerable and why our founding fathers would be shocked and horrified that we’re allowing this design to persist. We’re living through the greatest design flaw in the history of the world and being told we can't change it. Enough of us now know that it better be untrue. Or else we’re going to be stuck in this doom loop.
BW: Give us a flavor of who the Forward party candidate, other than you, would be like.
AY: I’m going to throw out a name, and it's someone I know. It’s someone I’ve spoken to about this. Mark Cuban. He’s a business leader and has his own resources. He’s got his own brand. People disparage Ross Perot on the regular, I get it. But the man got 19.3% percent of the vote in ‘92, and institutional mistrust has gone up a whole lot in the last 29, 30 years. I think if you have Biden versus Trump, there is an easy 20-25% of the country that if you have a credible alternative, they get on board.
On Ranked-Choice Voting and Open Primaries
BW: Can you please try and sell me? Get me excited, Andrew Yang, about these two deeply unsexy policy subjects.
AY: A Republican senator said to me that right now they get rewarded more for keeping an issue around than trying to resolve it. Because if they tried to compromise on something like immigration reform, they pay a huge price at the polls immediately, and they would probably lose their jobs. If they say, “Hey, it's the other side’s fault,” then they can raise money, they can get votes, and they just keep the issue around. Again, a Republican senator said this to me. That is why it’s so broken. What I’m going to suggest is that solving the problem is sexy. If you shift to open primaries and ranked-choice voting, then all of a sudden, every legislator is going to seem more reasonable and prone to compromise because they have to deliver for 50.1% of us, and that would change things overnight. I want to explain ranked-choice voting to people who don’t know it. It’s a system that allows you to express your true preferences. It gets rid of the spoiler effect that people seem so concerned about. It discourages negative campaigning because if I trash you, we both look bad, and then the third person benefits relative to us. It rewards consensus builders and coalition builders. I think it rewards women candidates who just are a bit more naturally collegial. It will punish the incendiary firebrand type who will excite 20 percent and then turn off 25 percent. So if you like incentives and rewarding rationality, then open primaries and ranked-choice voting are very, very sexy.
BW: So you're basically saying: Stop complaining, let’s do something to disrupt the system, and the thing that’s going to disrupt the system are these two academic-sounding topics, which are ranked-choice voting and open primaries.
AY: Yes, and here’s the magic. We do not have to have Congress do a damn thing because we know they wouldn’t do anything. We can actually do what they did in Alaska, in 24 states around the country. Just have enough of us get together and say: Let’s get it on the ballot, let’s vote it in. There’s a weakness in the system where a movement can succeed. And you know this can succeed because it happened in Alaska already, and no one listening to this had anything to do with it. The cost of that successful ballot initiative in Alaska in 2020 was $7 million. I want everyone to think, what price tag would you put on restoring sane incentives to our political system, to our democracy? Again, we’re spending billions of dollars just smashing against each other every cycle to no effect because we're getting manipulated and told: “The other side is evil, give me money, or the world is going to come to an end.” So why don’t we spend a small fraction of that money restoring the incentives? That's the Forward party. Did I sex it up enough?
AY: Antisemitism is very much on the rise in a particular way. There’s been this narrative that has overtaken a segment of the Democratic Party that frames everything as “oppressor” and “oppressed.” It’s very binary. In that construction, Israel is the oppressor, which is something that I confess to finding confusing because last I checked, Israel is a democracy in a sea of, at least at certain points, mortal enemies. That’s a narrative that we should be very, very mindful of. Social media is amplifying it to the nth degree. And I think you might know this, but I had people screaming in my face about this when I was walking around and looking into their eyes, there was something that seemed to have almost possessed them. It struck me as something that often was born of social media because, as you know, a lot of this was driven by Twitter. If you are someone who’s concerned about antisemitism, I am right there with you.
On Teachers Unions
AY: The first phrase that popped into my mind was: Necessary evil. I think that teachers unions are organizations for which you have to try and rein in their excesses.
On the Metaverse
AY: You know, I'd have to go to the metaverse to see what I think. But we all know if you hit the fast-forward button, there's going to be a metaverse.
On Taking Down Statues
AY: I am going to speak for myself: I have no fucking idea what statue I just walked by. You know what I mean? And so people who say “Oh, that statue is gonna make you feel terrible.” It’s like, oh my gosh have I been doing this wrong this whole time? I haven’t had really strong feelings of any kind [toward statues].
On Dave Chapelle
AY: Dave’s an American legend.
AY: I think that the governance innovations that are made possible by crypto could be the forebearers to a much more effective, dynamic democracy.
On Elon Musk and Mars
AY: I’m glad that someone is working on it. I did sit with Elon, and the man is genuinely motivated by trying to give the species another place to go. If there’s anyone who has a big fast-forward button, it’s that guy.
BW: What do you make of him being demonized the way that he is?
AY: I think that demonizing someone who’s advancing the species just seems bizarre and silly to me. And expecting someone who’s capable of doing what he's done to also somehow have all of these other characteristics or attributes just strikes me as completely off base. If you had Elon Musk on one side and then our institutions on another, we’d all take Elon Musk if we’re asking who’s going to get us to Mars faster. It’s like, yeah, Elon’s going to do it. I think that there is a reflexive antipathy towards Elon from institutional apologists. Because they’re the folks who are like: “Hey, hey, no, no, not like not the mold-breaking individual. We can’t have that.” And I dare say that I think I might have experienced some of this.
BW: You might be able to relate a little.
AY: Not to put myself in the same camp as Elon, because—
BW: —Because you're so much more wealthy, obviously.
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