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Why Andrew Yang's presidential campaign matters

Andrew Yang, a candidate in the Democratic primaries

Andrew Yang, a candidate in the Democratic primaries for president, speaks at a town hall meeting at Christ Lutheran Church in Cleveland on Feb. 24, 2019. Credit: AP/Phil Long

A hallmark of recent presidential elections has been a candidate propelled by certain groups of people on the internet – often young, often male, often white – seeking to build a viral campaign by addressing the issues animating that demographic. Ron Paul did it in 2008 and 2012, Bernie Sanders did it in 2016 and will try to do it again in 2020. The gatecrasher who looks poised to ride that strategy at least to make the debates this year is the entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Beyond their electoral competitiveness, these campaigns are important because the values and issues they highlight become a part of mainstream politics, even if the campaigns so far have fallen short.

Yang’s signature issue is a universal basic income, which he calls a Freedom Dividend, in response to fears of mass labor automation. But his brand of politics differs from most politicians these days because stylistically he’s not big on outrage, and his campaign website has policy pages for literally dozens of issues ranging from “the NCAA should pay athletes” to a proposal to repurpose dead and dying malls.

While Yang, 44, isn’t well known even in political circles yet, it’s likely that this week he’s going to qualify for the first Democratic presidential debate in June. One of the ways of making the debate stage is by amassing 65,000 unique donors by May 15, and on Monday he passed that threshold. It’s possible he could have hundreds of thousands of donors by June, which could put him close to the top tier of Democratic candidates by that measure.

One way to think about the campaigns of Paul, Sanders and Yang is that they encapsulated the anxieties felt by their supporters at a certain moment of time. Paul was propelled by anger at the Iraq War and the housing/credit bubbles, their bust, and the bailouts. His pitch was that America is sick, and the prescription from Dr. Ron Paul is to follow the Constitution and get out of meddling in foreign affairs and economic central planning.

Sanders followed Paul by starting with anger at the bailouts and added anger at billionaires and corporations who had gotten rich while working families had seen their incomes stagnated for decades. The Sanders pitch was that America is captive to elites, and the answer is an old-school socialist who would lead a class-based political revolution.

Yang comes four years after the Sanders 2016 campaign, and the anger at the financial crisis and bailouts is largely gone. Anger in general is gone. Instead, what animates Yang’s supporters – the “Yang Gang” —– are those same fears about income stagnation, only this time through the lens of technological innovation and anxieties about mass labor displacement. Additionally there’s a frustration with the lack of any semblance of governance this decade, which explains why Yang has close to 80 policy proposals on his page. For the Yang Gang, America is like a buggy piece of software, and the fix is a visionary who will reprogram capitalism and the operating system of America.

These upstart campaigns have lacked the breadth of support to match their depth of support. For Sanders in 2016 and likely Yang in 2020, key Democratic constituencies – African-Americans, women and suburbanites – have tended to prefer more mainstream candidates.

But it’s not always about winning elections. The fingerprints of Paul and Sanders are all over politics this decade.

Paul’s non-interventionist views on foreign policy mutated into President Donald Trump’s xenophobic nationalism. Even before Trump played shutdown politics, the House Freedom Caucus, which rose to power after the Republican electoral wave in 2010, shared Paul’s views on shutting down government if legislation lacked their ideological purity.

Key ideas that came out of the Sanders 2016 campaign – relying on grassroots funding for campaigns, a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All and free college – are now mainstream ideas in the Democratic Party.

It remains to be seen what the trajectory of Yang’s campaign will be, but even if he falls short in the Democratic presidential primary, don’t be surprised if Yang-influenced ideas – about responding to technological disruption and a focus on pragmatic policy rather than ideological outrage – gain more currency in American politics.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.