- Andrew Yang and Post-’65 Asian America
On a brisk evening last October, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang walked into a restaurant in West Los Angeles and sat down to dinner with some of his fiercest critics: about a dozen politically progressive Asian American media personalities, journalists, and scholars. The conversation was “cordial but tense” (Shyong). At the top of the docket was Yang’s racial politics, especially as they pertained to his Asian American identity. Yang had been criticized throughout his campaign for casually rattling off Asian stereotypes, and even embracing them (e.g., “I’m Asian, so I know a lot of doctors”). A few weeks before, Yang made things worse by stepping into a controversy over Saturday Night Live’s rescinding its casting offer to a comedian on account of the latter’s anti-Asian racism. Yang argued that the comedian shouldn’t have lost his job, thus cementing a perception among some observers, like those at the dinner gathering, that he panders to white audiences. Over the course of the evening, Yang took his thumps but finally insisted that he would refuse to second-guess himself on the campaign trail. Yang went on to defy expectations before dropping out of the race in February. In the last quarter of 2019, Yang outraised Joe Biden’s Q3 haul, and surpassed his own Q3 numbers by sixty percent.
Yang declared his candidacy in late 2017. A turning point came in early 2019, after an interview with the comedian Joe Rogan, whose audience of cishet young men resembled the profile of Yang’s base (Skelley). Yang’s supporters, the “Yang Gang,” were drawn to him for two main reasons: his proposal of a form of universal basic income (UBI), and a concomitant automation-threat narrative. At the end of 2019, Asian American support for Yang [End Page e58] significantly outpaced support for other candidates (Demora and Ramakrishnan). While we don’t know if Rogan’s audience was attracted to the same things in Yang that Asian Americans were, the material history of Yang’s automation-threat narrative overlapped in significant ways with his Asian American identity—his Taiwanese American identity, to be precise. Whether the Yang Gang knew it or not, it had been drawn into an intergenerational and intercontinental dynamic spanning half a century and half the globe, and that now offers tremendous insight into the very conditions that have produced this latest round of automation-threat discourse. As Catherine Chou has argued, it’s a dynamic that’s entirely obscured if our interest in Yang is limited to stereotype critique.
The argument Yang lays out in his 2018 book The War on Normal People goes like this. In the next five to ten years, jobs in industries like trucking and retail will be automated away by self-driving cars, robots, and self-checkout kiosks. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) will exacerbate these losses and spread automation into white-collar professions with high levels of routine tasks, like medicine, law, and accounting. Nothing will stop the coming wave of mass unemployment, so what’s urgently needed is a “floor” of income—$1,000/month for every American ages 18 to 64—that would be just enough to keep people out of poverty but not enough to obsolesce waged labor. Yang calls this the “Freedom Dividend.” While the plan described in the book would eliminate social welfare programs (thus bringing it into line with UBI plans proposed by neo-liberals like Milton Friedman, whom Yang often quotes, and neo-conservatives like Charles Murray), Yang later clarified that the Dividend would “stack” on top of Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, and that eligibility would no longer end at age 64.
UBI would just be the beginning, however. Yang’s ultimate goal is to move American society toward what he calls “Human-Centered Capitalism”: an ethos in which “[h]umanity is more important than money,” “[t]he unit of an economy is each person, not each dollar,” and “[m]arkets exist to...