In a field as crowded as the Democratic Party’s 2020 primary, it’s surprising that a candidate with little name recognition or political experience has already drawn so much controversy. Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur whose most notable policy plank is a universal basic income of $1,000 a month, seems like an otherwise fairly staid candidate from the moderate wing of the party. So why has he received a groundswell of support from the alt-right?
In the last few weeks, a slew of articles have come out detailing Yang’s support among far-right figures like Richard Spencer, along with a slew of fans on the alt-right or adjacent to it. The “Yang Gang” has no parallel with any other Democratic candidates. Vox described Yang’s base as the “young, predominantly male, and, in their unique way, socially conservative audiences of people like Joe Rogan and Sam Harris.” The Verge highlighted the role of online communities like Reddit and 4chan in his growing popularity.
The Yang Gang is, to put it mildly, extremely online. Support for the unlikely candidate has built through podcast appearances and irreverent memes. Some of this support seems harmless, or even positive; as Vox reported, a number of the Yang memes are quite wholesome, illustrating how former rabid Trump fans can be transformed into peaceful members of the Yang Gang. It’s not all innocuous, though; while researching this piece, this author spent enough time on 4chan to conclude that a large number of memes about him—either in favor or against—are highly toxic, perpetuating truly grim racist stereotypes that I won’t bother to describe here.
Yang denounced this sort of imagery in a statement to The Verge, and it’s possible that the average Yang fan doesn’t even know that these less-than-savory memes exist. And Yang has made a point of talking to a wide range of media outlets, including an interview with The Root earlier this week. Still, for some, the nature of the attention he’s attracted raises serious questions about his candidacy. As The Outline wrote last month, “Yang’s praise for the main media format”—memes—“fueling his problematic base only fuels the racists’ fandom.”
Looking at the actual content of his policies, however, it’s hard to see why we should treat him differently than most other Democratic Party candidates. Andrew Yang is in many ways a Third Way-style technocrat. He has a lot of policies—there are seventy-six listed on his website. Some of them are left-friendly, like Medicare for All, marijuana decriminalization, and a variety of programs to reduce mass incarceration. In general, though, he leans closer to the technocratic center, combining socially progressive views with fiscal conservatism and a celebration of managerial rationality and entrepreneurship. He supports cutting student loan debt but through graduated payment plans that may include wage garnishment; he proposes downsizing the federal workforce with the help of a management consulting firm; he opposes wealth taxes; his primary policy relating to police violence is to give them body cameras, partly in order to save on litigation costs.
The same holds true of his flagship policy: a universal basic income of $1,000 a month, which Yang calls “The Freedom Dividend” (a name derived through focus-group testing). UBI sometimes features in left-wing utopian visions—most notably in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s 2015 book, Inventing the Future—but as Alyssa Battistoni wrote for Dissent, a truly transformational UBI “has to be genuinely universal and unconditional, provide enough income to actually live on, and supplement rather than replace the welfare state.”
None of these conditions applies to Yang’s policy. Only citizens would be eligible to receive the dividend. Furthermore, $12,000 a year is nowhere near a living wage in many parts of the United States. And Yang’s plan for funding the Freedom Dividend is predicated on gutting the rest of the welfare state, as well as introducing a (likely regressive) value-added tax on consumption. What’s more, for UBI to actually help people suffering economically, it would have to be accompanied by a suite of anti-inflationary policies. Take housing, for example: policies in support of rent control or increased public housing would help prevent landlords from immediately hiking rents, but they are noticeably absent from Yang’s policy portfolio.
The Freedom Dividend isn’t an answer to the question, “How do we move toward a more equitable society?” It’s not about fixing the underlying problems in our economy, either by helping workers to build power or by challenging those who have profited from their labor. Instead, Yang’s version of UBI is a band-aid, designed to minimize social disruption in the wake of predicted widespread job loss caused by automation. It is a palliative for the worst of the suffering to come, without changing the structures that produced the suffering in the first place.
The Freedom Dividend may help explain Yang’s popularity among a demographic group often referred to as NEETs (not in employment, education, or training), or among people without enough or steady work, or in jobs they find unsatisfying. Yang’s platform seems to appeal disproportionately to people who, for whatever reason, feel like they are not served by the modern social order; his UBI policy helped his candidacy to take off as a meme, soon catching the attention of podcasters with large audiences. Given that Yang positions himself as an outsider candidate, apart from both the Democratic establishment and the party’s nascent left wing, it’s not surprising that he’s attracted support from across the political spectrum. In addition, whether knowingly or not, Yang has validated some of the views of his online adherents in the wake of all that attention, mentioning the death rate among “white people” in the United States and criticizing the Democratic Party for being overly focused on identity politics while leaving working-class people behind.
Being able to appeal to a politically diverse crowd—including the right—is not necessarily a bad thing, if that interest comes from fresh policies and not from conceding on issues of social equality. Yang’s ability to engage with internet culture may in fact be a good thing.
There is a tendency in certain parts of the left to disdain the sorts of people that feature prominently as Andrew Yang’s support base. Who do I mean? Young men, primarily white or Asian, who spend a lot of time on the less savory parts of the internet, and who entertain sexist or racist views as part of their cultural diet. Indeed, anyone who has festered in the certain toxic swamps of the internet for too long is susceptible to some bad political tendencies, including hysteria around anything that reminds them of “social justice warriors.” These people are not an obvious recruiting pool for left politics; the alt-right has used these online spaces as a recruiting pool, aided by recommendation algorithms on sites like YouTube—whose politics are dominated by the right—that work to their favor.
It is widely accepted that part of left-wing education involves grappling with your own biases in order to unlearn harmful tendencies you’ve internalized. That process is never perfect, and it is never completed. With that in mind, writing off a fairly large group of people who have been failed by society as unredeemable seems like a mistake. It may well be possible to win an election without the support of this vaguely defined online crowd. But this matter cuts to the core of what left politics are ultimately for—where we derive our claim to moral legitimacy.
The left can provide answers and explanations for disillusioned and isolated people that the current liberal political establishment cannot. Most of us would agree with Yang’s criticism of the Democratic Party having abandoned the working class; but instead of explaining that by way of opposition to “identity politics,” we root our explanation in material conditions and class relations. We can talk about the alienation produced by the neoliberal drive to commodify everything, and how various hierarchies are corrosive to even those who ostensibly benefit from them. And unlike the right, we can paint a picture of a world that we think would be better for all of us, not just a select few based on race, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation.
There are politically creative people like ContraPoints, Philosophy Tube, and Marijam Didžgalvytė who are already attempting to reach such audiences on their own terrain, creating video content to rebut common right-wing talking points. Their reach is still dwarfed by that of the alt-right, but that doesn’t mean that their projects aren’t worth undertaking. It’s hard to say how big a potential political base is up for grabs, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the streaming platform Twitch, which focuses on videogame broadcasts, now has as many viewers as cable news networks.
There is definitely a leap of faith in believing that people who would be drawn towards the extreme right would also be attracted to the left if the ideas were presented in the right away. But the number of hardcore far-right shit-posters is likely only a small portion of the overall audience in their general vicinity, and dismissing all of them offhand is short-sighted.
I confess to having a vested interest here: I spent a lot of my formative years steeping in various reactionary corners of the internet, including a brief but intense 4chan phase. For me, the internet felt like an escape from the banalities of the real world, and through it I found communities of people who, like me, felt disconnected from their physical surroundings and instead found solace in each other. I drank up the cultures I found there—gamer culture, hacker culture, generic nerd culture—and even though I now recognize certain aspects of those cultures to be toxic, I still believe this cultural community is much more than merely a conduit for the alt-right. The alt-right may be trying to create a political community out of a cultural identification, but it is a mistake to take that association at face value—to assume that someone who likes watching Twitch or playing Fortnite is beyond reach.
In order to convince people who may hold reactionary views of our vision to radically change society, we have to show them that there is a place for them in the world we want to build—to recognize their pain and provide a solution rooted in solidarity, not exclusion. We can build a coalition without compromising on the things we care about, building bridges around shared interests while making clear that social justice is not a zero-sum game. The point isn’t to make concessions to alt-right luminaries; the point is to shrink their fan base.
When Andrew Yang goes on podcasts like Joe Rogan’s and talks about the challenges faced by their audiences, he presents himself as someone who genuinely cares about a demographic that no other Democratic candidate seems to be gunning after. He describes a social crisis and offers what sounds like a reasonable solution whose benefits will apply to everyone. It’s easy to see why people who feel politically disengaged would find him appealing. And however small the actual Yang Gang is, it is symptomatic of a broader political alienation among those left behind by our dominant institutions.
None of this should be taken to imply that the left is in any way responsible for the rise of the alt-right. Instead, we must think about how to reach people with a compelling alternative without compromising on our core values. As Jay Firestone wrote in his analysis of the alt-right for Commune, for many people, “no coherent leftist movement exists through which everyday people can make sense of this world and collaborate across lines of race and gender to build a better one.” As a result, “their vision of society might become the only one that makes sense to ordinary white people, for whom reality increasingly seems like a battle between racially-defined interest groups for slivers from a shrinking pie.”
Yang’s candidacy exposes the dangerous potential of appealing to white nationalists with quasi-egalitarian policies that can be yoked to a violent, hierarchical social order. But there’s also a risk that he’ll lead people into thinking that his brand of soft neoliberalism is the answer. Yang’s approach boils down to making things slightly better while avoiding confrontation with the powerful, favoring technocratic solutions to make the poor a little less miserable over anything that might actually tackle extreme concentrations of wealth. The rich can stay rich, but let’s dole out a bit of money to help out the poor.
Yang has plenty of talking points about working Americans. But when he speaks about truck drivers in Iowa, he remains focused on things like the “cost savings associated with automating away their jobs,” and how to help them cope with changes over which they have no control. There are no class politics here; workers are assumed to be mobile and compliant, resigned to accepting the terms offered by employers. Who needs minimum wage laws or stronger unions when there’s a tax credit for uprooting your life to move to where the jobs are? Absent from this worldview is the possibility of collective action to bolster workers’ agency.
This is where a candidate like Bernie Sanders shines. He insists that we must be active participants in the fight for our dignity, and that the distribution of social wealth has everything to do with power. At the same time, Sanders has responded positively to sympathetic critics who wanted him to foreground racial justice, feminism, and LGBTQ struggles in his broader political vision. His policies on workers’ rights and strengthening the social safety net would do far more to improve the material circumstances of NEETs than Yang’s. If the Yang Gang has gotten this excited about UBI, imagine how they’ll feel when they learn what socialism can do for them.
Wendy Liu writes about political economy and the tech industry. She lives in San Francisco and is the author of the forthcoming Abolish Silicon Valley: How to Liberate Technology From Capitalism from Repeater Books.