On Feb. 9 2020, Presidential candidate Andrew Yang spoke to Hanover residents and Dartmouth students at the Top of the Hop. Ahead of the New Hampshire Primary (Feb. 11 2020), Yang hammered in his core messages one last time in an attempt to sway voters — widespread job-losses, automation and Universal Basic Income (UBI) were key sticking-points. On top of his political platform, Yang’s personable character, sense of humor and undeniable relatability made the event both entertaining and engaging.
As a non-citizen and a relative newcomer to American politics, all I knew going into the Yang event — gleaned from debate snippets and conversations with American friends — was that the candidate was non-ideological, data-focused and was not polling very highly. Most of the audience seemed much more acquainted with him than I was. There was a sense that most of the audience comprised Yang-supporters eager to see their favored candidate in person. This is not to say that everyone was already on board with Yang’s proposals, however. When asked by Yang if they thought that UBI was a pipe-dream, some members of the audience raised their hands. He had some convincing to do.
Yang began the brunt of his speech mourning the pervasive changes to the American economy as a result of the “fourth industrial revolution.” He lamented the fact that retail jobs were being lost and that those being left behind by the rapidly-advancing economy were unable to retrain and catch up. Government-funded programs, he said, were only zero to 15% effective. This core economic change comprises the basis for Yang’s campaign. It is his diagnosis for the Trump presidency as voters have become disillusioned with an economy that was leaving them behind. It also acts as the driving force behind UBI, his plan to give $1,000 a month to all working-age Americans to offset the fact that many who lose their jobs “[leave] the workforce … [and] file for disability.” Yang’s core message was clear: America needs to help those that it was leaving behind with new, innovative measures.
Underpinning this message was Yang’s highlighting of the distinction between how good affairs seem versus how dire they truly are. According to Yang, economic measures are “off-base.” He cited “record high” suicide rates, income inequality, student loan debt, healthcare costs and medical bankruptcies. At one point he addressed the younger members of the audience to make his point and validate younger voters’ concerns, “You are right. [The deck] has been stacked against you … We’ve done you dirty.”
Separate from policy, Yang’s persona distinguishes him from the rest of the Democratic field and from career politicians in general. His speech was laced with deadpan jokes, sardonic pauses and what I assume were off-hand quips that aroused, at the very least, light chuckles from the audience. The atmosphere was light and jovial; Yang gave off the air of a normal guy. The audience seemed at ease because of this and receptive to his messages.
An underlying theme that resonated with the student audience was Yang’s repeated insistence that the stereotypical Dartmouth student’s worries, though obviously real, were far from normal. He segued into a frank discussion of what students call the “Dartmouth bubble” with the statistic that only 33% of Americans graduate college. Some students around me raised their eyebrows in surprise. Then, he listed off the most common jobs in America: administrative and clerical, retail and sales, food services and preparation, trucking and transportation and manufacturing, which account for “half of American jobs.” It was impressive that a candidate attempting to sway voters was able to ground them in reality, rather than pandering to them. Still, Yang said that he sympathized with students who were funneled into corporate jobs, “In some ways, [Dartmouth] is the biggest subject of the market,” he said. “We need to … create paths for you that are not one of the Big 6 … [which] actually [help] move the country forward.”
Yang’s own path is familiar to most Dartmouth students. He attended Brown University, where he studied Economics before going to Columbia Law. He then worked at a firm for six months, left and eventually founded Venture For America, a fellowship program that places recent graduates in cities to help create jobs. Yang touts his entrepreneurship and position as a political outsider to appeal to voters. He insists that he is different from those in “D.C. … a town of followers.” Yang seemed to intentionally portray himself as someone who has ventured off the beaten path and who wishes more people could do so.
Appeals to students and characterizations of the American economy were sandwiched by Yang’s core policy proposals and an encouraging message for New Hampshire voters. Yang said that each New Hampshire voter is worth 1,000 Californians, touting the disproportionate sway that those in the foyer had. This was accompanied by his key proposals: a plan for 100 “democracy dollars” per person to crowd out corporate lobbies, congressional term limits and his wish to address climate change, though this was not elaborated upon. These messages, of course, were the same as previous town halls and media clippings, but still seemed to elicit a strong reaction from the audience.
Though a strong performance in the New Hampshire primary seems unlikely for Yang, it is plain to see that he has a committed, if small, following. He cements his status as a relatable outsider who is free of ideology, lacks a stereotypical politician’s character and is able to see what he believes are the root causes to Donald Trump’s presidency: widespread frustration with a changing economy that leaves people behind.
During an ironic digression regarding Dartmouth’s consulting-obsessed student body, Yang said that he would be the first President to bring a slide deck to the State of the Union. Only time will tell if he will be able to flaunt his PowerPoint prowess to America.