To step off the Washington D.C. Metro is to step into a city that’s anything but ordinary. While every urban area, big or small, has its own perks and personality, something about D.C. makes it seem like it’s in a state of constant flux, with a permanent air of unease.
I’m not talking just about the national politics side of it. Here, even local government issues seem to toe the line between order and chaos. Amid federal buildings, signs flank the sidewalks bearing messages of support for D.C. statehood. At a bus stop nearby, banners endorsing Medicare for All are also visible. So it makes sense that a city immersed in matters generally outside the normal political conversation would be the scene of a rally for a candidate who is anything but ordinary.
Andrew Yang, a tech innovator and philanthropist, has gone from an unknown outsider to one of the top contenders for the Democratic nomination, thanks to ideas that many consider outside the norm as well as an abnormal coalition of working-class whites and social progressives. And if his rally in Washington, which came a day after his widely publicized CNN town hall and a year after starting to build his war chest and name ID from nothing to something, is any clue of his future, this little campaign that could could be something worth keeping an eye on.
Yang’s economic populism—his proposals range from a guaranteed basic income of $1,000 a month to statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico—as well as his criticisms of our political culture have left him driving at least some of the conversation within the Democratic presidential primary. He’s shown appeal across the ideological spectrum and attracted a diverse cast of supporters as a result.
Having observed political rallies for the last several years, I’ve noticed that whatever images of faces appear in your mind when thinking about a Republican or Democratic gathering are most likely accurate. Walking up to the Lincoln Memorial, however, I had to check my presumptions and biases at the door. Andrew Yang’s now-infamous #YangGang managed to surprise me.
First, I was confronted by one of my greatest fears: a large crowd of people wearing hats and holding signs that said “math.” As a math-challenged American, I felt personally victimized by this strange slogan, but from a marketing perspective, it certainly kept my attention. Also noticeable was the diversity of the crowd itself. From students to senior citizens, it was hard to get a firm grasp on the age of the average attendee—which is exactly what every candidate wants. Generational diversity shows an ability to speak to the challenges and priorities of Americans at different stages of life. In addition to that, the crowd was very typical of what you would find at a political rally inside the Beltway, a combination of whites, blacks, and those of Middle Eastern descent. Yang also managed to draw a large number from perhaps the most underrepresented ethnic group in America today: Asian-Americans.
“I have a candidate that looks like me,” a Yang supporter of Chinese descent said. “Name the last time an Asian guy decided to run for president. The answer is never.” A large number of Asian Americans in the crowd felt that Yang was in a way the Asian Obama, someone who could show them that they too might be president one day and make an impact.
Identity politics aside, Yang’s crowd was very polished, with most in attendance wearing ties and slacks, unlike the Bernie rallies of pink hair and stained shirts that seem more typical of today’s left-wing activist base. Speaking to supporters, two things became very apparent: I was wrong about who I imagined I’d be talking to and they really liked to talk about math.
The Yang supporters I spoke with ranged from high school students in Fairfax (one of the richest counties in America) to employees for Fortune 500 companies to former Teamsters. It was difficult to imagine that they were all backing the same candidate for president.
“Fifteen million jobs are going to be eliminated within a decade,” one student from the University of Maryland told me. “You take into account the debt me and thousands of others carry after college and how difficult it is to get that first job out of college, and Yang’s Basic Income plan might be the only thing that prevents people from going broke and losing their minds.”
A former Trump supporter was also in attendance, waving a “Humanity First” sign while wearing an American flag bandana. He told me: “Yang is the type of candidate that talks about jobs because he knows how to create jobs. He’s working for and wants to continue working for the American people. He’s everything Trump pretended to be.”
Yang’s popularity is a result of his appealing directly to voters who feel ignored by the two major parties, very much like the campaigns that launched Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to near-folk hero status in 2016 and onward. Yang, however, has less of a track recordthan Sanders and Trump. Many former “Bernie Bros” were at the Yang rally, sporting “Math” baseball caps and Yang shirts—they never forgave Sanders for his endorsement of Hillary Clinton in 2016. One college student told me he was worried that his public support for Yang would prompt his removal from his school’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter, since the DSA has backed Sanders’ 2020 candidacy.
Yang’s appeal to progressives who want an overhaul of our current way of doing business, coupled with his campaign’s attention to struggling white working-class voters, has bridged the gap between Democrats who wonder whether their party has gone too far left or not left enough. While the mainstream Democratic Party asks itself whether socialism is its future, Yang has ignored that issue by taking a personal approach to solving individual problems. He’s gone straight to his base instead of the typical Democrat kingmakers who rigged the game for Hillary Clinton during our last presidential go-around.
“The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who’s good at math,” Yang said as he wrapped up his speech to a roaring audience of about 600. Polling at 3 percent nationally and already qualified for the first Democratic primary debate in June, the first true test of Yang’s grit will be running a campaign of ideas and policies in a political arena obsessed with personalities and soundbite answers. One thing is certain though: ordinary is antiquated in the age of Trump. And going toe-to-toe with the president on a general election debate stage just might require an unordinary candidate who can keep the base happy while widening the tent.