After the first CNN Democratic debate, I noted that it was held in Detroit, the scene of the most famous Asian American hate crime that galvanized Asian American political activism and awareness. But in 2019, we didn’t really show up.
It was the whitest of the two debates, and the one who really punched through the wonkiness was Marianne Williamson, the genuine anti-Trump.
But then lo and behold came the second night, with more people of color and guess what.
We showed up. Sort of.
“If you’ve heard anything about me and my campaign, you’ve heard that someone is running for president who wants to give every American $1,000 a month. I know this may sound like a gimmick, but this is a deeply American idea, from Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King to today,” said Asian American Andrew Yang, the New Yorker/Silicon Valley techie in his opening statement.
“Let me tell you why we need to do it and how we pay for it. Why do we need to do it? We already automated away millions of manufacturing jobs, and chances are your job can be next. If you don’t believe me, just ask an auto worker here in Detroit. How do we pay for it? Raise your hand in the crowd if you’ve seen stores closing where you live. It is not just you. Amazon is closing 30 percent of America’s stores and malls and paying zero in taxes while doing it. We need to do the opposite of much of what we’re doing right now, and the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.”
And to that, Yang got the biggest applause of his political career, which will either be the turning point in his campaign or the best memory to tell his Asian American grandchildren.
“So let me share the math,” he continued. “A thousand dollars a month for every adult would be $461 million every month, right here in Detroit alone. The automation of our jobs is the central challenge facing us today. It is why Donald Trump is our president, and any politician not addressing it is failing the American people.”
And that is Yang in a nutshell. It’s a new idea that is embraced by those on the right and the left. It’s not about race; it’s class. And it’s generational. It speaks to a lot of his supporters, many of them watching the debate in their sweatpants while playing video games on Twitch and commenting on Reddit.
That’s the voter who sees Joe Biden not as the former vice president, good enough for Barack Obama. They see the high school principal. No pal.
Yang has captured the young on the left and right. And maybe a few others.
Yang tweeted earlier a picture of himself with a tie. But on stage, he was true to himself. No tie. It’s the anti-establishment, new-tech establishment look.
He’s Asian American and a success, which plays into all the stereotypes. But the $1,000 doesn’t make him a socialist. It makes him an entrepreneur, because Yang envisions people starting businesses with the money. You see, it’s not welfare. It’s like social angel investing! A government GoFundMe campaign.
It’s a bit of genius, turning welfare on its head, calling it something else, and dousing it with tech fairy dust. You can start a business with the $1,000 a month!
It’s definitely the sign of a guy who has not been calcified or corrupted by a career in traditional politics. He’s not noosed by a tie; he’s loosed to go down different pathways. It’s the reason why the front runners like Biden and even Harris have a problem.
I want to like to Harris, but I have a history with her going back to Asian American politics in San Francisco when she was the DA. Harris has appeal and says the right things more often than not, but her record exposes the drawbacks of being a prosecutor.
Tulsi Gabbard went after Harris for grinning about marijuana use after all those years she locked up marijuana users. And that’s not Harris’ biggest problem. (See, e.g., my other column on Harris.)
I was surprised that it was Hawaii’s Gabbard, the NH in the AANHPI, who chose to clash with Harris, a fellow Asian American.
It’s a thin sisterhood.
In the strange CNN format–where candidates could take a question, redirect it with their own question, and get more face time attacking a fellow candidate–Gabbard didn’t hesitate to pounce on Harris.
But aside from that moment, Gabbard didn’t really pop. And even Harris, who had a great MSNBC debate, was flat throughout on Wednesday. No young girl busing revelations. No “my mother is an Indian vivisector who experiments on animals” story. No mention of her brown-Asianness. She did say, “My parents were civil rights activists,” but it didn’t stick. Not with me.
All the candidates I liked in debates past, I thought did well. Julian Castro had a pop when he stood up to Biden on immigration issues and showed he has what it takes. Cory Booker was good, affable even. But nothing made him stand out for me. Will it be enough to survive the cut?
Oddly, it was New York’s Senator Kristen Gillibrand who distinguished herself for me when she defined “white privilege” as the thing that shields a white kid from being shot, but not the black kid. But I don’t see her own white privilege working for her in this campaign.
Generally, we had a bunch of traditionalists.
So, of course, Yang and his $1,000 a month idea was more interesting than any health care plan minutiae.
The problem with Yang is he plays up to the Asian success stereotype.
He’s all entrepreneurial. All the time. His health care answer? “If we say, look, we’re going to get health care off the backs of businesses and families, then watch American entrepreneurship recover and bloom. That’s the argument we should be making to the American people.”
Of course, the free market will solve this, right? No. But it is Yang’s solution.
And when it came to immigration, he stayed on message. Despite a question on separating children, securing borders, and reforming immigration laws, Yang had this response to his immigration moment:
I’m the son of immigrants myself. My father immigrated here as a graduate student and generated over 65 U.S. patents for G.E. and IBM. I think that’s a pretty good deal for the United States. That’s the immigration story we need to be telling.
We can’t always be focusing on some of the – the – the distressed stories. And if you go to a factory here in Michigan, you will not find wall-to-wall immigrants; you will find wall-to-wall robots and machines. Immigrants are being scapegoated for issues they have nothing to do with in our economy.
So focus on the story of the successful immigrant, the guy who gets patents for G.E.?
Yang got his dad in the story, but no emotion. And nothing for the asylum seekers? Nothing for the DACA folks? Nothing for the struggling immigrants, maybe without documents, who work three jobs to make ends meet but are honest and loyal American residents?
Yang mentioned having a wife who stays with his two children, one of whom is autistic. But he’s too data driven. He was lacking in heart, where Williamson in first debate was all heart. (Oh, did you notice, no one mentioned reparations like she did? Why touch a hot button when you can avoid it. Besides, $1,000 a month is sort of like reparations, right?)
Still, among traditional politicians, Yang stands out.
And by appearance he’s one of us. But all of us? Or just the “good” successful ones. Oh, wait, doesn’t that sound like that myth of the model minority…
To paraphrase Cory Booker, Yang’s dipping into the Capitalist Kool Aid and he doesn’t even know what flavor it is. We should.
That’s Yang’s issue. He’s more passion than compassion.
But overall, an Asian American had a good night and closed this way:
“You know what the talking heads couldn’t stop talking about after the last debate? It’s not the fact that I’m somehow number four on the stage in national polling. It was the fact that I wasn’t wearing a tie. Instead of talking about automation and our future, including the fact that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs, hundreds of thousands right here in Michigan, we’re up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show. It’s one reason why we elected a reality TV star as our president.”
He got more laughs. But after a night of Dems beating up Dems, Yang knew the goal.
We need to be laser-focused on solving the real challenges of today like the fact that the most common jobs in America may not exist in a decade, or that most Americans cannot pay their bills. My flagship proposal, the freedom dividend, would put $1,000 a month into the hands of every American adult. It would be a game-changer for millions of American families.
Yang said, “I have done the math. It’s not left; it’s not right. It’s forward. And that is how we’re going to beat Donald Trump in 2020.
If he makes that case, he may be the Asian American who goes where no Asian American has gone before— another debate round in the early stages of a presidential campaign.