How Far Can Memes Carry a Presidential Candidate? Andrew Yang's Finding Out

Meme mastery accounts for a lot these days. 

Andrew Yang

Like most internet trends, it’s hard to parse exactly when Andrew Yang really became a thing. His political rise has been in the works around for a while, first talking to Inverse about his plan to use Universal Basic Income to save the American worker from automation and A.I. a year ago. He filed paperwork to run for president all the way back in November of 2017, a full year ahead of when most “serious” candidates began announcing exploratory committees. His announcement attracted little notice at the time.

Yang has no previous experience as a political candidate, but he’s riding a wave of popularity that could hit a new high after his upcoming appearance on CNN, during a “Town Hall” program that airs at 8 p.m. on Sunday, April 14.

The 2020 Democratic Presidential hopeful’s notoriety thus far seems to come from his strategy of digging deep into many narrow issues. He’s essentially a political lawn aerator, and on an increasingly siloed social internet, Yang is finding a way to appeal to many different, unconnected constituencies. His website shows dozens of very specific, sometimes radical policy positions, which have fervent support on social media. Some, like basic income, remain unfamiliar to the mainstream voter.

Andrew Yang
Yang's followers have already won the meme primary. But they have attracted some dubious supporters in the process. 

Yang, 44, made his money building up and selling a test prep company to the education services giant Kaplan. He used the proceeds of that sale to launch Venture for America — Teach for America, but for startup-employees — which to date has placed some 700 recent grads in startup jobs, 26 of whom have gone on to form companies of their own, according to the organization’s website. (For more on his career, this Freakanomics episode will get you quickly up to speed.) Before that, he graduated from Columbia Law School and was a lawyer before realizing he didn’t find the work fulfilling.

Yang’s approach and style is unlike anyone else’s in the race. The range of his policy ideas borders on farcical, with more than a hundred proposals, ranging from the objectively sensible (combatting climate change and making it easier to save for retirement) to the more unconventional (mandated pay for NCAA athletes and something called “making taxes fun.”) Rather than offer unifying policy ideas that everyone can get behind, Yang appeals to narrow constituencies who care a lot.

Andrew Yang 2020
This partial list of policy positions makes up Andrew Yang's platform.

This approach seems to be working. In March, seemingly out of nowhere, he joined the upper echelon of candidates after the political prognosticator Nate Silver remarked on Yang’s surge in the betting odds. According to the bookies, Yang’s odds were better than some mainstream candidates — like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker — who have national profiles.

Silver’s observation created a flutter of attention among the political and politically adjacent media. Yang saw profiles in Wired, The New York Times, and the Washington Post. The takeaways were unified: Though Yang is a tech entrepreneur with zero political experience, his “Yang Gang” of online supporters were winning the unofficial internet primary.

But, of course, winning the internet is not the same thing as thriving in the United States’ outdated electoral system, devised largely in the mid-19th century. The electoral processes start again on February 3, 2020 with the caucuses in Iowa, a state where Yang will have to build on his speaking appearances he’s made there in the past year.

More than any other candidate, perhaps ever, Yang’s appeal and popularity were born on the internet, particularly platforms associated with the “weird internet” like Reddit. A Reddit AMA he hosted last March garnered tens of thousands of upvotes and comments. He has a popular subreddit, now, with more than 13,000 followers. There are active Yang communities on the gaming chat system Discord and, at least until recently, 4Chan, the notorious “watering hole of racist and sexist internet trolls,” as Mother Jones noted in a recent report.

Indeed, Yang’s allure among some of the darker corners of the weird internet has begun to attract some controversy. While Yang has always disavowed his unlikely support from prominent white supremacists like Richard Spencer, particularly as more and more members of the media began digging into it, a Feb. 15 tweet about white birth rates has remained a sticking point for critics like Sean McElwee, the influential leftist behind the think tank Data for Progress.

“He’s into anti-circumcision and white birth rates,” McElwee tells Inverse. “Yang’s candidacy is one of the stupidest things that has happened in politics in the last year — and that’s saying something — and if the DNC lets him onto the debate stage they’re fucking suckers.”

While Yang may still lag his rivals in the more conventional barometers for online success like Facebook or Twitter followers, no other candidates have been quite so adept at tapping into the stranger corners of the internet. His appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, for example, is pushing 3 million views, and he’s been known to pal around with none other than tech mega-celebrity Elon Musk on Twitter. But whether going viral can translate into building a critical mass of donors, amassing enough caucus-goers, voters, and superdelegates — you remember superdelegates, right? — remains to be seen

Inverse reached out to Yang’s campaign 12 times over four weeks to request a follow-up interview. After expressing some willingness to go on record, his press secretary stopped responding, and didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment about his unlikely support among the alt-right, or his media appearance with the controversial anti-feminist media personality Ben Shapiro.

With "Universal Basic Income" printed on the wall behind him, Yang is making a priority of what he calls the "Freedom Dividend."
With "Universal Basic Income" printed on the wall behind him, Yang is making a priority of what he calls the "Freedom Dividend."

Why Do People Like Andrew Yang?

The root of Yang’s appeal almost certainly been his embrace of a universal basic income, which he has re-branded as the “freedom dividend.”

The policy idea — instead of the complex system of safety nets we have now, let’s just give everyone enough money to cover most essentials — has been around since the 16th Century, when the philosopher Thomas More floated the idea of a minimum income in Utopia.

This Youtube video produced by Yang's campaign illustrates how Yang is focused on a variety of ideas.

At the time, More viewed a minimum income as a potential antidote to theft and extreme poverty, but in its 21st Century iteration, UBI has been frequently floated as a potential solution for job displacement caused by automation and artificial intelligence. More than half of human tasks will be completed by either an A.I. or a robot by 2025, according to projections from the World Economic Forum.

“Things are even worse than you think they are” Yang said in an April 3 appearance with the National Action Network, a racial justice organization. “This country does not understand what’s happening. We’re in the 3rd inning of the greatest economic and technological transformation in the history of the country … it’s technology advancing to a point where more and more of us are going to have a harder time making ends meet.”

Yang has no shortage of media-savvy, meme-able policy proposals. He proposed paying NCAA athletes, for example, right as March Madness kicked off, and recently floated a proposal to mandate psychological evaluations in the White House. Some of these proposals have even bordered on stunty, for example, agreeing to a pseudo-debate with the controversial pundit Ben Shapiro about male circumcision (Yang’s tentative alignment with the so-called “intactivists,” a stance he revealed to the Daily Beast last month, has also been been raised as a potential dog-whistle to his more unsavory supporters, circumcision has often been used as a plank in anti-semitic propaganda, notes the Atlantic).

But those controversial policies aside, it is still Yang’s embrace of UBI that has galvanized his online supporters, who call the $1,000 monthly check Yang proposes the “bag,” a designation Yang recently embraced in a tweet from the campaign trail.

Rob Flaherty, a veteran digital strategist with tours on a number of democratic campaigns, tries to explain Yang’s appeal this way:

“There’s a community somewhere on the internet that UBI really appeals to,” Flaherty tells me. “Yang also really appeals to this weird, semi-ironic, kind-of-detached, internet-driven, Reddit-driven community of people.”

It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to appreciate why UBI would be rallying cry so effective that even unwanted supporters would flock to your cause. Everyone likes money. But there might be something deeper going on. After all, the current president ascended to power largely by stoking fears about immigration-based job displacement and instilling a false sense that “white identity” is imperiled. In the aggressively individualistic and capitalistic country we live in, losing a job and losing an identity can be one-in-the-same. Like the president, Yang goes out of his way to speak to these anxieties.

There are other, darker reasons UBI appeals to proponents of immigration restriction, as the recent Mother Jones story noted. While there’s no evidence to suggest this would be the case, nationalists argue that UBI would draw starker lines between citizens and non-citizens, and make living in the country more unaffordable, and therefore unattractive, to immigrants who wouldn’t qualify for the dividend.

Again, Yang disavows this support, and speaks often of his immigrant parents and the importance of offering a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented. And to his credit, Yang has likely accomplished more than any long-shot contender could ever hope to achieve: By being on the debate stage alone, he’ll ensure that UBI is discussed. The more traditional candidates have also already begun to embrace some UBI-adjacent policies, including New York Senator Kirstin Gillibrand’s jobs guarantee and New Jersey’s Senator Booker, who has proposed a mass cash transfer of his own in the form of “baby bonds.”

Finally, while Yang may have attracted a number of dubious supporters, his fears of technological disruption and urgent need for solutions are hardly misplaced. Just this month, a pair of new research papers by leading labor economists found that, actually, automation isn’t creating enough jobs to make up for the ones it kills, and that these trends will accelerate as the U.S. population continues to age. For every supporter Yang has attracted from racist communities on 4Chan, there are likely many more who are simply attracted to Yang’s platform because Yang might be right.

Is Thriving Online Enough to Thrive in the Primaries?

Whether Andrew Yang can actually win, though, is another matter entirely.

For one, universal basic income plays better online than it does in polls. When Gallup conducted a poll on the question of whether Americans would support UBI last year, the polling firm found that slightly more people actually opposed the idea than supported it. Besides, while few would argue that Bernie Sanders didn’t have the best memes during the last election cycle, it still wasn’t enough for him to win either the popular primary count, or the delegate count.

Digital infrastructure like email lists, social media followings, and data analytics are obviously all essential to a campaign. And fire memes do matter, at least up to a point, two veteran digital campaign organizers told Inverse.

Amanda Litman, founder of Run for Something, an organization that teaches young people the mechanics of campaign organizing, says memes can effectively create a sense of inclusion between politicians and their supporters, but that this sense of inclusion is no replacement for being on the ground.

“Memes can accomplish the same thing campaigns have been trying to do for decades. You’re trying to make the voter or supporter feel like part of something bigger, and memes are a marker of ‘I’m in on the joke, and if you agree with me you can be in on the joke too,” Litman tells Inverse. “[But] the people who are loudest on Twitter are not the only ones showing up at the caucuses in Iowa.”

On the other hand, if Yang’s rapid ascent can tell us anything, it’s that the Weird Internet and the Normal Internet are more entwined than ever.

“Clearly there’s something there,” Flaherty, the Democratic digital strategist, tells me. “[Yang] is not like a candidate who is going to miraculously professionalize — he’s going to do things like debate Ben Shapiro. But you can say that in this internet age, that’s the kind of thing you have to do. Maybe it is, and maybe we’re all wrong and maybe he knows something.”