Andrew Yang is Beating the Odds – Feels like Déjà vu

Op Ed By Haney Hong

Now that Andrew Yang has made the cut for the third Democratic debate, those media commentators who are so quick to dismiss him need to remember the last race for president -- and the lessons it taught us.

Andrew Yang

As the outsider Democratic candidate for president, Yang has something different — something appealing. Apparently, there are large segments of center-left voters thirsting for new ideas. They’ve gotten frustrated with the boring and worn talking points of the liberal old guard.

The current Democratic nomination process feels a bit like the last Republican one. Back then, candidate Donald Trump represented something different. He was an outsider. He never held elective office. He kept inching through the nomination process despite a lot of media and politico insiders dismissing him.

Like Trump did then in the GOP, Yang has now beat some of the Democratic old guard to get this far in the race.

You have to give him credit that he has out-fundraised the Kirsten Gillibrands and Bill de Blasios of the Democratic world. And people seem to like Yang; his polling numbers are small but going up.

I'm one of those Americans who finds Yang interesting. Some of it probably has to do with the fact that he’s Asian, and I’m Asian, too. Even though I’ve never met the guy, I’m liking him because I presume we share some values. I imagine that he has struggled with the same East versus West tensions I have faced.

  • How do we balance the community-focused Confucian culture in the household with the ruggedly individual “invisible hand” culture of America?

  • How do we respect our elders when our elders sometimes make really bad choices?

  • Or even more basic: do we ask non-Asian guests to take their shoes off in my house when many are not used to doing so? Asking someone to take off their shoes, is that odd?

I also get excited about the prospect of a Chinese American as the leader of the free world. Imagine Yang bravely facing the Chinese man who wants to be leader of whatever world the Chinese Community Party is creating. As someone who has served in the military, I worry about what we need to do to keep the peace.

I contemplate what putting a President Yang across the table from a Chinese President Xi Jinping could tell the world about the choices they face. When two men look alike, then it isn’t about the color of skin — but rather the ideas they represent. Yang's ideas are better.

But that's just me. It doesn’t explain why Yang seems to be appealing to a wide swath of Americans. Most voters aren’t Asian, so shared values really don’t make a difference for them. And, I imagine, most voters aren’t thinking about China when they cast their ballots.

Yang is appealing to Jane and Joe Q. Public because — like Trump — he’s not a politician. He skipped the neck tie in the second debate, and then joked about how the pundits would probably comment on that. He cried on national television when thinking about the victims of the El Paso shooting earlier this summer. He wears “MATH” hats: Make America Think Harder! And he doesn’t care that some might think MATH is a play on an Asian stereotype. He’s got bigger things to discuss.

He’s throwing out some provocative ideas, like universal basic income. He talks about trends like automation, and he’s not letting the paternalistic political consultant class convince him that that word is polysyllabic and too much for Americans. He’s not talking about divisive issues like race and bussing. He’s not making unrealistic promises about jobs for all. He doesn’t talk like a politician – like just about everyone else left in the Democratic lineup.

With Yang – as with Trump – we can see that never serving in elective office is no longer a liability. It's become a major asset.

It is okay to play yourself on TV and radio. Americans are tired of being treated like numbers in someone’s fancy pants political calculus. We are excited about something different, something new.

This is déjà vu. Of course, Yang has a tough road ahead to win the nomination. And a lot can change between this moment and next year. Still, we know this much: he's not going away. He is going to be sticking around for awhile. For that, Americans should be thankful.