Reasons for optimism #1: Andrew Yang
Most Americans are tired of extremism; the media can help give them a voice
You’re reading the My News Biz newsletter, which I send every Thursday. My goal is to help digital media entrepreneurs find viable business models.
Why write about "reasons for optimism" when so much is going wrong in our politics, economy, and environment? Optimism gives us confidence we can make things better. As I like to say, it’s another day of opportunity.
If you are one of those who actively avoid reading the news because you are tired of politics and politicians, I give you Andrew Yang.
He was an unsuccessful candidate for president in 2020, and an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of New York City in 2021. Yet he remains an optimist about politics and the possibilities for a less polarized society. Otherwise, he might not be working to help achieve it.
In an interview on economist Steven D. Levitt’s podcast, People I (mostly) admire, Yang described what he learned about working on politics from the inside. He decided we needed to have a new political party, the Forward Party, with new incentives. Its motto: “Not left. Not right. Forward.”
Yang is a lawyer and business person. He is the son of Taiwanese immigrants and majored in economics and political science at Brown University. He acquired a law degree from Columbia University. He outlines his experiences in politics and the reasons for founding the Forward Party in his memoir, Forward: Notes on the Future of Our Democracy.
Yang’s comments in this newsletter are excerpted from Levitt’s interview of Yang, and are taken out of sequence in order to focus on the discussion of politics. The emphasis in boldface is my own.
An inclusive political party
LEVITT: Your latest undertaking is starting a third political party called the Forward Party. What’s that all about?
YANG: Well first, let me say the Forward Party is inclusive. You can be a registered Democrat, or registered Republican, or certainly an Independent and join the Forward Party and not change your registration. But what the Forward Party is about was my reckoning, Steve, with the fact that our system right now is set up to fail us, and it will fail us because of incentives.
And what I try and draw out for people is that right now the U.S. Congress has an approval rating of 28 percent, which is probably not shocking to listeners. You’re like, “Yeah, that’s about right.” The reelection rate for individual members is around 94 percent. In 83 percent of the congressional districts, it’s very safely blue or very safely red. So, if you get through your primary, you win and that’s how you get reelected.
So, the incentives for the vast majority of our legislators are to placate and please the most extreme 10 to 20 percent of partisan and hyper-partisan voters and then you keep your job.
You layer on top of that media organizations that separate us into ideological camps, which we know is happening, and then you have social media pouring gasoline on the whole thing, where the more sensationalist and inflammatory you are, the more energy you get.
And that is why we are being set up for strife, dysfunction, political violence, and potentially, a new version of a civil war. And I wish that was hyperbolic, but I don’t believe it is. A lot of people know this. It’s just for whatever reason in American life, we don’t think we can change it. And what I am contesting is that we not only can change it, but we must change it, if we’re going to have any kind of future that we’re excited about.
Appeal to young people
LEVITT: So, my teenage son, Nick, was an early and fervent supporter of yours. And that’s how I first heard about you, even before you went on the Freakonomics podcast. And I was surprised by his interest in you because he’s never paid any attention to politics before. Do you have the feeling that that was a lot of your support, coming from outsiders, in a sense, people who weren’t really political by nature?
YANG: Oh my gosh, yes. And I cannot tell you how many people your age or older said to me, “It’s my son or my daughter,” or in some cases, even, “my grandson or granddaughter that got me into you,” where the campaign struck a chord with outsiders, but young people in particular, where they thought, “Wow, this person reminds me of me,” or, “This person seems like someone I can relate to.” And that started with the younger generation and worked its way up. So, please thank your son for me . . . .
So, one of my discoveries that I try and detail in the book is that all politics is tribal. And that the way I communicate and think in terms of facts, and solutions, and technology, and reason — I ended up discovering a new political language that spoke to you and your son, and a body of other Americans, many of whom were not traditionally political, many of whom were not terribly partisan. And that group of people, I believe, can be the solution to the dysfunction and the problems that we see . . . .
The Democrat and Republican parties were virtually ideologically indistinguishable until the 1960s. This polarization that we’re experiencing now is unusual, shall we say, where now 42 percent of both Democrats and Republicans viewed the other side as mortal enemies or evil.
And so, I called this the Forward Party, one, because you have to activate a new tribe around this movement. And number two, because ideally, you activate some of the 62 percent of Americans who say they want an alternative to the duopoly. So, this could be Libertarians, it could be Green Party, anyone who’s fed up. In a way, the Forward Party is the party to enable multiple parties to compete on a national stage or a local stage . . . .
The dysfunction of the duopoly is clearer than it’s ever been. We’re either going to ride this duopoly to ruin and political violence and strife at a scale that most of us would find unimaginable, or we’re going to change it. I’m going to say it’s un-American to think that we cannot actually evolve and reform and advance. Are we not the home of entrepreneurship and the pioneering spirit? If our system is broken down to this level, can we not change it? . . . .
After you enter politics and then you achieve a certain level of success — really that there’s just money around you — then you end up with professional-type staffers. And the professional-type staffers really don’t want you to be honest. I liken it to a lot of N.F.L. coaches, where a lot of professional staffers would rather that you lose acceptably than that you do anything that might end up making their resume more difficult later. And so, any politician who’s been in the field for a while has been burnt where they said something that was off-script. Everyone got mad at them, including their team. And then their team was like, “Never do that again.” And then the politician’s like, “Okay, okay. I’m never going to do that again.” And that’s why our politicians all seem interchangeable and robotic because they’ve been instructed in a certain way.
Solution: ranked-choice voting and open primaries
Yang: [Ranked-choice voting] discourages negative campaigning because if I trash you, we both look bad, and then the third candidate benefits. It rewards coalition builders and people who are more reasonable because everyone’s like, “Eh, I kind of like that person. They’re not a jerk.” If you’d had ranked choice voting during the Republican primary of 2016, Trump probably does not win because he’s getting 30, 35, 40 percent of the vote, but he’s not getting 50.1 percent of the vote. And then the other candidates were splitting up the remainder. So, [ranked-choice voting] tends to reward candidates that have broad appeal and be less positive towards candidates who can really excite some people and then really turn off an equivalent number or even a greater number.
When asked about the Forward Party's key principles, Yang started with what he believes is the most important one.
YANG: Grace and tolerance, which is just that other Americans are not our enemies. The enemy, the true enemy, is a system that is tribalizing us, and turning us towards the next civil war, really. And so, the Forward Party is about the opposite of that. It’s like, “Look, you can agree with me, disagree with me. You’re worth just as much as I am. And with that spirit, then we’d have a chance at a different approach to politics that, by the way, doesn’t profit from making you angry or depressed.
I don't know about you, but I found Yang's conversation with Levitt to be generally a cause for optimism. He recognizes the problems with our politics, both from the inside and the outside. He gives some perspective on the news media and how it could play a more productive role in society. Finally, he offers some solutions that are not all that radical. They seem doable to me.
Note: This newsletter article is based on an article on my website, Entrepreneurial Journalism.
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