Illustration by iggdeh
For the past few years, New York City has been a source of hope for left-wing politics in America. We have two members of the “squad,” with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman representing the Bronx. Progressive primary challengers ousted a slate of conservative state senators who caucused with the Republicans (known as the IDC) in 2018. Radical organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America see a skyrocketing increase in their active membership and now hold more sway than traditional entrenched Democratic clubs. Additionally, in 2019, we finally started seeing Democratic lawmakers reject big Real Estate, with the New York City delegation passing laws that increase tenant protections. We even saw New Yorkers take on the richest man in the world and shut down the plan to develop Amazon HQ2 in Queens.
But like a pendulum that swings all the way to the left, political energy can also swing back to the right. And so, although Progressives in New York have been enjoying a series of victories, ominous signs point to a right-wing future in New York. It’s not that New Yorkers are more conservative than before. Instead, the corporate forces that want to push back against the recent progress in New York City have become more shrewd and like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, are trying to fool progressive voters.
Case in point: the Democratic Primary for New York City mayor is less than two months away, and millionaire entrepreneur and failed presidential candidate Andrew Yang leads in every single poll. While espousing some left-wing views, Yang is running to push the political pendulum back to the right in NYC. Aided by former Bloomberg staffers and dark money, Yang is building a winning coalition by duping progressive voters with false promises while pushing forth a reactionary agenda meant to serve the wealthiest among us.
At first, I was optimistic about Yang entering into the mayoral race. As an Asian-American myself, I would like to see more people who look like me be my representative in power. I was also more defensive of Yang when some criticized him for “Not being a real New Yorker.” Whether his mistake that the A train goes to the Bronx or his inability to tell if a store is small enough to be considered a bodega, the objections seem relatively trivial. I can easily imagine the average New Yorker making similar flubs. Moreover, as Asian New Yorkers are often perceived as outsiders who don’t belong, the attempt to attack Yang for “not being part of us” smacks of anti-Asian xenophobia.
Additionally, the criticism seemed to lack any policy substance concerning the issues that New Yorkers face. When the number of unemployed is twice as bad in New York City as the rest of the country, and as millions struggle to pay rent, people don’t have the leisure to decide who they will vote for based on non-policy issues. Even the charge that Yang has never voted in a mayoral election is less of a jab at the candidate himself than an indictment of a system that failed to excite voters to participate in the electoral process. If anything, it may be an advantage that Yang is not part of an entrenched system that the other candidates in the field have long been a part of.
And that’s one reason for Yang’s allure: he excites people who don’t typically vote. When Yang ran for President in the 2020 cycle, his base consisted of many first-time voters. Wearing a tieless blazer with a cap that read “MATH” on it, he attracted more supporters than many other experienced presidential candidates because he didn’t act like a politician. When saying that people should vote for him because “An Asian man who likes math” was “the opposite of Donald Trump,” Yang did something most politicians are incapable of doing: making people laugh. When he did a crowd surf at a rally during his presidential run, he may have made himself look like a joke to the other “serious candidates,” but it made him more relatable to non-voters. Other attributes of his profile, like the simple fact that he is a decent piano player, add to his personality and make him less two-dimensional.
But that is not Yang’s main appeal. Ask any member of the Yang Gang, and they will most likely tell you that his signature policy of a universal basic income is the number one reason they supported him for President. According to Yang, during his Presidential run, the big problem is that automation will replace more and more American jobs. His solution was to give every American adult $1,000 a month. Rather than building a social safety net and fixing our inadequate welfare system, Yang understood that rebranding direct cash payments from the government as a “Freedom Dividend” would appeal to voters. Yang probably discovered what many politicians have realized when looking at polls: most Americans are against welfare but favor programs that alleviate poverty. Branding matters. Just as many voters react negatively to “Obamacare” yet more positively to “the Affordable Care Act” (even if they are the same thing), a lot depends on how a politician packages an idea. Yang understood that American voters can maintain the contradiction of disliking something called “welfare” while still wanting it to exist in all but in that ugly name. Yang’s presidential campaign wouldn’t have gone very far if he ran on “Welfare for all.” But a “Freedom dividend” hit the spot.
Yang’s ability to communicate his policy in a catchy language is his greatest strength. He is not running with the hope that voters will pore over his website and carefully examine his laundry list of plans. Instead, he is counting on the idea that when people think of Yang, they will automatically think, “an extra grand in my pocket every month.”
However, one of the criticisms opponents directed at Yang that I now think resonates is that he is a “Mini Trump.” It may be unfair to compare an Asian man to a maniacal White Supremacist like Trump on the surface. But there is one significant similarity between the two men: they are both populists.
Now, I’m not an anti-populist. I supported Bernie Sanders, who I considered to be a left-wing populist. But throughout history, left or right, we see a series of common tendencies to populism. Populist leaders create and sustain an energetic, cult-like base by railing against “the political establishment,” projecting themselves as part of the “common people,” and cultivating the idea that they “cannot be bought.” Whether from Bernie, Yang, or Trump, we see tactics from the same populist playbook: they all appeal to voters by making grandiose promises wrapped in a snappy signature slogan. Whether it is “Medicare for All,” “Universal Basic Income,” or “Drain the Swamp,” reducing policy to a simple catchphrase makes it easy for people to remember and associate with that candidate.
So let’s look at Yang’s signature policy: the UBI. Thanks to the two-year odyssey that presidential campaigns have now become, people already associate Yang with the promise of an extra $1k every month. And this has undoubtedly given him a leg up in the New York mayoral election. Voters will be apt to assume his “Basic Income” plan for NYC will be something along the lines of the promise he made in his presidential campaign. But as mayor, Yang will not have the ability to give every New Yorker $1k every month, nor has he actually promised to do so. Yang’s current plan is to provide $2,000 per year to 500,000 New Yorkers “living in extreme poverty.” Although I am not against direct cash payments to alleviate poverty, this solution is a far cry from his presidential promise. $2,000 a year works out to about $166 a month. $166 a month is not what he brashly advertises in his ad as “Martin Luther King’s dream of a guaranteed minimum income.”
On top of that, Yang’s basic income plan for NYC would also cut so-called “inefficiencies” in the social safety net like homeless services that people won’t be able to receive if they get a basic income. Under Yang, welfare programs that disperse more than just $166 a month individually for the poor could be gutted. But that’s not what most New Yorkers know. Yang is counting on people mistaking his presidential promise as a policy proposal as mayor.
Go to Yang’s website. Prominently displayed on the front page, he promises to launch “the largest basic income program in history.” But go to his policy section, and buried deep under the category of “Featured Policy Cash Relief & Covid Recovery,” you will find five additional links at the bottom of the page. There, you finally reach a section called “A Basic Income for New York City.” Once you click on that link, it will take you to the fine print: more than five paragraphs in which you will discover that the Basic Income plan only targets 500,000 people and that it will only be $2k a year. If someone reads just the top page of Yang’s website and sees “the largest basic income program in history,” that reader is likely to get the impression that Yang is promising much more than $166 a month to a limited number of people. And if that visitor to the website is familiar with Yang’s presidential campaign, they could not be blamed for assuming that Yang plans to deliver something more akin to the UBI.
Yang’s ability to deceive the casual voter while irritating the person who will take the time to read his proposals leads to another populist tendency working in his favor. According to historian Michael Kazin, populists often strive “not to inspire but to incite.” They are popular because they trigger a political group that’s unpopular with their supporters. When Bernie Sanders didn’t receive the endorsement from then-mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel in the 2016 Presidential primary, Sanders, to enormous cheers from his supporters, deftly made a point of thanking Emanuel for the snub. Similarly, FDR (another left-wing populist) rallied his supporters when he famously said of his opponents that he “welcomes their hatred.” Perhaps the best example comes from Andrew Jackson, who was arguably the first right-wing populist President in our history. When called a “Jackass” by his opponents, Old Hickory blunted the effect of the insult by embracing it and using the donkey as a symbol for the Democratic Party.
Yang is also a candidate that incites more than he inspires. On Twitter, he tries to trigger the Left by casually suggesting, for example, that we should arrest more street vendors or put more police officers in the subways. Not only does this help him trend on social media, but by endorsing reactionary policies that offend a broad portion of his party, he can portray himself as someone the whole political class is out to get. It’s a great way to gain street cred from the non-active voter.
Yang’s stance on Palestine is another case in point. In an attempt to score political points from voters among Orthodox Jewish supporters of Israel, Yang wrote a column in the Jewish Forward. In the op-ed, he characterized the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)” movement, which many on the Left regard as a potent tool against Apartheid in Israel, as “anti-Semitic.” Yang even compared BDS activists to Nazis. (I should remind the reader that a million Palestinian children are currently besieged in Gaza and are forced to drink water more toxic than that of Flint, Michigan. Both former President Jimmy Carter and former deputy South African president Baleka Mbete have called the situation in Israel “worse than Apartheid South Africa.”)
For Yang to compare activists who boycott the brutal occupation of the Palestinians to Nazis is more than just an effort to win the pro-Israel vote in NYC. He is also sending a signal to right-wingers everywhere that, while a Democrat, he is their guy, too, and is not shy about taking on left-wing activists. The critical difference between Bernie Sanders-style left-wing populism and Yang’s right-wing populism is that while the former tries to incite the anger of corporate figures, Yang seeks to incite hatred from the activist base of the Left.
Some of Yang’s proposals almost seem to exist for no other reason than to irritate anyone who has been paying close attention to NYC politics. Plans to build a casino on Governors Island or turning the city into a Bitcoin hub may catch a lot of attention, but Yang probably has no intention to implement them. Like Trump, Yang knows how to play the media game. No press or social media outrage is bad when name recognition is everything.
The tragedy is that the Left can’t seem to take down Yang. Looking at other leading Democratic candidates, it is hard to find one that could thwart his ascendency.
The candidate who is currently polling behind Yang in second place is Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams. Adams, an African American, had to endure police brutality himself when he was young, yet his policing and criminal justice positions are uncomfortably authoritarian. A former NYPD officer, Adams, said in a CBS interview that New York City “should never have removed stop and frisk” and that law enforcement should “use it often.” How “often” is up to interpretation. But during the Bloomberg years, the number of stops of young black men between the ages of 14 to 24 exceeded the entire population of young black men in the city. During that time, young black residents of Harlem would observe a self-imposed curfew on certain nights of the week because they knew when the NYPD had to make their quota. Adams’ approval for this odious police tactic signals that he would be more friendly to the police than current Mayor de Blasio. Adams would be just as much a threat as Yang if he were polling at the top.
Then there is NYC comptroller Scott Stringer, who still polls in third place at the time of this writing. But it was just alleged on April 28th by a former intern from a previous campaign that Stringer committed sexual assault. When he announced, Stringer had liberal bona fides — having won a slate of endorsements from newly elected progressive stars, including Rep. Jamal Bowman, State Senators Julia Salazar, Alessandra Biaggi, Jessica Ramos, and Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou. But all of them backed out their support in light of the recent scandal.
While the allegation of sexual assault remains Stringer’s biggest liability, the progressive stars that endorsed him should have realized that he was an unelectable candidate for mayor long before. Even prior to the scandal, Stringer’s campaign lacked a coherent narrative. Unlike Yang, who reaps the benefits of a catchy policy proposal, Stringer’s signature policy is still a bit of a mystery. As late as February of 2021, he did not have a policy or issues section on his campaign website, despite announcing his decision to run six months earlier. In interviews, Stringer says he wants to bring back small business through a “25-point plan,” as if the average voter even has time to read a single plan. Only people fiercely tuned in to NYC politics will likely pay much attention.
But that seems to be the common problem shared between Stringer and the other candidates, whether it is Maya Wiley, Shaun Donovan, Kathryn Garcia, or Ray McGuire. They all have detailed plans that would impress political wonks. But lack a signature policy proposal that the average voter can summarize in a slogan like “Basic Income.” Their policies might make much more sense than Yang’s. But the voters that will take the time to read their position on incremental changes don’t comprise numbers large enough to win a city-wide election. I already see parallels between the other campaigns battling Yang and Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. Despite having higher qualifications and more impressive resumes, they end up losing to a populist that utilizes soundbites better.
Personally, I’m for Dianne Morales for mayor. I will vote for her mainly because she is the only candidate who favors defunding the police by $3 billion and is against the “Rental Assistance Demonstration” (RAD) conversion that will eventually privatize NYCHA houses. However, I also know that she is a long-shot. Not only does she lack name recognition, but her position on the furthest Left of the field on criminal justice issues may not be electorally beneficial. According to an Emerson poll, when NYC residents were asked, “Which of the following issues should be the next mayor’s first priority?” police reform came in 7th, well behind the need to address the COVID crisis. Only 9% of respondents placed police reform at the top of the list. While polls also show that New Yorkers generally support defunding the police, it is unlikely to determine that many votes come election day. Most people are 1 or 2 issue voters, especially when it comes to politics at the local level.
And this may be the key to Yang’s likely success: a simple, albeit misleading, message. By craftily echoing the “Universal Basic Income” plan of his presidential campaign when a plurality of New Yorkers are worried about economic issues stemming from the pandemic, Yang will attract many voters who are hurting economically. The allure of Yang is that he promises dramatic change. But the danger is that he is fooling decent New Yorkers who are desperate for real progressive change.
Yang will likely win the primary in June. But if he wins, it is because people voted for him. New Yorkers want change, and like clockwork, a populist has come in to exploit people’s desperation. I don’t know if there are ways to keep the pendulum from swinging back to the right. Still, the Left failed to use similar populist tactics of keeping policy proposals exciting and straightforward for non-active voters. We can learn from Yang’s tactics, so in the next mayoral election, we will be better prepared to take him down.
James Taichi Collins is a “Zainichi” Korean-American, born and raised in Wakayama, Japan. He moved to the United States in 2012 to attend college at the University of Delaware, where he received his degree in Political Science and became a community organizer. He has since worked in various electoral races from Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s 2018 primary, to Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign in Iowa. James identifies as a socialist and currently resides in Astoria, Queens.
Read more of James’ work in Mixed Mag:
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