Andrew Yang—a man who has never held public office, nor even voted in a New York City mayoral election—is currently the front-runner in the race to be the city’s next mayor. Why is Yang so popular? And what kind of mayor would he be? On Episode 30 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene discuss the unsettling success and national implications of Yang’s campaign with two guests: Annie Lowrey, who profiled Yang in The Atlantic, and Harry Siegel, who’s written about Yang’s candidacy for the New York Daily News.
Laura Marsh: I’m looking at a picture of a sandwich that strikes me as basically the quintessential Italian sandwich that you can get in New York City. It’s on Italian bread with sesame, and it has these layers of provolone, salami, ham, I think it’s eggplant parm, and the juice from the parm is soaking into the bottom layer of bread and squashing it slightly, and then there are all these condiments. When I saw his picture, I was like, “Oh, the person who got that sandwich knows what they’re doing. They know where to go. They know New York.”
This is a tweet by Andrew Yang, who is running to be mayor of New York, and it’s one of many tweets about excellent food in New York that I’ve noticed in the last couple of weeks. And every time I see these Andrew Yang posts, I’m just like, “Wow, Andrew Yang’s Grub Street diet would be really good.” And that has been my main way into following this campaign for mayor of the city that I live in, which is quite an important job.
Alex Pareene: The primary election for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York is June 22. That election will almost certainly determine who will become the next mayor of New York—the Republicans are really not expected to win, almost no matter who the Democrats nominate.
So today on the show, we’re going to figure out what Andrew Yang is all about. We’re going to get into policy, we’re going to get into local politics, we’re going to try to figure out what his campaign means and what kind of mayor he would be—although that is, I think, an impossible question to answer.
Laura: The first person we’re talking to is Annie Lowrey, who profiled Andrew Yang in The Atlantic, and the second person we’re talking to is Harry Siegel, who has been closely watching Andrew Yang and who knows all the ins and outs of New York politics.
Alex: I’m Alex Pareene. I’m a staff writer at The New Republic.
Laura: And I’m Laura Marsh, the magazine’s literary editor.
Alex: This is The Politics of Everything.
Laura: Before we talk to the experts, one thing that I want to talk with you about is the phenomenon of Andrew Yang. I first heard of him when he was running for president and he was this kind of outside candidate. Since then, it feels like there is this phenomenon of people who are incredibly devoted to him, who will fervently weigh in to any conversation about Andrew Yang online. I just want to get a sense of what this Andrew Yang fandom is.
Alex: The Yang Gang, yeah. I think there are a lot of things that explain it. One is that it’s increasingly, and I think distressingly, common for political figures to have hives of stans.
Laura: There was a K-Hive, there were the Bernie Bros—a misnomer but, nonetheless, same kind of phenomenon.
Alex: I think it’s probably a subject for another episode because I think there’s a lot of things behind that. But with Yang in particular, a lot of things I think explain how he catapulted from being just some guy to being up there on that debate stage to now being the front-runner for mayor of New York. I think it’s his legitimate skills as a politician, and also, he did something smart when he ran for president, which is that he attached himself to one idea that is extremely popular when it’s explained to people, and extremely popular on the internet, and he let that be his brand.
Laura: The idea that he is strongly associated with is UBI, this idea of a universal basic income, which is really popular in Silicon Valley, which is where Yang kind of emerges from, and that’s the idea that he brought to the presidential debates.
Alex: It’s sort of crossing the ideological, because cutting everyone a check appeals to people on the left, it appeals to the Silicon Valley types who have a sort of quasi-libertarian outlook, and it’s an easy-to-explain idea, too. I think the Yang campaign in New York hugely benefits from the popularity of that idea, even if he’s not actually necessarily running on what any reasonable person would call UBI here.
Laura: I know I keep talking about sandwiches and it sounds like I’m obsessed with food, but I feel like a big part of his appeal, apart from the UBI, is that he seems to have a limitless enthusiasm for New York. And I think that you don’t often see that in political campaigns, like a genuine excitement to live in the big city and go to the cool spots. That seems to be a big part of the way he’s presenting it.
Alex: I think a lot of the other candidates really wish they could pull that off. But people aren’t excited to see Kathryn Garcia, the former head of the Department of Sanitation, walk down the street. She doesn’t have strangers run up to her and say they loved her on a podcast. It’s easier to pull off that “I’m having a blast, I love New York” kind of feel when people want to run up and fist-bump you all the time.
Laura: And I think having followed some of the more frivolous aspects of this campaign and the discourse around it, in some ways it’s sort of uplifting, because after a year of pandemic, seeing someone post about sandwiches, seeing them post about CrossFit, it sort of feels relaxing, or it feels like the stakes have been lowered in this way. That’s a huge relief. My whole underlying question or sneaking suspicion is like, is this all just harmless fun? Or are we missing what this campaign is about? Are we missing something really important about the mayoral race in New York? And I think also the phenomenon of Yang supporters goes beyond New York City voters. This is a local campaign, but it’s actually attracting national attention and national interest from people who do not live in New York.
Alex: Including our first guest, Annie Lowrey.
Laura: Annie, thanks so much for coming on the show.
Annie Lowrey: Thanks for having me.
Laura: You wrote about Andrew Yang, and in your piece, you witnessed this dramatic encounter between Andrew Yang and one of his enthusiastic supporters. Can you describe that moment for us and what you think that it shows about the way he interacts with potential voters?
Annie: I followed him around in New York for a few days. He was campaigning pretty heavily. He really is kind of a national-level political celebrity—he gets stopped on the street constantly, in part because he’s walking with a bunch of assistants, all of whom are wearing Yang masks. He loves talking to voters. He stops, he chats with everybody. Also, he was constantly telling people, “Oh, you look so cool.” Granted, New Yorkers really do look cool, but he was always like, “Cool sneaks, amazing streetwear, you look so cool.” Then we were on the Staten Island ferry, I was sitting with him inside the ferry, and there was a Getty photographer named Spencer who was following him around. A guy on the ferry came in and hit the photographer, completely unprovoked, with a walking stick. So they’re scuffling, then the photographer runs back into the ferry, presumably to go find the cops, Andrew Yang comes out, and the guy, the assailant, turns around, and basically just stops and is like, “Andrew Yang, Andrew Yang, I’m a fan,” and starts just jibber-jabbering about UBI. I interviewed the guy afterwards, and he’s been a fan of his since the presidential campaign, knew a lot about his policies, was actually gobsmacked to have met him, kept on thanking him for being there. And they had this very weirdly normal campaign interaction that interrupted this otherwise really awful, completely unprovoked scene of violence.
So that was the incident. And it was—I mean, insofar as it was anything other than one of these weird “only in New York” moments, he is really, really popular. And I think one of his unusual qualities as a politician is that he’s just really sunny and friendly and happy, and slightly seems half-surprised to be there too. And I think people like that, maybe especially given that we’re in this absolutely on all levels apocalyptic moment in American life.
Laura: There’s a lot of excitement around him. How much of it do you think is from the persona? Then there’s also the policies themselves and the excitement about the ideas. What do you think is the core of the appeal policy-wise?
Annie: People know about the UBI thing, which he’s trimmed down from the presidential campaign from being a “freedom dividend” of $1,000 a month to everybody, to its being this much smaller payment to the poorest New Yorkers. So what we’re just talking about, really, is like a welfare payment, a kind of dole, and it’s a really good idea in the sense that you have a lot of New Yorkers who are living in deep poverty. It’s a crisis, and the cost of living in New York is out of control, including for people much higher up the income scale.
So it’s like all these big ideas, but then you’re kind of like, “Well, how would all this work?” And I don’t have any idea. I don’t think anybody does. I don’t think he does, either. His politics are actually a little unusual because you sort of squint, and you’re like, “Oh, he’s maybe a social democrat, maybe a Bernie-type person. He’s pushing all this new spending and unconditional spending, but then it has a very corporatist streak, and he’s basically said that he wants to cut taxes, has all of these, like, pro-business, anti-regulatory policies, and it’s an unusual and pretty unpopular brand of politics that you kind of only see coming from like Silicon Valley. I keep on going back and forth, being like, “Is he really far to the left or really, really stuck in the center?” And I think the answer is “Yes.” Like, I don’t know that you can actually square that circle.
Alex: I would agree with everything you just said. People don’t understand the complexity of the sort of ideology and voter patterns of the New York electorate. Everyone says, “solidly democratic city.” But it contains a lot of populations with a wide variety of views. And Yang’s being, in some sense, especially because he hasn’t been defined by a career in city politics, it allows him to be the “something for everyone” candidate in a way, doesn’t it?
Annie: Yeah, absolutely. And he’s never run for this before. He’s never voted in a New York City mayoral election before. He doesn’t have any history in city politics, and I think that a lot of voters, even the kind of—I hate this term but “high-information voters”—that show up to vote in primaries … the sort of impressionistic sense of him as being a smart guy who knows a lot about math and has big policy ideas and is friendly—like, it’s that impressionistic sense, and I do think that to the extent that people vote kind of emotionally, that’s benefiting him.
Alex: So you wrote that Yang wanted to get back into politics with the goal of accumulating as much personal influence as possible. Is that something he said?
Annie: So he, he actually said this, which was so refreshing. I’ve never had a politician say this to me. He was like, “Yeah, I wanted the biggest and most influential job possible.” There’s this honesty to it that I find sort of admirable and quite shocking. Because I think, if you asked any of the other thousand candidates in the race, they’d be, like, I’ve gone block to block talking to people about what they want. I have really detailed ideas about how New York City changes and what we can deliver. And instead he’s like, “It’s a really big job, and I think I can do great at it.”
Alex: The other candidates aren’t going to admit to you, “Well, I’m running for this job cause I’m term-limited out of the city council,” right?
Laura: Well, this is the thing of this new phenomenon maybe of running for president as a way of getting a different job that is not president. So, I mean, we saw how Bill de Blasio thought that being mayor of New York could maybe make him a credible candidate for president when he ran in the primary. Whereas Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang have run for president and that has led them toward a job in the Biden administration or running for mayor, which seems really counterintuitive. How do you think the two different Andrew Yangs map onto each other—the Andrew Yang who ran as this outside presidential primary candidate who knew he wasn’t going to get the nomination versus actually quite seriously looking like he might be the mayor of New York?
Annie: I think in Yang, you’re seeing this deeply unusual—not unprecedented but unusual—“I’m going to build a national political profile out of, like, nothing.” It’s really shocking that he was able to do it. And he really did because I mean, man, so many, so many people run for president—and you just never hear about it, especially on the single-issue stuff. He’s like, I’m going to take this policy that is never going to happen. And I have this kind of strange justification for it, which is that I think a robot jobs apocalypse [is coming]—that is not currently occurring; we would know if it was coming, I swear—and I’m going to turn that into a national political profile, and he does it. I actually wonder to what extent it will be a model for other people going forward. One trend that I do think this might reflect—there’s just been this whole theory that all politics has become nationalized because of the media environment. I do just wonder whether this will become much more of a model, as opposed to the path that a Bill Clinton or a George W. Bush took.
Alex: I think that’s spot on.
Annie: I think it’s especially interesting on the Republican side, where you have these political celebrities that have really altered the party. I mean, Donald Trump being, obviously the big example here: He really wrenched the party in a direction that not a lot of quote unquote elites in the party wanted to go. He did that with a brand of racist, revanchist politics that they had sort of previously pooh-poohed. It worked, it worked kind of astonishingly. And so I think, going forward, it’s been interesting watching the reaction to, like, a Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Alex: Greene is the member of the House of Representatives from Georgia’s 14th district, the right-wing CrossFit enthusiast and conspiracy theorist who essentially rode right-wing social media to a seat in Congress.
Annie: Who importantly has no political power herself but has built this kind of astonishing national profile by basically just shit-posting. I have no idea how all of this plays out on the chaotic level of national politics—do these people go back and then take these more local positions and keep on playing to that national political audience? You have to presume that this is going to happen a lot more often.
Alex: Annie, thank you so much for talking to us today.
Annie: Thanks for having me.
Alex: So that’s the take on Yang the candidate for mayor from a very talented reporter who happens to be an outsider to New York politics. After a short break, we’ll be talking to someone who’s been following it for years, to get his take on Yang’s campaign.
Alex: Before the break, we were talking with Annie Lowrey about what Andrew Yang’s journey from campaigning for president to running for mayor of New York might augur for national politics. We’re talking now to Harry Siegel, a longtime reporter here in the city, an editor at the Daily Beast, and a columnist for the New York Daily News. Harry, thank you for talking to us.
Harry Siegel: Thanks for having me.
Alex: So, you’re a lifelong new Yorker and you’ve been covering politics in New York for a very long time. Why is Andrew Yang winning? Why is he ahead?
Harry: Look, he has a bunch of name recognition. He banked from running a successful and in some ways appealing campaign for president, and people do different things with that. There are weird different cash-in games. Donald Trump ran for president to get rich and producered himself right into the White House. Mike Huckabee got a Fox show. People will start to figure this out, that there’s just a lot of free TV time there. Andrew Yang, who’d never done that before, realized he’s very good at campaigning and can do a TV thing like a salesman can, and he said, “What else can I do with this?” And there seems to be this opening running for mayor in New York, and he jumps in. He makes a whole bunch of bungles from jump: He left New York City, said, “Can’t imagine anyone staying in a two-bedroom apartment here with two kids. I mean, really dumb stuff and offensive, but he’s nice-seeming and sort of appealing, and the people who have taken shots at him have done a really bad job and, I think, have actually helped him, so that when he shows up and smiles and responds and projects the vaguest level of competence, a lot of these hits sort of redound to his advantage. If you’re cheerful and competent enough and people recognize you from another thing, and they don’t love these other folks, that seems to be a pretty good sell. So, you know, you have no experience, and what you say makes no damn sense, your universal basic income idea that maybe makes sense makes none in the New York context, your basic income thing is just a completely different nonsense that doesn’t apply, it would only go to the very poorest New Yorkers, and I’m not against giving the poorest New Yorkers cash, it’s just that the two things have nothing in common except two of the same words; it sounds like he’s talking about that thing I already liked him from.
Laura: So he is running this campaign, and he’s walked into New York after never having even voted in one of these elections. Who is helping him run? Who are the people behind him?
Harry: He has two campaign managers. Both of them are actually employed by Bradley Tusk’s lobbying and general influence operation.
Alex: Bradley Tusk is a political consultant, among other things. In this context, the most important thing to know about him is that he was one of the main strategists behind Michael Bloomberg’s very controversial third mayoral campaign, in which he won a third term. He founded Tusk Strategies in 2011, and this is a firm that lobbies government on behalf of corporations like Uber, Comcast, Google, Walmart. It’s notable that Yang’s campaign, at the very top level, is being run by people who are currently employees of Tusk Strategies. It’s a campaign that is run out of a lobbying shop. I mean, that’s wild. And that’s not illegal or anything in New York.
Harry: You care, and I care, and we’re both media-elite people with outlets, but it turns out nobody cares what you and I care about here, sadly.
Alex: I’ve come to learn that lesson over the years.
So do you think New York’s business class, which has not been a huge fan of Bill de Blasio, may be wary of the progressiveness of the city council? Do you think that they’re going to consolidate around Yang if he looks like the inevitable front-runner?
Harry: Yes, and Yang is doing everything he can to indicate that he’s reasonably open to them. He says, “Look, you know, we need people working in the city again and back in their offices. I’m going to make that happen.” His policing stuff, as well, which is very Manhattan- and sort of Midtown-oriented, right, is: We’re going to have an order. We sit in a place where your people are going to come back. I’m not saying the disorder or the homeless people who are now living in hotels in different parts of the city are why people aren’t going to work, I don’t think that’s the case, but I think a lot of the business class does. And if you’re trying to sell yourself to them as, “Hey, I’m an amiable guy, we can do business,” that’s a very reasonable approach. And I think he’s absolutely trying to indicate he’s somebody who is up to work with them.
Laura: Yang’s been very proactive about reaching out to all these groups and saying, “I can help. I’m here for you. I’ll be the person who can do business with you.” But he has no experience in government. How do you think he will govern if he’s elected? I mean, what can he really get done? He has all these big ideas, he wants to help everyone, he says. But what’s it actually like to be the mayor of New York city?
Harry: It’s rough, and it shifts a lot day to day. He’s trying to indicate a few ways that he’ll bring in experienced people around him. He mentioned Kathryn Garcia, the very impressive former sanitation commissioner, among many other things for the de Blasio administration, like the one person who left it without egg all over her face, would be his number two, as a way of sort of signifying, I would bring in grown-ups and people who do have this experience. But the main thing he’s trying to do right now is win. Because once you win, you can figure everything else out. And again, he doesn’t know all that much. In my several conversations with him at this point, on and off the record, I find, you ask like your two questions, and he says his stuff, you know, I got it, and that’s a reasonable script. And then you’re like, Well, let me start digging in here, who would actually pay for this, what departments would it be going through? Basic, reasonable, focusing stuff. And he has no idea. And that’s understandable, since he’s never had anything to do with governance in New York or participating here. But it’s worrisome to see just how thin that is and to wonder what that would mean in a mayor. So I can’t really answer that question, but I just feel like in a moment when the city’s in real trouble, people just being like, “Ah, the guy seems nice” and rolling the dice, I don’t know about that. Even if you think everything he does seems nice.
Alex: Similarly to you, I have been struck by the degree to which he just doesn’t seem to know what the job of mayor will entail. My feeling is that a lot of people haven’t been paying much attention, and I think people like you and I have also been saying that for a few months now: “People aren’t paying attention yet, people aren’t paying attention yet.” Are the debates when people will pay attention, or are we just going to sort of sleepwalk into this?
Harry: He’s the guy who has a substantial lead in the polls. No one has started spending their money yet out of the major candidates. So Scott Stringer has $8 million, and Eric Adams has $8 million, and Maya Wiley has $3 million, and Garcia has $3 million, and maybe they have some message or ad that really resonates and breaks through, and people are like, “Oh, that’s the person.” There’s plenty of time for that to happen; something could happen in the debates. But I don’t think the numbers you’re seeing right now are lies, and so you should go on the assumption that Yang is on track to be our next mayor, and there’s no foreseeable event that necessarily changes that; he’ll have his own money to counter-spend.
Back to your question about how he’d govern. If you ask him what he’s going to do in Albany, Andrew Yang likes to talk a lot about how “Pete’s my friend, and Joe’s my friend, and Kamala’s my friend,” which really wounds me, because it’s so stupid. These people aren’t his friends because they were on the campaign trail together. They’re not giving New York billions of dollars for that reason. And if New Yorkers elect a guy as mayor because that’s part of what he’s saying, we deserve everything we get. As to Albany […]—and part of why no one’s paying attention here [is] because Cuomo has his own dickish problems, on multiple fronts, many of them very serious, and that’s drained a lot of attention—that’s where all the power is. The city is just a sad creature of the state. You can’t get anything done without Albany. And all Andrew Yang has to say about that, because he doesn’t know anyone or anything there, “I’ll just show up on TV, and then Andrew Cuomo will do what I say.” It’s like, no, Andrew Cuomo will crush you.
Last thing I’ll say here: So Cuomo has been going on all spring about how this is the spring of renewal for New York. (I’m doing like a fairy dance now.) You say that when you’re a politician because you know you’re fucked if things get worse, and hopefully they’re going to get better, people have the vaccines, and then you can claim credit for it, it was your manly leadership that got us there, right? But he doesn’t know. And Yang in the meantime is saying the same thing, he’s talking about a summer of love, and there are lots of pent-up, slightly crazed, mildly horny New Yorkers who are like, “Yes, that sounds great.” If that happens, they’re not going to be going out having good hookups because Andrew Yang said that. But at the moment, these thin messages from, in Cuomo’s case bad, and in Yang’s case at least dangerous, people are really resonating, and that worries me.
Alex: So I just want to be clear to our audience: If you hook up this summer, Andrew Yang is not the person you can thank for that. Andrew Yang had nothing to do with that.
Harry: Unless you hook up with Andrew Yang, in which case you should contact one of our outlets, and we should talk.
Laura: Andrew Yang has sucked up a lot of the attention that there has been around this race, and major disclaimer for this point, I feel like we are participating in that by doing a whole episode on Andrew Yang. Who should we really be talking about who’s in this race? Who’s worth paying attention to?
Harry: I think Kathryn Garcia is an intelligent, impressive person who’s getting slept on. There’s a Yogi Berra line about some hot spot: “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too popular.” Everyone I’ve talked to who knows New York, from people ranging pretty far left to pretty far right by New York standards, and who knows her, is like, “This woman is impressive.” She’s capable of doing the stuff she says, and the stuff she says is I think very impressive and serious, more than she’s getting credit for. She’s getting sketched in as some sort of a moderate; I think that she’s not projecting language because she’s trying to project competence. Unfortunately, women have had a very tough time raising money in New York, it’s very chicken and eggy with name recognition and money. Maya Wiley is some of the same, but I think she’s someone to take extremely seriously and is more than capable of the job. At a very difficult moment for the city. There are a lot of interesting people here, and there’s been roughly 700 million Zoom forums to date, right? So if people are actually interested or curious, there’s plenty for them to dig into. The issue is none of them have managed to connect to previously checked-out New Yorkers, and maybe having a more substantial message doesn’t help with that, which is why all of us are now talking about this glib candidate who’s just sort of selling “I’m successful because I’m succeeding.” So, you know, what could go wrong?
Alex: Harry, that was very educational. Thank you again for talking to us.
Harry: Hey, nice talking with you guys. Thanks for having me, and keep up the great work at the magazine.
Alex: I think what we’ve learned is you definitely can trust Andrew Yang’s food recommendations. I would eat a sandwich endorsed by Andrew Yang. I’m still a little dubious about voting for him. What do you think, Laura?
Laura: It’s so easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm for New York after a year of stuff being closed down and the city’s being cooped up, and I think that’s why Andrew Yang’s presence as a candidate has really appealed to me. But I feel like, talking to Harry about all the coverage that the media has disproportionately given Andrew Yang, it’s hard not to just stop for a minute and think, “Should we have made an episode about all of the candidates in the race? Should we have made an episode about what New York needs from a mayor in the year when it’s going to be recovering from this global pandemic?”
Alex: I mean, we are obviously part of the problem, as I like to think we regularly acknowledge. But that’s a great point: an episode not about who New York’s mayor should be out of this list of people but about what qualities that person needs to have—maybe that would have been a more honorable use of our time, as much as I enjoyed talking and learning about Andrew Yang this week.
Laura: My fear is that we find out what the job entails the hard way, when someone who isn’t equipped for it gets the job and we’re living with their failures for the next several years.
Alex: It’ll just be more content for future episodes of The Politics of Everything.