On Sept. 1, erstwhile Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang will pay a virtual visit to St. Olaf College’s portion of Minnesota flyover country, and you are all invited. This will be an exciting moment for our college, state, and region. While he dropped out of the presidential race last February and is now an energetic and enthusiastic supporter of Joe Biden, Yang’s ideas and personality continue to play a prominent role in the campaign. Indeed, it may be that Yang today is a more influential voice than he was when he was a candidate for the presidency. “We are all now seemingly Yang Gang,” Washington policy analyst Chris Krueger is reported to have proclaimed last May in reference to the overlap between Yang’s proposals for a universal basic income (UBI) and the post-pandemic stimulus packages debated and implemented by the federal government.
Yang’s policy chops certainly have a lot to do with his prospects for future political employment. He is in ongoing conversation with the Biden campaign about policy matters, and there are rumors of a possible Cabinet appointment or even a run for mayor of New York a year from now. In his books, articles, speeches, interviews, debates, and podcasts, Yang has offered a wonk’s paradise, a cornucopia of novel or newly synthesized ideas grounded in rigorous evidence-based analysis and rich entrepreneurial experience — ideas such as 1) the “Great Displacement” of American workers by automation and the creation of a “permanent shadow class,” 2) a “freedom dividend” (Yang’s version of UBI) paying $1,000 per month to all citizens over 18 years of age, 3) new standards for measuring the economy like “childhood success rates” or “proportion of elderly in quality care,” 4) a “data dividend” that compensates citizens for commercial use of private data, and 5) a digital “social credit” system with “time as the new money” operating in a refurbished “human” capitalism. Yang presents these and a host of other provocative ideas as integral to his vision of a national economy and community radically transformed to meet the exigencies of the age.
But there is something else about Andrew Yang that has struck a chord with many in this election season. He was a different kind of candidate and has been a different kind of presence in the campaign since the termination of his candidacy.
He is a person who, in the spirit of constructive engagement, has been willing to say things that risk annoying his supporters, one who has tried to break the bonds of political polarization with calls to comprehend the other side or with pleas to resist the very natural, human tendency to respond to offense with acrimony and hostility. Sometimes he’s articulated these calls and pleas in less than artful or elegant ways. On occasion he’s tripped and worried the very Asian-American community he embodies and represents as Taiwanese-American. Now and then his generally endearing sense of humor has prompted for some a stereotypical joke too far (e.g., when he said, “We need to do the opposite of much of what we’re doing right now, and the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math. So let me share the math.”) Yet in all of this, one discerns in Yang a genuine compassion for the dispossessed and a deep desire to get beyond the vituperative conflicts of political partisanship for the sake of promoting the common good and delivering our nation from the historical crisis in which it finds itself.
I direct the Institute for Freedom and Community at St. Olaf College, and this is exactly what we are trying to do: challenge presuppositions, question easy answers, and foster constructive dialogue among those with differing values and contending points of view. That’s not an easy task on a college campus — or anywhere — and it’s even harder in our current political climate. But Yang’s ideas and approach give us a good place to start.
Edmund Santurri is the Morrison Family Director of St. Olaf College’s Institute for Freedom and Community. He will lead the conversation with Andrew Yang on Sept. 1. More information can be found at institute.stolaf.edu.
WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?
If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, see our Submission Guidelines.)