Andrew Yang on America's “very bizarre direction” — and why the two-party system needs to go

Onetime 2020 candidate says his new Forward Party aims to overhaul our voting system and discourage extremism

Published October 22, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Andrew Yang delivers a 20-minute campaign speech at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair August 09, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Andrew Yang delivers a 20-minute campaign speech at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair August 09, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

"We have a very poorly designed system right now that's very, very vulnerable and susceptible to authoritarianism," warned Andrew Yang, the former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, during our recent conversation on "Salon Talks." Yang is not just talking about watching Republicans enact more than 30 laws in 19 states since January to make it harder to vote and even potentially overturn results they don't like.

His point is much broader than that, and more directed at the fact that with only two entrenched political parties in the U.S., it's easier for party leaders to demand blind loyalty from candidates and elected officials, as we see now with Donald Trump's purge of Republicans who dare to criticize him. Secondly, if voters are not happy with one party, the only viable alternative in our current political system is to vote for the other one, which could unintentionally usher in a budding authoritarian or even fascist leader. On top of it all, we've put ourselves in a situation where, as Yang says, "We're incapable of delivering a lot of things that Americans want."

That's a big part of the reason that Yang recently announced he was leaving the Democratic Party and forming a new party called Forward. Yang explained that his goal is twofold: First, to create a political party that is less polarizing and more embracing of different political views. And second, to inspire the creation of even more viable political parties. Yang noted that European democracies such as the U.K. and Germany have multiple political parties, so that if one party embraces authoritarianism, "it's not an existential problem."

Indeed, we saw an example of that in last week's election in the Czech Republic, where various political parties put aside their ideological differences and united in a successful effort to defeat their nation's own version of Donald Trump.

During our conversation, Yang also discussed the surreal nature of going from a regular guy to a presidential candidate whose face would become "tired from making expressions" by the end of the day. He joked, "I'm just grateful to my wife every day that she put up with all this nonsense." Yang also offered a brutally honest critique of our media, the Democratic Party and what he feels is needed to fix our system.

Watch or read my "Salon Talks" episode with Andrew Yang about his new book "Forward: Notes on the Future of Our Democracy" and the current state of politics below.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

So you've broken up with the Democratic Party. You want to see other parties. Actually, you want to form your own party. Let's start there, because that made a lot of news. Why are you breaking up with the Democrats?

If you look at the problems around the country right now, we can't make headway in part because we're so polarized. You have these two extremes that are just clashing and clashing. And so the question is, is that going to get worse or better? It's going to get worse, unfortunately, because that's where all the forces are driving us. In my book, I tried to diagnose why we feel this way, why it is this way and then what we can do to fix it.

I've found a path that could decrease polarization and make us more sane and reasonable. I know that sounds too good to be true. But what you can do is look at Alaska, where Sen. Lisa Murkowski was the only Republican senators who voted to impeach Donald Trump who is also up for re-election next year. Her approval rating among Alaska Republicans is now 6%. This was essentially political suicide.

So why or how did she do it? Last year Alaska changed its primary system to open primaries and ranked choice voting. So now Murkowski, instead of having to go through a Republican primary where she'd certainly lose, because again, 6% approval, can take her case to the entire Alaskan public, where she has a fighting chance. What we have to do is do what they did in Alaska: shift to open primaries and ranked choice voting in states around the country as quickly as possible to free up our legislators, to be able to act and vote their conscience.

One thing I agree with you about is the need for another party. With only two parties, it's a binary choice. It could usher in a Donald Trump or something worse on either side. When you have this binary choice, it could unintentionally usher in a fascist and authoritarian.

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We have a very poorly designed system right now that's very, very vulnerable and susceptible to authoritarianism. And if our founding fathers woke up and saw this, they would be shocked and horrified because they were an anti-partisan. John Adams said that was the greatest fear, that you have two parties. So unfortunately, if one party succumbs to bad leadership, it's in everyone else's best interest to fall in line. And we're seeing that with the Republican Party. It's far too fragile and vulnerable. 

If you look around the world, the U.K. has five parties. Germany has seven parties. Sweden has eight parties. The Netherlands has 18 parties and that's a robust, resilient system where if one party succumbs to terrible leadership it's a problem, but it's not an existential problem. Right now we can see just how vulnerable the system is. It behooves us to try and move towards a more multipolar, genuine democracy as quickly as possible, if only to solve the threat ofn authoritarianism.

The question that comes to everyone's mind is the practicality. You're forming a new party, Forward. Who do you hope joins this party? How do you build the infrastructure? Are you going to spend time investing in Forward? 

This is my jam. I'm happy to say that the Forward Party welcomes registered Democrats, registered Republicans and Independents. It's a popular, inclusive movement to try and change the incentives to make it so that more parties are possible. Right now, it's very, very hard to not be one of the two major parties and have any chance of contending or winning a race because of the closed primary system. If we shift to open primaries and ranked choice voting, that will hopefully give rise to different points of view. I don't want three parties, to your point, Dean, I want five parties, seven parties. What's funny is that the Forward Party itself is a movement to enable more parties to emerge.

RELATED: Sorry, haters: Ranked-choice voting produced the most diverse city council in NYC history

Let's talk about your book, "Forward: Notes on the Future of Our Democracy." A lot of it is really a blunt look at what it was like to campaign, your view of the media, social media and big money in politics. During that whole time when you were out there on the road campaigning for president, did you learn something about yourself that was unexpected?

I learned a ton, Dean. I was just an anonymous civilian three years ago, then I raised my hand be like, "I'm running for president of the United States." I tried to share what that was like. I'm mean, it was a journey. I'm so grateful to the people who helped support the campaign, but it was a real gauntlet. It was a gauntlet for me personally. I'm just grateful to my wife every day that she put up with all this nonsense. I learned a ton about myself, for sure. And hopefully I can make use of what I've learned. I tried to share it in the book. I was genuinely trying to share the lessons learned.

One of those lessons about big money in politics. On the left and the right, we all agree that big money in politics is corrupting. You had an example, in New Hampshire, the McIntyre-Shaheen Dinner, where you had to pay $100,000 to buy a list, to be able to speak at the dinner there. My jaw dropped. Tell people a little bit about that, because it's legalized bribery. And I'm not picking on the New Hampshire Democrats. This is all over the country in early primaries.

The New Hampshire Democratic Party has a major event, and the major Democratic candidates want to speak there, obviously. One of the conditions was that you had to buy their list, which cost $100,000. And so this was presented to me as a candidate. They said, "Hey, they want us to buy this list to speak." And then I said, "Well, is the list handy?" And then they were like, "Unclear." I'm like, "What?"And he was like, "Not sure if it's worth the money."And then I looked at it. I said, "Well, we don't seem to have a choice. So go ahead and pay him. Let's hope the list actually is fruitful." That's just something that happens in party politics.

What do we do about the corrupting influence of big money? 

You know what's funny? I actually see that particular example as a relatively mild or modest abuse in the scheme of things. I mean the worst part is when the corporations are pumping in tens of millions of dollars to try to keep us from lowering drug prices. I mean, stuff like that is actually super-destructive. The solution I propose in the book is that, look, it's going to be very hard to get money out of politics. So let's get money in. And what I proposed is that we give every American 100 democracy dollars. You can do whatever you want. And then that would wash out, or at least counterbalance, the corporate money and make it so that everyone is like a discerning investor of their 100 democracy dollars. This has been done in various municipalities to very positive effect.

That's an ingenious way to approach it, as opposed to amending the Constitution to get rid of Citizens United or barring dark money in politics. Another thing you talk about in your book is your revelations and learning about our media. For example, if you got emotional or danced, you got a lot of media coverage, but when you talked about substantive policy, not so much. You also touch on MSNBC and your frustration with them, which was palpable in the debates.

So you do a lot of things as a presidential candidate to try and get attention. And most of it does not work at all. And what I mean by this is that you go to a forum where every presidential candidate has to show up. And because everyone shows up, it doesn't really help any of you, really. There were a couple of viral social media moments, like me crowd surfing, or me crying, or me dancing the Cupid Shuffle, that ended up breaking out and breaking through the noise. And the first of them was accidental. Then over time you start detecting a bit of a pattern. But part of it is that you're on the road away from your family, four or five days a week, just driving around in a rental car. You can either be miserable or you can try and find joy in it. I tried to find joy in it. And then it turned out that that humanity ended up being one of the assets of the campaign. Then my team was like, "Do more, do more."

You also talk about how, on a personal level, every day on the campaign trail is like a birthday party for you. Can you share a little bit about what that means? How does that affect your own psyche after a while?

What I meant was that you go into a gathering of people and they're all there for you and you're grateful, and then you give a speech. And that's the kind of thing you might do at your birthday party, but it's every day, multiple times a day. It does mess with you because you become a bit of a robot, which is funny because that sounds like a very human thing. It's expressing gratitude, but you're just put in positions where you have to perform over and over again.

At the end of the day, my face actually was tired from making expressions. And maybe part of it is that I'm kind of an introverted guy, really. Being that out there consistently every day was a struggle. But it also does mess with your humanity, because you're surrounded by people that theoretically work for you, but really they're telling you what to do a lot of the time. I think that this is one of the underrated aspects of why our politicians seem so robotic, is that they're surrounded by dozens of people who would rather lose professionally than do something embarrassing or high variance. I want to go on the record and say, if I were an NFL coach of a bad team, my team would be doing crazy stuff all the time. You know what I mean? But that's not the way political professionals are

It's funny you mentioned that you're introverted. I met you early on in the presidential cycle through a mutual friend and you came to the studio. I interviewed you for my radio show. You were quiet at the beginning and you warmed up as the interview went on, because we spent about 45 minutes together. And then, flash forward, I saw you on the campaign trail. I went to New Hampshire the night before the primary and saw you speak in the arena and you were like a professional wrestling promoter. You had so much energy.  Was that trial and error, or did they sit you down and go, "This is what you have to do on stage." 

It was more trial and error than anything. They would show me footage of myself, and I'd be like, "Oh, I didn't think that's the way I came across." And then I would do something else. And then if I did something that people liked or my team liked, then maybe they would show me that and be like, "Do that again." You wind up iterating. It's one reason why it was a good thing that I got started early because I could trial-and-error it up in 2018. By the time 2019 rolls around, maybe I'm a little bit better. But, thank you, Dean. I mean, you were one of the few people that gave me a hearing early on and I really appreciated it.

I would often talk about Universal Basic Income on my show afterwards, including the idea of doing it as an experiment in, say, a depressed area of the country. Then of course during COVID it became a national thing. Your name was trending on Twitter. Did you go like, "Look, I told you I had the answers, folks."

We managed to take this case to the American people. Because that was, itself, kind of unlikely. The same way that I helped bring Universal Basic Income to people's attention, I want to bring open primaries and ranked choice voting to people's attention because our incentives right now are to turn against each other and to become more and more inflamed. And it's going to get worse, not better. 

If you change the incentives so that people have to appeal to the general public and build coalitions, and there's no spoiler effect, so you can't cajole someone and be like, "Oh, you're going to mess it up," it would be so much better for our political culture or dynamism. It would make us more resistant to authoritarianism. It sounds wonky, but open primaries and ranked choice voting are the answer. And there are 24 states in our country where you can make them happen via ballot initiative. It turns out there's nothing in the Constitution about political parties. All of this is at the state level, so we can make it happen if enough of us get together.

How concerned are you about where we are as a nation right now, in terms of our democracy being under threat and the divide in this country? 

We can all see it and feel it, Dean. One thing I'm trying to convey to people is that, at this point, everything is on the table. What I mean by that is some of the nastiest, most unthinkable things you can imagine are realistic possibilities. That's the way we should be approaching things. And hopefully you can actually turn that to the positive, too, where maybe unthinkably positive things could be possible too, like giving everyone money, like building a more vibrant multipolar democracy. Let those good things be on the table too, because the bad things are 100% realistic possibilities.

In the latter part of your book, you give policy prescriptions. Do you think UBI, Medicare for All, these policies that have broad support could be also a part of the antidote, along with ranked choice voting? Is policy also a way of bringing us together as a nation?

I dearly hope so, because most Americans agree on some of the things you just described. Lower drug prices, I think, is like 80% or whatnot. So really the problem is the mechanics of our system that don't give the people what we want. If you change the mechanics, then we can deliver on health care for everyone, on basic income, on lower drug prices, on these things that most of us want. That's really one of the big takeaways from my book, that it's not working because the system is designed to fail us. You have to work on the system itself. 

When you get into it, what someone tries to do is someone tries to gin you up again, like, "No, no, these other Americans are the problem. Help us fight them." And I get that. I mean, there's an aspect of that. But the tough thing is, for a very significant body of our legislators, keeping an issue around is more beneficial to them than solving it. You can look at immigration as an example where Marco Rubio was like, "Hey, let's have a compromise." And all of a sudden got shot down. If they were to actually reach some kind of compromise, they'd probably lose their jobs. So, that's the incentive that we have to change.

What do you think about what's going on in Congress now, as the Democrats try to deliver on a bill that has lower prescription drug prices, which as you point out, nearly 90% of Americans support. Nearly 90% support expanding Medicare to cover dental and hearing. You've got 70% supporting the idea of federally funded pre-K and family leave. These are wildly popular. We're actually having a fight with just a few Democrats. I'm not going to say "Democrats in disarray" — it's a few Democrats standing up and preventing this. Is not delivering on these things also potentially ushering in an autocratic leader?

It's very, very dispiriting that some of these measures are stalled. Some of them are, as you say, almost uniformly popular. It's a sign of how broken our system is. Democrats have to do all the lifting because if a Republican were to try and reach across the aisle and compromise again, they'd probably lose their job because they have to try and placate the 20 percent most extreme voters in their community. It's all hanging on by a thread.

Even this meager majority that the Democrats have was contingent upon 15,000 people in Georgia not voting for David Perdue and pushing him over the threshold to avoid a runoff. I mean, this entire thing is so close. I was in Georgia during that time trying to help push the Senate over. That's one of the things that led me to this conclusion that we need to shift to something that's not so bifurcated, because right now we're incapable of delivering a lot of things that Americans want.

You write in your book about social media being destructive to young people and to our democracy. Again, you're a problem-solving guy, you tout yourself as that. What would you suggest in terms of social media?

My bright idea is to offer ad-free versions of every social media network and then graduate Americans to those ad-free networks. Imagine making everything, instead of YouTube,  a little bit more like Netflix, where it's a subscription and the rabbit holes aren't as deep and you're not being subjected to some of the messages. That to me would be the kind of measure that would be very popular. I mean, who loses in that?

It would also diminish the market-based incentives around our data. I'm a huge fan of the California legislation that provided more protection for people's data. Our data is being sold and resold for over $200 billion a year. It's bad for our mental health. It's bad for our democracy. We're not seeing a dime of it. We're being treated like rats in a maze. It's making us miserable. It's turning us against each other. It's also making us more vulnerable to foreign actors who just want to mess with us. I heard that three of the top 10 evangelical Facebook groups are fabrications of foreign governments that are just there to foment discord.

I know you're an optimistic guy. I'm an optimistic guy. Besides ranked choice voting, what do you say to people watching who follow politics, they might not be Democrats or Republicans, they might be more progressive at their essence, they might be more moderate, whatever it might be. What do we do to move our nation forward in a positive way?

Take it from a guy who lost a ranked choice voting election! Ranked choice is genuinely just a better system because it enables you to express your preference. You don't have to worry about wasting your vote. It should discourage negative campaigning. It makes it so that if someone has a niche issue that only 5 to 10% of people care about, the winning candidate will be very interested in that issue because it'll help them build their coalition. This is an upgrade to our current voting system that is leading us in very, very bizarre directions.

I'm going to use a concrete example. If the Republicans were using ranked choice voting in 2016, Trump probably does not win the nomination because he was getting 35 to 40% of the votes, but he wasn't getting 51%, and all the other candidates were splitting up the rest. This is a way we can actually reward folks who have broader appeal, who are less inflammatory and divisive. Right now, politics rewards you if you can gin up the 25 to 30% who are the most extreme people. That is not what we want in leadership, or certainly in positions of power.

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By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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