The Amherst Political Union (APU) hosted a virtual conversation with 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang, moderated by APU co-presidents Witter Swanson ’21 and Rebecca Wistreich ’21, on Nov. 13. The livestream was attended by over 200 students, alumni and other members of the college community. Responding to questions posed by Swanson and Wistreich, as well as other students and audience members, Yang spoke about topics including his bid for presidency, policy views and goals moving forward.
Not a typical career politician, Yang is an author and entrepreneur, who in 2011 founded Venture for America, a nonprofit that created thousands of jobs in Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore and other cities throughout the country. In his book, “The War on Normal People,” he explains the mounting crisis of the automation of labor and makes the case for the policy he is now most known for — a universal basic income of $1,000 a month for every American.
The conversation on Friday began with Swanson asking Yang about his motivations to run for president. “We’re at a very dark time in American history where our legislators no longer actually monitor how we are doing to figure out whether policies are good or bad,” Yang said. He said that he ran for president to argue for what he calls “human-centered capitalism,” which, instead of maximizing GDP and stock market prices, focuses on improving indicators of well-being like engagement with work, environmental sustainability and life expectancy.
This human-centric approach ran throughout Yang’s responses, as he discussed a wide range of issues currently plaguing the nation. When asked how the Democratic Party can appeal to growing shares of Asian and Hispanic voters, for example, he answered, “The current game is to have diverse faces and say, ‘Look! We have someone from your community who’s on [the debate] stage, or in the White House.’ It’s like, no, what are you actually going to do for the community?”
“I think that has to be the challenge in activating Asian and Latino communities — to try and do things that will actually improve their family life, their schools, their community and towns in a way that’s real to them,” he added.
Instead of attending to the needs of its citizens, Yang believes that the government has become subject to the interests of corporations that enrich themselves off of individuals. “Our economy’s just gotten so badly out of whack,” he said. “It’s so hyper-corporate, the companies just run everything.”
In response to a question from Wistreich about his tech policy and treating online data as personal property, he explained that “Facebook is buying and selling our data for tens of billions of dollars a year, and every time you log on to one of these free services, they’re monetizing us by pelting us with ads.”
“That’s bad for our mental health, it’s bad for our democracy, it’s bad for our sense of what reality is, and [yet] we still don’t have a modernized regulatory approach to it at all.” Yang added.
The conversation also included questions about Yang’s experience on the campaign trail. Swanson asked what most surprised him about the process as someone who had never run for political office before. “The challenge for me was making myself known in the presidential race, which just required a lot of grinding, a lot of showing up,” Yang responded, explaining that the media tends only to focus on those candidates who either already hold public office or are billionaires. “You show up to the event, no one cares about you, and you just do it again the next day.”
“It was a lot of forced optimism for a while, but if you’re continuously working hard at a goal, people will notice, and then they give you a degree of credit for it, and then they eventually want to support you,” he said.
Yang also indicated that he will indeed run for some office again in the future, noting that “everything that animated my first run is still true today.” For now, though, he said he is keeping the movement going by continuing to fight for cash relief and concrete change that will make a difference for people. “I never want to just be a talker, I want to be a doer, you know?”
Many found Yang’s presentation to be refreshing and reassuring. “Andrew Yang is someone who can speak very candidly and bring a unique perspective that a lot of other speakers might not be able to, and I think he was able to demonstrate that with high energy during the night,” Swanson reflected. Henry Stiepleman ’23, likewise, found it pleasant to listen to “someone who was thoughtful and considerate and was able to express that.”
Attendees also appreciated the more casual and intimate nature of the student-run event. “It was probably the most personal environment I’ve ever been [in] with someone who’s run for president,” said Diego Rao ’22. “He seemed very familiar with Amherst, with Amherst students, with what we’re capable of, [and] that was really beneficial for me to see that there are people out there who are looking for our perspectives.”
Tylar Matsuo ’24 added, “It’s very inspiring to see Asian Americans in politics, and I really liked that it was personalized, that Andrew Yang actually took the time to join an Amherst College event, even though he couldn’t come in person.”
“We got to see him in a way where he’s more human than you see at the debate stage, like he’s making jokes, laughing,” said Jared Kim ’23. “I think being able to see the more human side of the people who are in charge definitely makes you feel better about what they’re doing.”
Some students thought the event made for a nice social experience as well. “I was watching it in a group of some people and we were just reacting to things he said,” said Taz Kim ’23. “It was a very interactive and fun experience, which you don’t normally get with a lot of politics.”
“The nicest thing for me was seeing how many people were watching and see[ing] the chat going,” Stiepleman echoed. “This semester’s been pretty fragmented, so it was nice to have a moment when everyone’s somewhat together.”
Wistreich concluded, “With the [APU] club taking such a different shape this year, it was really awesome to be able to get such an exciting event off the ground, and with such great attendance and engagement.”