for newyorker.com, | October 21, 2021

Andrew Yang’s Third-Party Aspirations

The entrepreneur turned politician makes the case for his new project, the Forward Party.

Read at newyorker.com

Andrew Yang gestures while speaking at a campaign event.
“If you wanted to make a system that was resistant to authoritarianism, you would have more than two parties,” Andrew Yang says.Photograph by Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Andrew Yang, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has never held elected office, became a household name when he ran for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 Presidential election. After dropping out of the race in February, 2020, he set his sights on the mayoralty of New York City, and briefly led the Democratic primary polls before losing the nomination to Eric Adams. This month, Yang declared his next pivot. As he published a new book, called “Forward: Notes on the Future of Our Democracy,” he announced that he is starting the Forward Party, which he hopes will break the “duopoly” dominating American politics.

“Forward” is both an account of Yang’s campaigns and a manifesto for his new party, which he believes should focus on advancing structural changes to the political system, such as open primaries and ranked-choice voting, and on lessening extreme partisanship. “Energy and passion won’t accomplish anything if all efforts are pitted in opposition to each other and the political system is designed to reward inertia,” Yang writes. “It’s the system itself that needs to be amended.” He also assures voters that they can maintain their current affiliations while joining his new party: “There will be Forward Democrats and progressives, Forward Republicans and conservatives, Forward independents and unaligned, and so on.”

I recently spoke with Yang by phone about his new book and his plans for the Forward Party. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed what he learned from running for office, how you can be a Democrat or a Republican and a member of his new party, and whether a third party can help American democracy.

You write about what being a politician does to your head. Can you talk more about that?

I started running for President as a relatively anonymous civilian, and that had some struggles attendant to it. I would say, “Hey, I’m running for President,” and people would say, “Of what?” or something similarly dubious. Then we gained steam and momentum, and the entire organization sprang up around me. In that environment, you wind up being something of an instrument, where people will say, “Hey, now you’re going to do this interview. Now we’re doing this event. Now call this person.” It’s a massive adjustment for, I would say, just about anyone.

I tried to say in the book that these experiences are probably not conducive to the development of a lot of the qualities that we want in leaders. I think most people would agree that the level of scrutiny that attends this process is probably discouraging a lot of excellent people from running. I think it’s more likely to impact certain groups that are probably going to be subject to even more scrutiny—women come to mind for me.

I also thought you were hinting in the book that it does things to your ego and makes you think of yourself in a certain way.

What I was hinting at is that it would make you a much worse manager. Your function is to get in front of a TV camera all the time. You’re probably not being super attentive to the needs of your team or figuring out what the interpersonal dynamics are. When I ran an organization, I spent a lot of time, for example, interviewing every hire. When you’re a candidate, people get hired in various locations and you meet them after the fact. I think that the process of running will end up eroding both management skills and empathy, and turn people more into avatars where they’re serving their new marketplace, and the new marketplace is going to be a set of TV cameras.

When you look back on your run for mayor of New York, what do you think your campaign got right and what do you think it got wrong?

I think, early on, we got right that a lot of New Yorkers wanted to be able to enjoy our city and wanted a degree of positivity in reopening. Then, as the campaign progressed, the focus turned much more to public safety, which wasn’t something that people associated with me. We’re very proud of the fact that we got more individual donors than any other candidate in history.

The book puts forward a lot of ideas, like ending the revolving door in Washington, and introducing an “American Scorecard” that would measure “societal health” in ways that go beyond economic indicators. More broadly, what is it that the Forward Party would accomplish?

The Forward Party is trying to realign our representatives’ incentives to line up more with ours, the general public, rather than the most extreme and activated partisans, who right now have disproportionate influence on whether someone is going to come back to office. One senator said to me something that I think maybe we’ve sensed, which is that issues are sometimes more valuable to a political party if they’re unresolved than if they’re resolved. What she meant by this is that if you have an unresolved issue, then you can get people very angry or excited about it. You can get people to donate to fight the other side. If you were to resolve it, then those catalysts go away. In this environment, because extremity is so disproportionate, you’ll actually probably pay a price if you compromise. Those are the incentives as they currently exist, and they’re driving us crazy.

You use the word “duopoly” in the book. When I hear that word, I associate it with Ralph Nader, who used it to say that the two parties were too close together ideologically. Are you saying that they’re too close together ideologically?

I think that there are different issues attendant to each party. It is a little bit overly simplistic to just say, “Hey, the extreme dominates,” because it makes it seem like it’s symmetrical, and it’s not precisely symmetrical.

Not precisely.

I do have a different critique, which I think is suggesting that corporations have undue influence over both parties. When I talk about the duopoly, in many ways I’m talking about the structural fragility of the system that we have. If you wanted to make a system that was resistant to authoritarianism, you would have more than two parties, definitively. Our Founding Fathers were anti-partisan. John Adams expressly feared two great parties that would just clash and clash. If you do have only two parties and one of them succumbs to authoritarian leadership, then there are very, very few safeguards, because the incentives are for everyone in that party to fall in line. If you wanted a more resilient system, you would have five political parties, or seven political parties. Then, if one party succumbed to terrible leadership, it’s a problem, but it’s not an existential problem the way it could be here in the U.S.

If, as you say, one party were to succumb to authoritarianism—and we do have a two-party system, which, at least for the moment, is not capable of being changed—would there be some danger of weakening support for the non-authoritarian party?

I think that there are these two tracks one could be pursuing. One would be electoral success, in the way that we currently look at it, and then the other would be institutional improvements and a strengthening of the system to make it more resilient, sustainable, and genuinely lowercase-“d” democratic.

I believe that the second path is imperative, and that’s why the Forward Party is going to be pushing for open primaries and ranked-choice voting in various states in 2022—to try and unlock more of our leaders from their incentives. This is not hypothetical. If you look at Senator Lisa Murkowski, in Alaska, she was the only Republican senator who voted to impeach Donald Trump and who is also up for reëlection next year. Her approval rating among Alaskan Republicans stands around ten per cent. This is a clear sign of why Republicans are so loath to defy Trump. One of the reasons why Senator Murkowski made this decision, in my view, is that Alaska last year got rid of the closed-party primary and now has a top-four primary and ranked-choice voting, where Senator Murkowski can take her case directly to the Alaskan public. That gives her a fighting chance. If we were to do that in more states around the country, you would see many more legislators act independent of party leadership, and that could be the difference between democracy surviving and civil unrest.

You say in the book that democracy “hangs by a thread,” referring to the 50–50 Senate. You seem to be implying that, if the Senate were in Republican hands, then democracy would be endangered. If democracy is hanging by a thread, if Democrats are barely in control, then it almost seems like insuring that Democrats remain in control is crucial. I wasn’t sure how the Forward Party fits into that.

The Forward Party’s mission is to try to reduce the perverse incentives that are threatening to tear the country apart. Again, I think that there are different approaches one could take, but I do think that far too little attention is being paid to reforming our institutions so that they are more genuinely representative and less subject to authoritarian impulses. I do remember that part in the book, and the fact that our government is right now so evenly split is to me a sign of just how tenuous things are.

What do you mean?

I understand what you’re driving at, Isaac. I obviously went to Georgia to try to help win those Senate seats. I believe that Democrats having control of the government would enable us to solve problems in a very difficult time for the country.

You say in the book that you could be a member of the Forward Party and a Democrat, or a member of the Forward Party and a Republican. Can you say more about how that would work?

Well, if you were to say to someone right now, “Hey, switch your party registration,” you’re asking them to potentially disenfranchise themselves in much of the country. We’re very practical. It’s a popular, inclusive movement. If you think that we need to reduce the polarization in our country and improve the incentives that our leaders are subject to, you should rally around open primaries and ranked-choice voting, and elevate candidates and officials who are for this upgrade. I feel like many Democrats would be very excited about this, as many Republicans would be excited about this. The state that has already implemented this is a red state, Alaska. This is an inclusive, popular movement that will require people of every political alignment.

So the idea would be to get Democrats and Republicans to sign up for the Forward Party’s agenda, not to run candidates in the Forward Party to challenge Democrats and Republicans?

Having someone run on the Forward Party line would be deeply impractical in the vast majority of districts around the country. We’re going to be supporting candidates who support these principles. I’m sure the vast majority of them are going to be running as Democrats or Republicans, because that’s much more realistic.

You talked earlier about the incentives in our current politics to be extreme. I’m wondering whether you think that that’s true of the Democratic Party. If you look at the last three Democratic Presidents, you have Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden. If you look at the person you lost to in New York, Eric Adams, he is nobody’s idea of a radical leftist or someone who’s on the extreme in American politics. It seems to me that the Democratic Party, by and large, is still choosing candidates firmly within the mainstream. Do you sense that that’s not true?

I think, when you have a big race that’s nationwide, certain candidates still command a bigger share of the vote. The incentives that I describe in the book extend beyond the political incentives. It’s also the fact that we have cable news channels that have separated us out into ideological camps, and then social media pours gasoline on the whole thing and makes inflammatory content much more attention-grabbing and rewarding. One of the things I found in my campaign that we’re all familiar with now is that the most effective fund-raising e-mails from political groups are the alarmist ones, that act like the world is going to end if you don’t give them ten or twenty dollars right now.

You say that democracy “hangs by a thread.” I may agree with you, but that’s pretty alarmist, right?

You were asking about whether you have incentives to be a bit more sensational, and I would say yes, of course you do. I happen to believe that alarm is warranted right now. If you look up, you see that we can’t take anything for granted. One of the things I’m saying to folks on my podcast or book tour is that at this point in American life everything is on the table. What I mean by that is that whatever dystopian nightmare scenario you can think of, you should think that that’s a real possibility. Anyone who doubts that just needs to rewind to events of the past months, and realize that we’ve already been subject to events and scenes that would have been unthinkable just a few months prior. We should be regarding this as an all-hands-on-deck situation, where nothing is taken for granted.

You have said that thinking the other side is evil is bad. You also say that the Republican Party has brought us to the precipice of a real democratic emergency. How do you reach those people?

Almost seventy-five million people voted for Donald Trump, including family members of mine. The first mistake in my mind is to somehow lump such a massive group of people into a particular ideological mold. The fact is, if you sit down with people, they have very, very different perspectives and outlooks. One of the things that I’ve found in my thousands of conversations with Americans of every alignment, in small towns and big cities, is that if you approach someone and you’re not using coded language, and you present your ideas in a way that’s genuinely open, then people will give you a hearing.

One of the core values of the Forward Party is grace and tolerance. We’re not here to judge you or demonize you. Our enemy isn’t other Americans. Our enemy is a system that’s going to turn us against one another. There are a lot of Republicans who hear that and say, “That’s exactly what I’d wanted someone to express to me.” If we get beyond the current opposing camps, you can reach people of every background.

How do you think Joe Biden is doing as President?

I think Joe has done what he could. I think he’s taking a lot of heat for things that weren’t necessarily in his control. It’s just a tough time in America, and a lot of people are struggling and suffering, and I think there’s going to be a difficult position for a lot of folks who are in charge of various institutions that Americans feel aren’t able to deliver. That problem is, in some ways, bigger than Joe.

You write, “Our systems won’t amend themselves. The need for real change is clear, but change won’t come easily. The time to build anew is now.” How should people who hear rhetoric like that differentiate it from all the other rhetoric that they hear, which is very similar? I know you say this is a new party, a third party, but it also sounds a lot like what Americans are used to hearing.

We’re trying to get people focussed on the system itself and whether it’s set up to line up with our interests, or whether it’s arranged in a way that’s going to turn us against one another. I think that’s the big difference with the Forward Party, the sense that it’s the system itself that needs to be restored and rejuvenated. Just a process change to open primaries and ranked-choice voting would make legislators more reasonable and rational overnight. This is a movement to try and make America more reasonable and reasoned. Right now, unfortunately, no one’s rewarded for that. We’re getting rewarded for making people crazier and turning us against one another.

As you say, “Let’s move this country of ours, the one we love and will leave to our children, forward.”

I’m a parent, and I’m not proud of the country we’re leaving to our kids.

And so your advice to people is: stay a Republican or stay a Democrat but also join the Forward Party?

Yeah, that’s right. If you are not in one of those two parties and you wanted some new party to emerge, open primaries and ranked-choice voting can make it much more possible.

Do you guys take positions on issues such as gay marriage and abortion?

Well, we have six big principles that we champion: open primaries and ranked-choice voting, universal basic income, fact-based governance, a human-centered economy, a modern and effective government, and grace and tolerance. We’re all human, we’re all in this together. Those are the big principles.

So people who are sick of the normal political rhetoric should know about this six-point plan and try to move the country forward?

Amen. Let’s do it. We don’t have unlimited time.


More New Yorker Conversations