Andrew Yang is a peculiar candidate for the presidency; not only has he no previous political experience, but he has also placed great emphasis on issues that have been on the fringes of mainstream media political discourse usually examined by academics or YouTube personalities. It is a credit to him that topics like automation, the meaning and value of work, the concentration of elite talent in to narrow career paths, and of course, UBI, have had a chance to be touched upon during this campaign cycle.
Nonetheless, the most provocative aspect of the Yang campaign, and of the man himself, is the unusual tension between a technocratic emphasis on expertise and efficiency, and the populist rhetoric he uses to denounce remote elite enclaves, and to call for a revolution that, in the words of Bismarck, we undertake rather than undergo.1 Yang views himself—or at least projects himself as—the people’s technocrat. An expert that the average Joe can trust.
Yang as Technocrat
Technocracy is government by experts. The term is Greek in origin, fusing tekhne (describing art or skill) and kratos, meaning power or rule. But the literal meaning of this word is not its salient contemporary sense. Modern Technocracy (and by extension technocrats) usually endorse government by a specific kind of expert, using a particular sort of method. The technocrat is usually (though not always) versed to some degree in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and social science domains, and tends to want governments to draw upon scientific methods and findings, argue from data and cutting edge studies, and value efficiency and systematic rigor. Social problems, to the technocrat, are thought to come more from incompetence, waste, or negligence than from ideology or malice. As Zbigniew Brzeziński eloquently put it in Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era, “Social problems are seen less as the consequence of deliberate evil and more as the unintended byproducts of both complexity and ignorance; solutions are not sought in emotional simplifications but in the use of man’s accumulated social and scientific knowledge.”2
To summarize, the technocrat is someone who assumes that:
- Government and policy would be better off if they were presided over and/or dictated by technical experts.
- The problems of politics are primarily problems of efficiency and administrative dysfunction.
- The application of the results and methods of the sciences and/or other technical fields is the best way to solve our political problems.
- There should be a resource of unassailable facts that politicians use as the basis of argument which lies outside of the realm of opinion.
One of the most striking aspects of Yang’s latest book, The War on Normal People, is just how many tech leaders, start-up gurus, entrepreneurs, and hedge fund managers this man is in contact with. Countless pages offer anecdotes of Yang jetting to dinners with this Silicon Valley leader in San Francisco3 or that technical expert in the Northeast. Yang, by the very company he keeps, signals that he is a member of this technocratic class.
More substantially, the thesis of Yang’s book is both diagnostic and prescriptive. He argues that many of the current jobs that serve as the backbone of our economy will either be rendered obsolete by accelerating automation, or will be done by a small group of technical experts leaving many jobless and languishing in economic despair. According to Yang, the available data show this process is already well underway and will continue to worsen in the coming years. Yang calls this development the Great Displacement. And the unavoidable reality of automation, he says, will force the government to implement new economic and social policies in response. Universal Basic Income—what Yang calls the “freedom dividend” of $1000 a month—is Yang’s preferred means of dealing with this looming crisis.
Whether or not one agrees with this view, it is clearly suggestive of Yang’s technocratic sensibilities. He supports his claims and ideas with data from the U.S. Bureau that show low labor force participation,4 the recent elimination of manufacturing jobs,5 and an increasing discrepancy between productivity and compensation.6 His claim that elite talent is clustering into a few geographic regions and disciplines rests on data from the career offices at those very elite institutions.7
For Yang, data are the primary resource with which he frames his picture of what is going wrong in our nation. A reliance on data to understand problems and formulate policy responses is characteristic of the technocrat. Yang wants to give every adult in the United States $1000 a month (adjustable for inflation) which will cost about $1.3 trillion by Yang’s own estimate. He stresses that his plan will be more efficient than the current system of government assistance programs because:
- One program will be able to accomplish the work of 126.8
- Direct monetary compensation has been shown, in some studies at least, to have more positive outcomes than mediated forms of charity or relief.9
- The cost of the program can be offset by a so-called VAT tax which will increase the cost of some consumer goods, and UBI will result in job growth.10
Yang wants to show that his signature program will clean up administrative waste, increase efficiency, and that it is vouched for by experts. In terms of Yang’s rhetoric, the following passage in particular encapsulates his technocratic sensibilities:
We have an indebted state rife with infighting, dysfunction, and outdated ideas and bureaucracies from bygone eras, along with a populace that cannot agree on basic facts like vote totals or climate change. Our politicians offer half-hearted solutions that will at best nibble at the edges of the problem. The budget for research and development in the Department of Labor is only $4 million. We have a 1960s-era government that has few solutions to the problems of 2018. This must change if our way of life is to continue. We need a revitalized, dynamic government to rise to the challenge posed by the largest economic transformation in the history of mankind. The above may sound like science fiction to you. But you’re reading this with a supercomputer in your pocket (or reading it on the supercomputer itself) and Donald Trump was elected president.11
Yang focuses on the outdated and inefficient state of our modern government and the technocratic solution of cutting edge methods to modern problems, and he is vexed by the inability of people to agree on basic facts—particularly scientific ones—that ought to carry far more weight than mere opinions. For this reason, technocrats like Yang tend to favor a quasi-evangelistic outreach to the public concerning scientific education.12 And finally, there is the concluding reference to the benefits of technology and to its inevitable future advances.
Technocracy, being more of a method of governing than a value system or worldview, is often used by a dominant ideology to make its ideological agenda more efficient. So in China, which has until recently been governed as a technocracy made up almost exclusively of engineers, the technocrats support communism, but in America it is often used to make neoliberal policy more effective. This being the case, the elites are never really afraid of a technocrat: They understand that the method can be used to serve almost any master. Technocracy also has the benefit, at least in the States, of flattering the ego of the middle classes. Supporting a technocrat can signal seriousness and intelligence on the part of the informed voter who cares about “serious policy issues and scientific data.” Thus technocracy, in itself, is never really a challenge to the status quo. But this description does not, by itself, fully describe Yang or his campaign.
Yang the Populist
Populism is a complex and contested term.13 Some commentators have understood it to mean the integration and mobilization of the people into the political process. This understanding encompasses most movement-based progressive politicians. For the purpose of this essay, however, populism will be understood as the inverse of established liberal democratic institutions. In a political environment where the general will of the people (popular sovereignty) is seen as the driving force in civic life, an institutional establishment that purports to represent the people’s interests will do so imperfectly—often looking to serve the interests of the institutions themselves and the people within them as opposed to the general public for whom said institutions were built.14 This division between the general will of the people, and the institutions established on their behalf, allows a politics of populism to arise.
An upshot of this division is that populism is inherently anti-establishment and anti-status quo. It follows that populists almost always attack the leaders of establishment institutions with anti-elitist rhetoric. They offer themselves as self-appointed representatives of the masses against the elites, and will campaign as outsiders able to broach topics that the establishment is uncomfortable confronting because it threatens elites’ class or status position, economic interests, “ethical values,” or simply because they have no experience of the concerns of ordinary people.
The populist candidate amplifies his mass appeal by dressing in a faintly eccentric way, and will take shots at the donor class (implying that he has such grassroots support that he does not need their money, or that he is so independently wealthy that such financial pressures do not impact him), the mainstream media, and, depending on his constituents, the corporate elite. He claims to speak to the direct needs and values of the people.
According to the foregoing criteria, Andrew Yang qualifies as a populist. Unusually for a politician, he never wears a necktie. This may seem like a trivial point, but at least since the introduction of television, politics has been as much a battle of optics as ideas, and there is still some truth in Oscar Wilde’s wry observation that “it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.” Yang’s refusal to wear a tie is, in part, meant to distinguish him from the rest of the political class, and project a more relaxed and natural persona with which ordinary voters can feel at ease. After one of the Democratic debates, Yang faced some criticism for this, which he cleverly managed to turn into a populist attack on the establishment and the debate format itself:
You know what the talking heads couldn’t stop talking about after the last debate? It’s not the fact that I’m somehow number four on the stage in national polling. It was the fact that I wasn’t wearing a tie. Instead of talking about automation and our future, including the fact that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs, hundreds of thousands right here in Michigan, we’re up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show. It’s one reason why we elected a reality TV star as our president…. My flagship proposal, the freedom dividend, would put $1,000 a month into the hands of every American adult. It would be a game-changer for millions of American families.
This short quote is heavy with populist meaning. Yang begins by attacking the establishment class for ignoring the concerns impacting everyday people—a reminder that the media elites are out of touch with the ordinary Americans. He then offers deliverance from the economic hardship that really does concern them via the freedom dividend.
Yang has positioned himself as a “Human-centered Capitalist.” Human-centered capitalism is a kind of humanistic, technocratic version of capitalism with the following axioms:
- Humans are more important than money.
- The unit of a Human Capitalism economy is each person, not each dollar.
- Markets exist to serve our common goals and values.
Yang elaborates on these ideas as follows: “Our current emphasis on corporate profits isn’t working for the vast majority of Americans. This will only be made worse by the development of automation technology and AI.” Additionally, Yang says, we need to “rein in corporate excesses by appointing regulators who are paid a lot of money—competitive with senior jobs in the private sector—but then will be prohibited from going to private industry afterward. Regulators need to be focused on making the right decisions and policies for the public with zero concern for their next position.”
Things like teaching, parenting, nurturing children, journalism, reading, and a whole host of other things, have been devalued in our current system of capitalism: “There were periods when the Market supported some of these things [parenting, Serving the poor, The Environment, etc.] more than it does today. Today, it needs to be steered to do so. The U.S. has reached a point where its current form of capitalism is faltering in producing an increasing standard of living for the majority of its citizens. It’s time for an upgrade.”
Lastly, Yang wants to introduce new, or more robust measures, to gauge the prosperity of a nation. So instead of focusing on raw GDP—which could grow due to disproportionate economic gains for the elites in society while the rest of society regresses or stagnates—Yang wants to add things like levels of engagement with work and labor participation rate, quality of infrastructure, proportion of elderly in quality care, access to education, marriage rates and success, and many others things. Yang wants to introduce these new variables to ensure that how we measure a nation’s success touches upon all the areas of life that are significant to the broadest range of people.
Yang’s populism challenges the corporate elite and emphasizes that the system has benefited them to the detriment of the general public. He adds that the form of capitalism under which we live does not value the type of activities that are important to the lives of his fellow countrymen. Human-centered capitalism is capitalism re-envisioned so that it represents and meets the direct needs of the people in contradistinction to those of the elites. Yang’s populism reveals itself in his attacks on the media establishment, on corporate earnings, and on our current system of capitalism that marginalizes activities, services, and domains that common people hold dear.
This unusual mix of populism and technocracy in Yang’s campaign points to a division within the Democratic nomination race, and the party itself. This division between technocrat and populist helps explain the insider vs. outsider nature of a candidacy, and Andrew Yang is outflanked on both sides by two other candidates.
Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard academic famous for her detailed, policy-focused approach, outdoes Yang among the class of people who are into this type of thing: Affluent, educated, professional, often white, social progressives. The technocratic supporters in the mainstream media, Democratic establishment, and middle and upper-middle classes appear to prefer a policy wonk of a more academic vintage (in this case, a former law professor) as opposed to a natural scientist or technologist (since most insiders understand the world of words more than they do the domain of the natural sciences).
The lifelong socialist Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is the great populist in this race. A man with a straightforward manner, who can point to a long career of grassroots activism, support for policies that hold great appeal to many Americans, and whose donor base consists mostly of contributions from the working class. He is largely responsible for reviving the discourse surrounding class in mainstream politics. Key to his appeal is his claim to be fighting the elite class in favor of ordinary Americans—the vast majority of us.
For these reasons Andrew Yang will almost certainly not be the Democratic nominee. Nevertheless, his candidacy offers an intriguing snapshot of two impulses now competing for the direction of the Democratic Party. Technocracy is intrinsically elitist and populism is anti-elitist, but both will need to be harnessed in order to grapple with the increasingly complex challenges posed by a rapidly changing society. Technical policy prowess may be efficient in crafting legislation but it cannot address the problems of the established order in the way a more visionary approach might. America is not quite yet ready for a candidate like Andrew Yang who attempts to synthesise these two competing demands, but it may not be long now.
Marshawn Brewer is a freelance writer, philosophy MA, and political campaigner.
1 Andrew Yang, The War on Normal People: the Truth about America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future. Hachette Books, 2018, pg, 9 [ebook]
2 Zbigniew Brzeziński. Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era. Greenwood Press, 1982, pg. 61
3 The War on Normal People: the Truth about America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future. Hachette Books, 2018, pg, 9, 19, 45, 64, 94.
4 Ibid pg. 19
5 Ibid pg. 10
6 Ibid pg. 26
7 Ibid pg. 85-90
8 Ibid pg. 126
9 Ibid pg. 155-156
10 Ibid 149-153
11 Ibid pg. 13
12 For a good summary of this approach and a solid challenge to technocracy in general, Cf. Bucchi, Massimiano. Beyond Technocracy Science, Politics and Citizens. Springer, 201. Pg. 1-19 challenges the missionary aspect of technocracy.
13 Cf. Chapter 1 of Mudde, Cas, and Kaltwasser Cristóbal Rovira. Populism: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2017, for a solid introduction to the different understandings of the the concept as well as the difficulties of elucidating a central meaning of the term.
14 Cf, chapter 1 of Anselmi, Manuel, and Laura Fano Morrisey. Populism: an Introduction. Routledge, an Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, 2018, for my source for this definition.