Long-shot Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang isn’t afraid to take a position on, well, anything. Browse through his campaign website, and you’ll see not just that he believes in universal basic income – the policy proposal for which he’s best known – but also that he wants to mandate the payment of NCAA athletes, to crack down on spam phone calls, and to secure $6 billion to revitalize dying shopping malls.
Many of his policy positions are tied to causes with little prominence in the mainstream but a devoted following on the internet, like his recent stance against childhood circumcision, the domain of an online community that refer to themselves as ‘intactivists.’
Yang’s has a digital savviness – a longtime tech entrepreneur, he most recently founded and helmed a nonprofit called Venture For America – and a willingness to traverse the turf of Reddit and 4chan (as well as Joe Rogan’s podcast, which he appeared on roughly before his online following started to really take off). He has duly earned himself a following that refers to themselves as the #YangGang. And it would be an understatement to call them enthusiastic. They propelled Yang’s improbable candidacy to a threshold of 65,000 individual donations, which the Democratic party designated as the requirement to be included in the party’s first televised debate.
Many Yang fans say he’s the first candidate they’ve been excited about in a while, if ever. The Yang for President subreddit is lively, energized, and packed with ‘dank memes.’ Some have pointed to Yang’s popularity in corners of the internet that are best known for their early and fervent support of Donald Trump in 2016, or to followers of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders in the same year.
But comparing the #YangGang phenomenon to Trump or Sanders supporters isn’t quite accurate. Donald Trump was an international celebrity before he ran for office. Sanders is a somewhat closer parallel, but at the same time he was a sitting senator, and was additionally able to tap into an obvious demographic of disgruntled leftist voters who didn’t want to put another person whose last name was Clinton into office.
The most obvious parallel in recent American presidential politics is more likely Ron Paul’s candidacy for the Republican nomination in 2008, when he was an oddball Texas congressman whose anti-tax stance and opposition to the war in Iraq managed to build him a following of ‘techies, hippies, tax haters, and war protesters’ that largely congregated on the internet. ‘In recent months,’ Mother Jones magazine related in late 2007, ‘he was sought out on the blog search engine Technorati more often than anyone except a Puerto Rican singer with a sex tape on the loose.’ (Side note: Remember Technorati?) Paul’s candidacy arguably didn’t succeed because he was too unorthodox, but if Donald Trump’s win has taught us anything, it’s that American political media now has the infrastructure in place for unorthodoxy to succeed. No longer do people need to stand on a highway overpass with a handmade sign that says ‘GOOGLE RON PAUL’ to get the word out. The fringe can now pull the mainstream along for the ride.
Andrew Yang and Ron Paul have only a few overlaps on the policy front, but what they have in common is that they were able to amass a following of devotees who shared a few things in common: they’re sick of politics as usual; they appreciate a good dose of tech literacy; and they’re often willing to support a candidate with whom they share some but not all policy positions. That third one seems like it might be rare given how extreme American political partisanship has become, but the number of people who cast ballots for Donald Trump after voting for Barack Obama – sometimes twice – indicates many American voters may be more flexible. Perhaps considerably so.
Thomas Massie, a Republican congressman from Kentucky who’s one of the few ideological heirs to Ron Paul in the House, gave an interview to the Washington Examiner in early 2017 where he assessed why Donald Trump was getting support from people who’d previously supported Ron Paul and later his son Rand Paul. ‘They weren’t voting for libertarian ideas,’ Massie said, ‘They were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class, as we had up until he came along.’
And, sure enough, if you tweet at the #YangGang and mention Ron Paul, you’ll probably hear from a few people who say they were supporters of the anti-tax Texas congressman when he ran for president. But now, they’ve thrown their weight behind a candidate whose website proudly states that one of his priorities is ‘making taxes fun.’