Andrew Yang wants to give citizens free money to combat the coming onslaught of automation, help America's struggling malls and institute a "digital social credit" currency system.
Yang, a 44-year-old entrepreneur who announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination back in late 2017, knows he sounds optimistic. He also knows most of the country still doesn't know his name, though he has reason to believe that's changing.
"I needed to declare early to introduce myself to the American people. And that's what I'm doing," he told NBC News. "Still, the majority of Americans have never heard of Andrew Yang, so I have a lot of work to do. But we are very excited by the progress of the campaign and we 100 percent think we can compete and win the White House next year."
Yang has made some progress in his long-shot bid for the presidency. Recent appearances on comedian Joe Rogan's podcast and on "The Breakfast Club" generated millions of views between them and "introduced me to a very large number of Americans very quickly," he said.
Those interviews helped him catch fire on websites like Reddit and 4chan, and he gained tens of thousands of Twitter followers within weeks. He's become the subject of internet memes with fans who refer to themselves as the "Yang Gang."
The newfound support has bolstered his fundraising and made it likely he reaches the stage at the first Democratic debate in June, having met the party's minimum requirement for individual donations, according to his campaign. And Yang, running an internet-centric campaign while visiting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, says he will keep talking to anyone willing to listen.
The author of a book called the "The War on Normal People," Yang launched his campaign around a pitch for a type of universal basic income. His "Freedom Dividend," which would provide a $1,000 monthly check from the government to each U.S. citizen over 18, is tied to his belief that automation and artificial intelligence are poised to eliminate millions of jobs, such as truck driving. Trying to do something about that doesn't make him radical — it makes him, as he says, "a fairly normal guy."
"I've got a wife and two kids and I'm running for president to solve the problems of this era," Yang said. "We have this sinking feeling that our government is way behind the curve, and I'm trying to catch us up. I'm a lot more of a normal American than I have a sense that most people believe just by looking at me from afar."
Beyond his pitch for $12,000 annually in free money, Yang offers a policy prescription that seems to touch all corners of national debate. In total, he has more than 75 policy positions outlined on his campaign website. And he told NBC News he's planning to lengthen the list, saying, "We want more, not less."
Here are some of Yang's policies:
- Provide all U.S. citizens over the age of 18 with $100 annually to donate to charity.
- Sponsor the American Mall Act to provide $6 billion to struggling malls.
- Create a federal department to focus on smartphones and social media.
- Repurpose 10 percent of the military budget to a domestic infrastructure force called the "Legion of Builders and Destroyers." The person who leads this entity could override local regulations to help speed up projects.
- Launch a new currency called the "Digital Social Credit" which can then "be converted into dollars and used to reward people and organizations who drive significant social value."
Yang was born in upstate New York to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan in the 1960s. He lives in New York City, where his campaign is centered, with his wife, Evelyn, and their two sons.
A lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, he launched the nonprofit Venture for America in 2011, which tries to encourage young entrepreneurs to take up shop in cities across the country's interior. The nonprofit got Yang noticed by the Obama administration, who named him a "Champion of Change" in 2012 and a "Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship" in 2015.
Last week, Yang hit a major milestone as his campaign announced 65,000 individual donations, with at least 20 states providing a minimum of 200 donations each — the threshold to appear on stage at the first Democratic debate. Heading into 2019 — before his recent surge — Yang had raised about $660,000, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Though his support is capped at 1 to 2 percent in Democratic primary polls, Yang spiked in the betting markets, where bettors can put money on who will be the Democratic presidential nominee and the president-elect following the 2020 election, outperforming prominent senators like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar. Yang's odds increasing is a result of more people betting up his chances, which he said could be because his more internet-savvy supporters happen to be very into prediction markets.
That online support appears to stretch into some segments of the pro-Trump internet. Yang said he and President Donald Trump's voters both believe "America is hurting."
"The issues are real," he added. "And so when I talk about issues that matter to the American people and propose solutions that people are excited about, then I'll take any voter — within limits. If they have racist or bigoted ideas, then I don't want their votes. But the vast majority of Trump voters I believe are just looking for some path forward."