How Andrew Yang Broke All the Rules, and Fell On His Face
Adam Glanzman / Bloomberg / Getty
Usually you have to win to leave a legacy. But the rules never applied to Andrew Yang.
Yang's cannonball barrel for the New York City Mayor flew fast and high before crashing to an earthly fourth place on Tuesday. As Yang prepares for his next shiny object, we should not miss how his trajectory was possible in the first place.
The justification for Yang's candidacy was fame, based on a charming presidential run and a boatload of charisma. He's not wearing a tie. He doesn't vote. He doesn't look or sound like anyone else. He had no political baggage, no bills to settle or honor. Yang saw a rulebook early on that was not written for him and ignored it.
In his mayoral campaign, he was the first to slip Zoom and take to the streets. Reporters and opponents chased as Yang drank in the race's early oxygen to become the candidate for exercise and energy. He's not normal, but as the only 3-D figure in a flat field, he looked like pre-pandemic normalcy - a push he sustained even after he had to isolate himself when a helper caught the virus and then again.
While others went through carefully curated media schedules, Yang hogged the cameras and chatted with anyone who listened. While others leaned on the en vogue language of the online left, Yang spoke like someone you really want to talk to - vulnerabilities and everything. While his campaign lived on Twitter, Yang never mistook her heartbeat for real life.
Andrew Yang lists his “favorite racial stereotypes” in an interview with Ziwe
Yang's social media platform was itself something of a political platform. The medium is often Yang's message - and reporters have heard it. While Andrew Yang's internet idea always dwarfed the man, he made extreme use of online reporters to make this hologram possible.
Where others would triangulate and obscure, Yang seemed comfortable admitting the many things he did not know. Whenever he slipped, he would roam the city in a colorful way to change history. It's hard to find politicians who never interfere.
Yang knew he had to make the race a popularity contest. He danced, he cheered, he made sure it wasn't a chore to be there. When his people heard him say he was winning, they felt that way too.
As opponents wasted their time perfecting tomes, Yang's policy book became a calling card: cash aid, open schools, safer roads. He seemed like the only one who knew our tired city didn't have the energy to analyze the details.
Regarding the teachers' union, police reform and the mentally ill homeless, he shared popular views that many progressives would only admit in private.
Yang seemed to know exactly where was the light of day between New York's 2021 politics and past-trained opponents.
And they never really knew what to do with him.
The field foolishly ignored him before it became foolishly obsessed with him. They followed his Hudson Valley home and the no-show vote until they remembered how many voters criticized them in the process. They clumsily mixed fair reviews of his New York know-how with more charged suggestions for carpet bagging.
None of the attacks stayed. In the end, it was Yang himself who flopped.
In a race with little big thinking, Yang didn't cough off the lead because he couldn't deliver anything greater than his warmed-up and reduced basic income proposal. It was the little things that did to him.
When voters agreed, Yang botched basic questions about the MTA, suggested things that already existed like homeless shelters for victims of domestic violence, and showed little understanding of the city's finances. Yang even wanted us to believe that his pal Chris Cuomo would help him navigate his governor's brother in Albany.
The difference between not weed and not knowing the basics became apparent when the race was sobered up. Moments of refreshing political curiosity turned into flirtations with bourgeois anti-intellectualism. Once a loner ready to touch the third rail, little questions made Yang sweat too quickly for someone auditioning for the second toughest job in American politics.
As his path got muddy, Yang fell hard from his high horse. He complained about media coverage without admitting how central the overexposure was to his legitimacy. He attacked other candidates and was unable to deal with some of the protesters. The anti-cheerleading politician suddenly looked like a candidate we had seen many times before. The healthy piece, which originally felt authentic, quickly seemed to be more of an act.
Though I suspect it always has been.
Eric Adams, Maya Wiley, and Kathryn Garcia aren't natural charmers. They didn't sell so much, they sold tried and tested leadership models. They are accomplished representatives of schools of thought. The rationale for Yang has always been, well, Yang.
In Yang's rise and fall, these are lessons.
The encrusted nature of our city's politics is ripe for an upheaval. The Yang campaign made it clear that new thinking is necessary. The media and the public rewarded Yang for breaking some rules, saying what others were floating around on tiptoe and luring reporters to enjoy their online life.
Not all press is good press. But most of it is. Yang flooded the zone, reduced his message to real language, and controlled the conversation. It gave him easier ways out of early pitfalls, even if he couldn't survive under the bright lights he'd turned on.
No campaign - and Yang's was excellent - can outsmart a candidate who hasn't done his homework. Fame helps, but that you can win shouldn't be the reason. For a man who ran a test prep firm, Yang hadn't crammed enough to make up for his breezy resume.
We should be wary of cult candidates. Yang went from the joke to the end of the joke, in part because he couldn't muster up any charm when he started losing. You can't put on a show and get upset when people come to see it.
His gang of supposedly data-centric disruptors didn't help. They turned out to be mostly government-skeptical disenchanters and millennial libertarians who are fluent in the Internet. As with any cult, the past few days have reflected many of Yang's development from happy warrior to sore loser.
But attributing Yang's early success to his celebrity alone ignores the counter-conventions that have hampered his more seasoned opponents for most of this race. As many in the city's political firmament have to do, it will be foolish to reject the campaign's approach simply because its candidate has lost.
Yang's fall was not the result of a campaign misjudgment or a breakthrough opponent. As the race matured, Yang just didn't know what he was talking about. Had he done a little more homework, his campaign reads the field and the moment could have made him mayor.
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