On Tuesday evening, I left my office suited up in a raincoat and a t-shirt that featured a picture of the nightmarish and internet-famous Philadelphia Flyers mascot, ‘Gritty.’ I was going to Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s rally in Washington Square Park, where thousands were expected to turn out despite the rainy weather (or, as my friend Cody commented, Blade Runner weather) to see the tech entrepreneur give his pitch for the presidency.
I wasn’t quite sure what people would wear to a rally for Yang, a candidate who rose to prominence through memes and podcast appearances and whose supporters have been known to wave around signs that say ‘MATH’ and chant out ‘PowerPoint! PowerPoint!’ I figured that there was probably some cultural overlap with Gritty. Sure enough, as soon as I walked into the park, a guy in his twenties yelled out, ‘Yeah, Gritty!’
But the crowd, in general, was disappointingly low on wacky internet edgelords (the Libertarian party events I’ve attended perhaps set my expectations too high). This may have been a result of the weather. I later saw on Twitter that someone had shown up in a cardboard robot costume, a nod to Yang’s persistent focus on the rise of automation taking American jobs, but the rain meant that the robot had to be covered in some very non-futuristic plastic ponchos. It also likely dampened the crowd sizes (pun intended), though the Yang campaign has said that over 2,500 people were there in spite of it. Overall, the attendees were young and largely male, but far from majority white. As Simon Tam noted on Twitter in real time, ‘have never seen so many Asians at a political event.’
Indeed, Andrew Yang would be only the second person of Asian descent to make it to a presidential debate (Republican Bobby Jindal was the first, in 2016), and while he doesn’t appear to be using his trailblazing status to make an appeal to Asian American voters – an often overlooked bloc – he certainly is willing to joke about it. Pointing to his low name recognition, Yang speculated many voters would know his name for the first time when they watched the debate and wondered, ‘Who’s the Asian man standing next to Joe Biden?’
Yang has put forth a policy agenda that’s almost comical in its level of detail, but the New York rally was centered on the item that’s gotten him the most attention: the ‘Freedom Dividend,’ a universal basic income (UBI) proposal that would give every American adult $1,000 per month. He put this forth as a solution not just to job loss due to automation, but to younger Americans struggling with student loan debt, brick-and-mortar businesses feeling the impact of Amazon, and more. Opponents of UBI have suggested it’s financially unfeasible, to which Yang repeatedly referred to the fact that he’d pay for it with a value-added tax (VAT) on enormous tech companies, and stressed that ‘we’ve done the math.’ In response, sure enough, the crowd would scream ‘MATH!’ in response. When Yang mentioned that as president he’d use PowerPoint in his State of the Union Address, sure enough, the ‘PowerPoint! PowerPoint!’ chants began.
At one point, Yang polled the crowd on how many of them worked in the tech industry, and about a third of them (my estimate) raised their hands. Stepping back a bit, there’s something curious about this that goes far beyond the still-a-long-shot Yang presidential campaign. A huge chunk of the people who were cheering him on came from the very industry he pinpoints as not just the culprit for America’s ills, but the one that needs to step up and pay the price. I sensed a thirst for the tech industry to right its wrongs and return to a sense of optimism rather than Black Mirror-esque malaise, and that thirst was coming not from the outside but from the industry’s own young engineers and product managers. Their bosses might be fundraising for Pete Buttigieg, but it appears that the rank and file sees promise in Andrew Yang.
In other words: The revenge of the nerds has happened – see also, Cambridge Analytica – but now some of the nerds want a do-over.