‘A new political movement’: Andrew Yang visits USC, chats with students

Andrew Yang at USC
Andrew Yang sees abolishing the primary vote as the first step towards tackling political extremism and polarization, as evidenced by Alaska’s successful abolition of primaries. As a result, he has made it the mission of the political party he founded, the Forward Party. (Anthony Fu | Daily Trojan)

Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang visited USC Monday to connect with students in a talk hosted by USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, the Center for the Political Future and Trojan Democrats. The event drew crowds of students to the Price School of Public Policy to hear Yang explain his personal journey into politics and his vision for a renewed, less polarized American election system. 

Yang’s entrance into American politics was unconventional: After spending time touring the country to recruit startups for his nonprofit, Venture for America, he said he became aware of the increasingly dangerous technological and economic divides threatening American citizens. 

“I had tons of friends in technology who would say to me over drinks in private, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re gonna get rid of millions of jobs,’” Yang said. 

Learning that the technology seen as the future of the American economy would destroy the lives of millions left Yang jarred and searching for solutions. That pursuit eventually led him to settle on his flagship policy, Universal Basic Income. UBI would provide $1,000 per month to every American over the age of 18, helping to support those laid off because of technological advancement as well as alleviate nationwide poverty and balance the expanding wealth gap. 

“I’m gonna be the magical Asian man from the future,” Yang said, jokingly, about his ideas. 

The campaign’s overall mission was to “accelerate the alleviation of mass poverty in the U.S.”

“That was the goal,” he said, “to become the anti-poverty candidate.”

However, Yang’s defeat in the 2020 primary election left him feeling helpless. American politics were becoming more polarized, hate was spreading in the media and online, and the coronavirus pandemic was exacerbating already deep divides in the American public, he said.

“I started digging into why I felt like our politics were descending into madness,” said Yang of his post-defeat activity. “And I figured out that it’s by design.” 

The current approval rating for Congress is 18%, yet the reelection rate for incumbent Congress members regularly tops well over 90%. Yang blames this disconnect on two major barriers to better elections in the United States: gerrymandering and biased primary elections. 

“So, constitutional amendments to get rid of gerrymandering. That’s a great solution,” Yang said. What’s the problem? What does it take to get a constitutional amendment? Three quarters of the states.”

Instead of tackling gerrymandering, Yang turned his attention to primary elections. Primary elections allow candidates to become frontrunners for their party by appealing to the most extreme 10% of their constituents, Yang told the audience, alienating the typical voter and forcing them to vote for extreme policies. 

“Imagine you’re a member of Congress. If you want to keep your job, all you have to do is keep the 10 to 12% most extreme ideological people off your back,” Yang said. “So, if you were a very reasonable Republican, you get [elected], all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘Whoa, if I’m going to keep my job, I have to play ball with [extreme right-wing voters].’”

USC Sol Price School of Public Policy
The event, hosted by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, the Center for the Political Future and Trojan Democrats, drew crowds to the Price School of Public Policy. Students ran to the stage to ask questions and take photos with the former presidential candidate. (Gina Nguyen | Daily Trojan)

Yang’s argument for abolishing primaries in order to reduce political extremism was just demonstrated in Alaska’s midterm election. Alaskan voters abolished their primary vote in 2020, and as a result, extremist former governor Sarah Palin was defeated by the relatively unknown Mary Peltola, who campaigned on Alaska-centered issues such as fisheries and the environment. 

“Sarah Palin lost in very large part because there was no primary in Alaska,” Yang said. “Anyone can vote for anyone, and so all of a sudden, instead of just having to answer to the 10 to 12% [of voters] on either extreme, you have to try and get 51% of the greater whole.” 

Yang said he was relieved that his theory of abolishing primaries to reduce extremism was proved correct and that former governor Palin was not elected to Congress.

“Imagine if Sarah Palin were a member of Congress, [the media would] be like, ‘Oh, good, another crazy person we can stick the microphone in front of! Lauren Boebert’s not available? Where’s Sarah?’” he joked to roars of laughter from the audience. 

Yang sees this success story as a blueprint for the future of American democracy and has made it the mission of the political party he founded, the Forward Party. Maine and Nevada have already followed suit, and Yang is focused on continuing the movement.

“We’re going to try and take a shot at [overturning primaries in] another four or five states in 2024,” Yang said. “Turns out that 25 states have the same ballot initiative measure, where if you get 50.1% of the people in that state to vote to get rid of the party primaries, they can do it.”

The excitement among students for Yang’s mission was palpable, with students running to the stage to ask questions and take pictures with the former presidential candidate following his speech. 

“I really enjoyed the fact that [Yang’s talk] was about political structure, not political policy,” said Cameron Nelson, a senior majoring in political science and economics. “We talk so much about policy change, and we have ideals about our government that we want to see fulfilled, but so many of them aren’t possible until the actual structure of the government changes.”

Bella Sanchez, a junior majoring in international relations, said she viewed Yang’s visit to campus as eye opening and an opportunity to become more politically engaged. 

“One thing that I have struggled [with] in the past is I don’t think I’ve been really connected to politics. I don’t think I’ve been well educated,” Sanchez said. “Going to things like this is really important to opening up the conversation to the younger generation and making sure we can make actual change in our government and in our political system.”

Nicholas Wong, a junior majoring in neuroscience, was similarly complementary toward the experience and thankful to the University for the opportunity to hear from such a prominent member of the political community.

“Having somebody like Andrew Yang come in, you can really hear somebody with really innovative ideas and it kind of just rounds out the USC experience,” Wong said. 

In an interview with the Daily Trojan, Yang encouraged students to find and support causes that they’re passionate about without being afraid to branch out into the greater Los Angeles community as well.

“On campus, if organizations or leaders are trying to think positive — help them out,” Yang said. “Everyone needs someone who cares and will spread the word [about their cause]. And that’s true beyond campus too. If you want to get involved with local candidates, they would love to have you.”