Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Andrew Yang Knowledge Gap
Less than a month until Election Day, Yang is losing the well-educated
Andrew Yang, as I warned my friends on the Left many months ago, was not going to completely collapse. He is a mayoral candidate with a firm base of support and residual goodwill from a presidential campaign. He remains a talented campaigner. He probably has run the best television ad of the cycle so far.
Plenty of signs, though, point to a tough final month. After languishing in the polls for a little while, Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, has managed to tie or even surpass Yang. The winning formula for Adams is easy to see: consolidate the Black vote, pick off moderate whites, and eat whatever he can from Yang’s coalition of Asian Americans and Orthodox Jews. Adams has his own deep challenges as a candidate, but he was always going to be formidable. Both Yang and Adams have pivoted to tough-on-crime messaging and rejected defunding the police, but Adams is the Black former police captain in the race—among enough voters, his credibility is real.
Yang and Adams are the candidates who will, together, most likely win overwhelming majorities of the nonwhite vote in the Democratic primary. In addition to Black and Asian votes, each are competing aggressively for the Latino share of the electorate, which may end up being a quarter of those who vote. Adams has the validators, like Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and Congressman Adriano Espaillat, and Yang has the fame and messaging, built around a cash-transfer program that is popular with working class voters.
Both men share a challenge: how to end up on the ballots of enough left-leaning, highly-educated voters, many of them white. Adams’ incendiary past, penchant for odd outbursts, and embrace of placard abuse are alienating to regular readers of the New York Times and the younger leftists who are voting more regularly in primaries. Adams’ disdain for the defund the police movement will not win him many left-liberals and socialists in Park Slope, Astoria, or Bushwick. Now that the latest clash between Israel and Gaza is a campaign issue, Adams’ firm support for Israel will further drive them away.
Yang may even face greater hurdles with these voters, due to how well-known he is and the degree of media scrutiny he has received. Working class voters who cast ballots only sporadically in local races might not care that Yang didn’t vote in previous mayoral races, but this is damning for those who are politically-engaged—and it’s class and education that usually determines how much you care about politics. Affluent voters care greatly that Yang has no previous civic experience. Those that attend community board meetings, read the Times, or were particularly drawn to the Elizabeth Warren presidential campaign have every reason to despise Yang. He is Ivy League-educated, but isn’t running that way, and he has no municipal expertise to speak of. To them, he is simply a gross interloper.
The trouble for Yang is he has done nothing, really, to mitigate how much these voters dislike him. They will not determine the course of the primary, but they absolutely matter. Yang’s team either doesn’t know this, doesn’t care, or believes he has a path to victory around them. Michael Bloomberg entered a mayoral race with only private sector experience, yet he was able to win over affluent, educated voters because he was a self-made billionaire who projected supreme competence. A deeply flawed candidate and mayor, he nevertheless studied very hard, or let you imagine he did: he was rarely bereft of facts, and could discuss local policy with relative ease.
Yang is failing here. Last week, he apparently did not know anything about 50-a, the notorious law that shielded police disciplinary records in New York, and seemed to be under the impression there weren’t homeless shelters for domestic violence victims in the five boroughs. Yang is not stupid—he has a Columbia law degree, he sold a test prep company, and ran a compelling presidential campaign—but too often his lack of preparation confirms what his critics have been saying all along: he isn’t prepared for this. He’s a neophyte trying to run America’s biggest city. He is nothing more than a dilletante celebrity.
As those who’ve read me here know, I’ve generally been open to what Yang, the mayoral candidate, has to say. Some of it is quite intriguing. The next mayor should pilot a cash transfer program, a public bank, and try to build a lot more housing. Cheerleading for the city can be goofy, but with a severe lack of tourists as the pandemic winds down, the next mayor must try very hard to get people from other states and countries here. Yang has energy, and that’s good to see. I don’t care that his favorite subway stop is in Times Square or he thinks a large, well-lit supermarket-like bodega is a bodega.
Mayors do not need all facts at their disposal at all times. They do not, on their own, need to craft policy. That’s what aides are for. But Yang cannot claim to want to lead this city and still struggle to answer simple questions from reporters. The 50-a question wasn’t a “gotcha”—the Post reporter merely wanted to know where he stood. Why was this knowledge gap here? Was it because Yang froze under pressure? Or did he just never bother to prepare in the first place?
The danger for Yang is that most affluent, left-leaning voters—on the Upper West Side, Brooklyn Heights, Astoria, Clinton Hill, and elsewhere—leave him off their ballots altogether. Anecdotally, this seems to be happening. These voters, many of them white, helped form Bill de Blasio’s winning coalition in 2013. Winning the primary while getting crushed in these neighborhoods during ranked-choice voting will not be an easy task.
Scott Stringer’s slide has meant Kathryn Garcia, the former de Blasio Sanitation commissioner, can surge toward the finish line, picking up these affluent voters. Yang could shrug off lousy headlines about a lack of policy expertise in February or even March. Now it’s almost June. Instead of ensuring the headlines fade away, he has only created more, emboldening critics and rivals.
Yang’s dilemma might be summed up in this recent Times column. James Poniewozik, the chief television critic, likened Yang to Donald Trump because both men are “post-embarrassment” candidates. Poniewozik wrote that Yang “has plenty of differences from the reality-TV star he ran to replace. But as a mayoral candidate, he is also testing the theory that in today’s politics, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign was a series of detonations that, as a seminal tweet put it, people were confident “ol Donny Trump” would never wriggle his way out of — all of which cemented his place as the lead of the antihero drama.”
“If Mr. Yang’s New York run is more cringe sitcom in genre, we can’t rule out that pattern’s repeating,” he continued. “More than once, people have compared him with Michael Scott of “The Office,” the clueless enthusiast and tourist who praised his favorite authentic New York pizza slice, from Sbarro.”
It’s easy to see that below the cool, stylized exterior, Poniewozik has great disdain for Yang. Most members of the prestige media do. They value the appearance of competence over any kind of ideology, and are distrustful of those who did not climb the municipal ranks in the way they are accustomed to. Yang has done nothing incendiary like Trump—arguably his worst transgression, an overly hawkish Israel tweet, would have gone unremarked upon in the 2013 Democratic primary—and has run, generally, a center-left campaign. Yang, very well, might be post-embarrassment, but what of Eric Adams, who once displayed dead rats at Borough Hall, railed against affordable housing for LGBT seniors (“I think about Frederick Douglass and the conversation about fighting for the independence of America,” Adams said. “He said ‘the arrogance of that those want me to fight for independence when I’m still a slave.’ I can’t celebrate a building that is not inclusive.”), and compared someone to the KKK for pointing out that he wasn’t condemning police for parking illegally? Adams isn’t famous like Yang. It’s possible that Poniewozik, before a few weeks or even days ago, had never heard of him.
Yang’s window for selling his competence to this segment of the electorate has probably come and gone. There are other candidates to choose from now, including the Times-endorsed Kathryn Garcia. Yang has said, so many times, that he’s voting for Garcia second that enough people may just rank her over him. She led a city agency and he didn’t. She will never not know what 50-a is or stumble over a question about homeless shelters. Yang didn’t need any experience to answer those questions with fluency, though. He just had to, like the well-educated person that he is, study harder.