Andrew Yang spoke to many attendees about his push for election reform, the threat AI poses to the average American, and other issues related to his political party, the Forward Party, at the Irvine Barclay on November 15. The event was part of the UCI School of Social Ecology Distinguished Speaker Series, hosted by Dean of Social Ecology, Jon Gould.
Yang began the talk by introducing himself as the son of immigrants who had never planned to become a politician. According to Yang, he grew up in a home that emphasized academic and professional achievement.
One of the key areas Yang focused on in his talk concerned the “dysfunctional nature” of the US electoral system. Despite Yang’s triumph in improving public sentiment toward the concept of a universal basic income, Yang said she still felt “terrible” about the direction US policy is taking.
He noted that the approval rating of Congress is currently between 20-30% and that despite this low approval rating, 94% of Congress is re-elected each voting cycle.
“We are being fooled by the biggest design flaw in the history of the world,” Yang said.
In his view, modern American politics has gone awry because “90% of the country’s electoral districts are actually drawn to be very blue or very red overall. You know if you’re going to be represented by a democrat or a republican from the start…so what this means is if i’m a member of congress and i know if i make it to the general election i’m going to win because my district is blue or red, do you? how can i lose my job?
Yang stated that the answer to this problem lies in the US primary elections.
In a primary election, candidates from each party compete against each other. The winners of the primary elections are then placed on the ballots for the general election, which determines which candidates will be voted into office. In a state that typically votes blue like California, primary-winning Democratic candidates who run for state offices like governor and secretary of state will usually end up winning the general election as well.
Yang quoted an unnamed US senator to illustrate his point and explain why Congress seems to make little effective change on key issues.
“A problem is worth more to us if it is not addressed than if it is addressed. Because if it’s not addressed, I can piss them off, I can get votes, and I can raise money,” he said.
“What happens if I lean in and try to address the problem? I get attacked from within my own group, I [get accused of working] with the enemy, I’m [considered] ideologically impure. My job security goes down and I get elected in the primaries.”
Yang said that is why he is fighting for electoral reform.
“You now have a two-sided system where each side is rewarded more for staying in their corner and blaming the other side than for having to close the gap and do anything. [about the issue],” he said.
He asserted that the design flaw is that politicians are not incentivized to act based on the will of the American people, but rather the ideologically “extremist” 10-12% of members of Congress who can make or break the chances that a legislator will get elected in the primaries
Yang’s solution to this problem involves the adoption of nonpartisan primaries and a ranked-choice voting system. Under a nonpartisan primary, anyone can run for any office without necessarily indicating their party affiliation, while allowing voters to vote for any candidate regardless of party affiliation. This means that Democrats would be allowed to vote for Republican candidates and vice versa in primary elections.
With a ranked-choice voting system, voters rank candidates by personal preference. If the voters’ first-choice candidates receive no more than 50% of the first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated. Those who cast their first-choice votes for the eliminated candidate would see their votes transferred to their second-choice candidate. The process continues until one candidate obtains a majority of the votes.
Yang pointed to the success of these voting systems in Alaska, where former Alaska Governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin lost her 2022 bid for the Alaska House seat to the Democratic nominee and Alaska Native Mary Peltola under her recently implemented ranked nonpartisan primary -By-Choice Voting System. She also advocated for the fiscal viability of election reform, as Alaska spent approximately $6 million transitioning to ranked-choice and nonpartisan primary voting systems.
In the second half of the event, Yang sat down for an interview with Gould, who asked questions that had been submitted by students.
During the interview, Yang was interrupted twice by different members of the audience, who made comments related to the UC academic workers’ strike that began the day before the event.
The first interruption came when Yang spoke about the political and ideological division of the United States. A man who had positioned himself in front of the theater yelled “On the subject of public education, 48,000 academic workers are currently on strike at the University of California. So does the Forward Party endorse crossing the picket lines to collect a speaking fee, or is that a unique personal position?
The comments were met with a roll of eyes by Gould, who asked the interrupter to leave, saying there were “plenty of other opportunities for us to discuss that topic on campus.” The man was then removed from the theater as other audience members could be heard making comments such as “get out of here”.
Yang declined to comment, saying he was “not aware of the details of what is happening in terms of negotiations.”
The question and answer portion continued as Yang talked about inflation rates and the impacts he has observed it has had on his community. Minutes later, another audience member interrupted the interview segment, yelling, “Bernie Sanders supports workers, why don’t you? Your party is a joke! Support workers!”
Gould simply responded with “thanks for coming,” and Yang didn’t reply.
Dean of the School of Social Ecology Jon Gould and Andrew Yang react to a man shouting from the audience about the UAW strike. Image from Youtube / Faculty of Social Ecology of the UCI
As the chat continued, Gould informed Yang that Trump had just announced his candidacy for the 2024 election. “So we only have a couple of minutes left. As you and I were talking, former President Donald Trump just announced his re-election campaign.”
Yang provided his first public comments on Trump’s announcement, stating that “the fact that this man successfully ran for president and may be the Republican nominee this time just shows how much our system needs a turnaround.”
Yang also discussed the possible Democratic Party nominee, President Joe Biden. “If we have a rematch between Biden and Trump, I want everyone to reflect on what that would say about our system. His combined age will be 159 years. In a country of 330 million people, do we really think those will be our top two options?
With the event drawing to a close, Gould asked Yang about his intention to run for president again, to which Yang replied, “I am not driven by the desire to hold any particular office or position. I just want our country to have a positive outcome where our lives get better and we don’t live in fear. So [if] Is there something I can do that pushes us in that direction? I’ll seriously consider it. And there are people I know who are in the same boat.”
Simon Jeau is a Campus News intern for the Fall 2022 term. He can be reached at [email protected].