The Opportunist: Andrew Yang's Third Party Gambit

Plus, some reflections on the internet and Occupy Wall Street on its 10th anniversary, and blockbuster revelations from inside Facebook.

When Politico’s Alex Thompson reported last week that Andrew Yang, failed 2020 presidential candidate and failed 2021 New York City mayoral candidate, was planning to launch a third political party next month, a lot of people jeered. “Finally, a political party devoted to the bedrock principle of selling one book,” one wag on Twitter responded, a reference to Yang’s forthcoming book Forward: Notes on the Future of our Democracy. “Can’t spell grift without rift,” another tweeted.

While the timing of Yang’s announcement is, of course, opportunistic, and his checkered record as a supposed “tech entrepreneur” a blinking-red warning light, there are several reasons to take this seriously. First, about 60% of Americans favor a third political party is as high as ever, as this February poll from Gallup shows. That isn’t anything new, however. Second, Yang has a knack for getting earned media along with a big social media following. Third, and most important, Yang has a unique donor base that is almost entirely his, and not very attached to either the Democratic or Republican parties. As I noted back in June, using a data analysis by Sam Learner, of the 333,000 individual donors to Yang through October 15, 2020, only about 40,000 of them gave to Joe Biden. If Yang finances his third party from grassroots donors, rather than a few fatcats, he could get around the biggest problem that hobbled Americans Elect, which tried to create a “centrist” third party back in 2010-12 by relying on secretive hedge fund billionaires. And by announcing this now, he could get a big jump on the state-by-state petitioning deadlines that stand in the way of any new party bid.

Yang himself is quite aware of his #YangGang base and has worked hard to maintain it. Speaking on his podcast last week with Josh Silver of Represent.Us, a campaign finance reform group, he noted the tribalism of American politics, observing that, “I discovered a new tribe through my presidential campaign [one] that responded to economics and technology talk and automation.” He added, glibly, “the task ahead of us is…to build this new tribe around a tribe [sic] of facts and truth and anti-corruption strengthening democracy.”

Yang reminds me a lot of Ross Perot, who I used to cover quite intensively in a previous lifetime. Perot was another businessman-turned-politician, whose independent run for president in 1992 garnered nearly 20 million votes and spawned the Reform Party, which was mostly a failure but did manage to elect Jesse Ventura governor of Minnesota in 1998. Yang, like Perot, enjoys throwing around economic statistics that purport to buttress his one big idea; Perot was obsessed with how America’s budget deficit was supposedly undermining the economy, Yang is obsessed with how automation is supposedly destroying millions of jobs. Yang, like Perot, also enjoys an inflated image of himself as a brilliant tech innovator; Perot, in fact, made his billions by overcharging the US government to process welfare payments. Yang’s Venture for America nonprofit was largely a failure.

Like Perot, Yang also attracts working-class supporters who are deeply alienated from both major parties, who like “plain-talking” politicians, and who seem willing to vest him with messianic potential. Russell Peterson, the co-host of the “GrassRoots #YangGang” YouTube channel, with 10,000 subscribers, is a self-described conservative and former Trump supporter who has long felt “politically homeless.” He says discovered Yang via Joe Rogan’s podcast and liked his emphasis on “humanity first” and “not left, not right, forward.” In 2020 he switched to Democrat to support Yang, driving all over the country to livestream his events along with his wife Elasa. Now they are ecstatic about Yang’s third party plans, he tells me. Peterson especially likes that Yang is promising to get corporate money out of politics by giving people “Democracy Dollars,” along with how his universal basic income proposal would fight poverty (and supposedly reduce demand for abortions).

Yang’s crossover appeal was evident early in the 2020 cycle, when Business Insider’s polling found that, among voters who hadn’t decided if they were voting Democrat or Republican, 46% said they’d be satisfied with Yang as the Democratic nominee. And apart from his ethnic base in New York City’s Asian communities, he did best in the mayoral primary among outer borough voters in places like Staten Island and Queens. “I’m kind of a funny fit for the Democratic primary electorate,” Yang told Silver in another flash of political candor.

Being a business failure with a high media profile isn’t necessarily a weakness in American politics, as one deeply indebted real-estate showman demonstrated in 2016. And Yang’s run for NYC mayor showed that he had no problem making bizarre political alliances, like his embrace of the city’s large Orthodox Jewish population, even if they contradict his supposed support for principles like “facts and truth and anti-corruption.” Shameless opportunism can get you far. People who are saying nice things about Yang now, like tech journalist Kara Swisher, celebrity activist Van Jones, and Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, all of whom have blurbed his new book, are revealing more about themselves and their own hunger for a magic solution to America’s problems than anything else. But like it or not, Yang is going to be player in our ongoing political circus. It would be wise not to ignore him.

-Bonus link: Answer 20 quick questions to find out which of six hypothetical political parties you’re most aligned with, courtesy of political scientist Lee Drutman in The New York Times.

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Occupy at 10

This Friday is the 10th Anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the anarchist encampment that briefly mushroomed into a global movement and reframed how we talk about inequality in America and beyond. I have a piece reflecting on Occupy’s successes and failures coming out in The New Republic later this week, which I’ll email you a link to once it’s posted online. For now, I just want to comment on how much Occupy, as an experiment, mirrored the Internet’s own structure and rules.

As David Weinberger and Doc Searls wrote years ago, the Internet’s three virtues are “No one owns it; Everyone can use it; and Anyone can improve it.” Occupy Wall Street was not owned by anyone. Anyone could start an occupation. And plenty of people used the Occupy brand to start their own working groups and projects, drafting on its momentary power. At its height, in October 2011, Occupy had tremendous public support. A National Journal poll found that 59% of American adults either completely or mostly agreed with the protesters, and 2/3 said they were paying attention to their rallies. And there were Occupiers holding ground in hundreds of cities. Back then, with the help of a data scientist named Shane Castlien, who dug through the available Facebook data, we tallied more than 800 Facebook groups that cumulatively had garnered more than three million “likes” by the end of 2011. That’s a lot of people who joined in.

In preparation for writing that piece for The New Republic, I re-read Nathan Schneider’s excellent book, Thank You Anarchy: Notes From the Occupy Apocalypse, which does a terrific job at chronicling and wrestling with the kaleidoscope of activities spawned by Occupy. As Schneider put it, “The Internet, in its own way, was … occupied by this movement.” Not only that, he points out that Occupy itself was deeply devoted to open source. On September 23, 2011, the NYC General Assembly passed a working draft of its “Principles of Solidarity” that articulated the movement’s core values. Those included engaging in direct and transparent participatory democracy, “recognizing individuals inherent privilege and the include it has on all interactions,” and a commitment to education as a human right. But lo and behold, at the end of that short list is this: “Endeavoring to practice and support wide application of open source.” Justine Tunney, a transgender internet security expert who registered OccupyWallSt.org early on, told Schneider that the site was fully open source. “It’s under full revision control, so you can see every change I make…Go through this history; it’s all up here.”

Occupy’s commitments to radical participatory democracy, transparency, and open source culture contributed to its rapid spread and also to its eventual collapse. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Black Lives Matter, the next major political movement to arise in America from people uniting around a hashtag, embraced decentralization but shied away from Occupy’s opposition to formal leaders and spokespeople. But for the people who were swept up in that fall’s American Spring, Occupy was also life-changing. It gave them a taste of utopia and democracy far richer than anything else on offer, and stands as a marker of how a network of humans can, with the help of an open network, become a global phenomenon nearly overnight.

-Bonus link: The CUNY Graduate Center is hosting a great panel on Occupy Wall Street next Wednesday, September 22 at 7:30pm, featuring Suresh Naidu, professor of economics and international and public affairs at Columbia University; Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy; and Nelini Stamp, national director of strategy and partnership for the Working Families Party.

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Life Inside Facebookistan

The Wall Street Journal is rolling out a series of tough investigative stories on Facebook, starting with yesterday’s piece by Jeff Horwitz detailing how an internal program known as “XCheck” shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement processes pertaining to everything from revenge porn to medical misinformation. A 2019 internal memo by Facebook researchers, called “The Political Whitelist Contradicts Facebook’s Core State Principles,” said, “We are knowingly exposing users to misinformation that we have the processes and resources to mitigate.”

The Journal reports that, “In an internal comment in response to the memo, Samidh Chakrabarti, an executive who headed Facebook’s Civic Team, which focuses on political and social discourse on the platform, voiced his discomfort with the exemptions. ‘One of the fundamental reasons I joined FB Is that I believe in its potential to be a profoundly democratizing force that enables everyone to have an equal civic voice. So having different rules on speech for different people is very troubling to me.” (Last week, Chakrabarti, who was a frequent attendee and speaker at the annual TiCTEC conference on civic tech and, from my perspective, someone who tried in many ways to improve Facebook from within, left the company.)

Kate Klonick, a law professor at St. John’s University who was given special access by Facebook to study how the company set up its $130 million Oversight Board, said the XCheck documents show that Facebook misled the board. “Why would they spend so much time and money setting up the Oversight Board, then lie to it?” she said of Facebook after reviewing XCheck documentation at the Journal’s request. “This is going to completely undercut it.”

Today’s story in the Journal, by Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman, details how much Facebook’s internal researchers have learned about how Instagram, its photo-sharing app, harms its youthful users, especially teenage girls. “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from 2019. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.” 13% of British users and 6% of American users reporting suicidal thoughts traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram, one presentation showed. Lean in, anyone?

Meanwhile, company executives from Marc Zuckerberg on down continue to claim that its apps have positive effects. “The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits,” Zuckerberg said at a congressional hearing in March 2021 when asked about children and mental health. He is still hoping to roll out a new Instagram product for children under 13. Some Instagram researchers said it was challenging to get other colleagues to hear the gravity of their findings, the Journal reports. Plus, “We’re standing directly between people and their bonuses,” one former researcher said.

Odds and Ends

Don’t Build It: A Guide for Practitioners in Civic Tech/Tech for Development,” by Luke Jordan of MIT’s GovLab, is an instant addition to the civic tech literature. Sorry I didn’t see it when it first came out in April.

Long-read but a must: “Revolt of the Delivery Workers,” by Josh Dzieza in Curbed.com.