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Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson Get Their Shot

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So Yang, a 44-year-old entrepreneur, and Williamson, a 66-year-old best-selling author of spiritual self-help books, will have the same platform in Miami to make their case for the presidency as former Vice President Joe Biden, three-term Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and the rest of the Democratic field. Yang and Williamson share a view that the United States is fundamentally in decline and in need of transformative policies to right itself. Yang sees a mounting economic crisis caused by automation that has already displaced millions of American workers. “These changes are going to get bigger and more disruptive,” he told me. “We’re in the third inning of what experts are calling the fourth industrial revolution—the greatest economic transformation in the history of our country.”

To Williamson, the problems run even deeper. “Our country has devolved,” she told me over coffee recently, “from a democracy to a veiled aristocracy.”

Each of them cleared the deliberately low bar that the Democratic National Committee set for inclusion in the first debates: They secured donations from more than 65,000 individuals across the country, and they reached 1 percent in at least three national or early-state polls.

The criteria elicited concern among party insiders that the debates, spread out over two nights to accommodate 20 contenders, would degenerate into a substance-free circus. The rules also prompted predictable criticism from the candidates who struggled to make the cut, none louder than Montana Governor Steve Bullock, the most prominent Democrat excluded from the first round of debates. Bullock’s campaign accused the DNC of making a “secret rule change” that blocked him from qualifying, and he ran an ad in which a supporter called the decision “horseshit.” Yet when viewed from another perspective, the rules announced in February were refreshingly democratic. Whether by design or not, they created a dynamic in which a traditional political résumé was neither necessary nor sufficient to qualify for the debates. Sitting senators, governors, and congressmen were not guaranteed spots simply by virtue of their position, and it was, as Yang put it to me, “possible for a citizen, through the will of the people” to achieve a measure of parity with the party’s biggest stars.

“It was the greatest coup for us that the DNC put that goal out,” Yang told me.

In his sparsely furnished campaign office, just south of Times Square, a handful of young, mostly male campaign staffers were getting ready to jump on a conference call the DNC was holding about the debate rules. On the tables were surplus supplies of the “Yang Gang”’s counter to Trump’s red MAGA hats: blue baseball caps emblazoned, in all caps, with the word MATH. Situated in this retail hub in the heart of Manhattan, Yang’s headquarters happens to be surrounded by the very businesses—a McDonald’s around the corner, a Starbucks and a Pret a Manger at either end of the block—whose jobs, he said, are most threatened by automation. Yang’s style is unfiltered but not unguarded; he’s funny—and yes, somewhat nerdy—without being vitriolic.

A campaign sign inside Andrew Yang’s New York headquarters (David Williams)

Yang’s campaign, centered on his proposal to provide every American adult with a universal basic income of $12,000 a year until they’re eligible for Medicare, has attracted support from young progressives, a fair amount of libertarians, and despite his disavowals, even some white nationalists. He’s drawn thousands to his rallies across the country and inspired meme-filled Yang Gang anthems on YouTube. Yang blew past the 65,000-donor mark in March and told me he’s already closing in on the 130,000-contributor threshold the DNC set for its debates in the fall. He regularly hits 1 percent—and occasionally a bit higher—in the polls, and while he’s not threatening Biden’s front-runner status, Yang consistently registers in the top half of the crowded Democratic field, ahead of more established names like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York; Julián Castro, the former federal housing secretary; and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

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