Can Yang Do for UBI What Bernie Did for 'Medicare for All'?

Can Yang Do for UBI What Bernie Did for 'Medicare for All'?

Democratic U.S. presidential hopeful Andrew Yang at a campaign rally in Washington, D.C.

SourceAlex Wong/Getty

Why you should care

Because this contender wants to give you an extra thousand bucks a month.

With 14 Democrats campaigning for president on some version of “Medicare for All,” it’s hard to remember that a single-payer health care system was considered a pipe dream when Sen. Bernie Sanders raised it just four years ago. Hillary Clinton told Iowans it would “never, ever come to pass,” and most political insiders agreed. That’s fundamentally changed since President Donald Trump’s election. Today, another underdog issue might similarly hit the mainstream, courtesy of an outsider candidate with a devoted fan base: entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Universal basic income (UBI), long confined to the outer stretches of policy papers, is the central pillar of Yang’s candidacy. Calling it his “Freedom Dividend,” Yang proposes giving every American $1,000 a month in guaranteed income from government funds. His goal? To help stave off the threat of lost jobs due to workforce automation. And Yang and his raucous band of #YangGang supporters are no longer alone.

While everyone from free-market capitalist Milton Friedman to Martin Luther King Jr. has entertained the notion in the past, front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden and Mayor Pete Buttigieg have started mimicking Yang about the threat of automation on the stump. Buttigieg even told Pod Save America that UBI’s an idea “worth taking seriously.”

Yang has injected universal basic income into this election to the same effect that Bernie Sanders did to … Medicare for All, specifically, in 2016.

Arun Chaudhary, creative director for the 2016 Sanders campaign

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson have both said UBI is needed (Williamson adopted it as part of her platform after hearing Yang speak). John Delaney and Bill de Blasio are proposing taxes similar to Yang’s “robot tax,” although the latter proposed it as an alternative to UBI, which he believes “overlooks the intrinsic value of a job.”

“Yang has injected universal basic income into this election to the same effect that Bernie Sanders did to income inequality, generally, and Medicare for All, specifically, in 2016,” says Arun Chaudhary, creative director for the 2016 Sanders campaign, who has worked with three presidential campaigns this cycle but is currently unaffiliated. All three of his candidates, Chaudhary says, “felt they had a strong relationship with Andrew Yang. They had been convinced on UBI to some extent, after coming into it with a negative reaction, or no opinion.”

It’s no coincidence that other candidates are rushing to support or offer alternatives to UBI as Yang continues to rise. After starting out virtually unknown, Yang is at 5 percent, and fifth among candidates, according to a Hill-HarrisX poll released yesterday. That poll is an outlier, but his average — 2.5 percent, in seventh place — still places Yang ahead of three senators, five former or current House members, a governor and a billionaire.

He is the most searched candidate on Google leading into tonight’s debate, the third round, according to data platform SEMrush. In August, people Googled Andrew Yang 170 percent more times than they did Biden, the second most searched candidate. With that rising platform, awareness around UBI has also grown. During Yang’s debate appearances, Google searches of “UBI” in the United States jumped to nearly five-year highs. “Even if he doesn’t win, it’s going to be a different election next time around. I think basic income will be … a major policy next election,” says Scott Santens, editor of the UBI News Hub and a Yang supporter.

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Candidate Andrew Yang discusses gun safety in Des Moines, Iowa.

Source Stephen Maturen/Getty

The concept’s expected rise has precedence. After casting it as unreasonable in 2016, Democrats in the Trump era have recognized that universal health care resonates with most Americans, not just their base — an issue that fed the blue wave in the 2018 midterms. Now some 65 percent of Americans say they support a Medicare for All plan, with four-fifths of Democrats backing it and independents favoring it by a 2-to-1 margin, according to a poll by RealClear Opinion Research earlier this year.

Even skepticism from the likes of de Blasio suggests UBI has arrived. “Before, you could kind of wave it off or dismiss it,” says Santens. “Now it’s this serious policy. You have to have a stance on it and people are going to judge you based on that stance.”

Yang’s UBI campaign faces limiting factors. His online support hasn’t led to a major breakthrough with the American public — he still has low name recognition in a crowded field, while Sanders benefited from being the clear opposition candidate against Clinton in 2016. If he should lose, Yang won’t have a Senate perch to continue pushing his agenda from, as Sanders did. And polls show that support for UBI remains mixed: A majority, 57 percent, opposed his plan to give Americans $1,000 per month in a March poll conducted by Hill-HarrisX.

Still, voters didn’t back Medicare for All originally either. And like Medicare for All, UBI is mainly split along age. Voters ages 18 to 49 had majority support for UBI in that same Hill-HarrisX poll in March, which suggests the next generation of voters may be more supportive.

In the past week alone, Yang supporters have made #YangMediaBlackout and #YangBeatsTrump trend on Twitter. The latter came after an Emerson poll showed Yang had the second-highest estimated margin of victory (8 points) over Trump in New Hampshire, trailing only Biden. “In this case, his lower name recognition may allow voters to idealize his candidacy,” says Spencer Kimball, director of Emerson Polling.

That same Emerson poll showed that Sanders had dropped to just 13 percent support, which may explain why Sanders supporters — perhaps fearing that their candidate’s fall is from leaking young voters — have been feuding recently with Yang backers, many of whom trend younger and supported Sanders in 2016. After a Yang fan tweeted that Republicans and independents should register as Democrats to vote for Yang in closed primary states this spring, a Sanders supporter responded that she was done with engaging with the #YangGang in good faith — arguing that they were encouraging non-Democrats to unduly influence the primary (a charge that Sanders himself was often accused of in 2016). Another Bernie supporter took offense at a tweet Yang liked:

“There is always going to be that push-pull in the parties,” Santens says. Still, the conflict shows the difficulty of building a broad coalition, particularly over an issue as contentious as UBI (which Sanders previously showed an interest in but has since rejected for a job-guarantee-based plan). Whether or not Yang can ultimately push UBI into reality will depend on one thing: numbers.

“If it doesn’t happen, it’s because we didn’t get enough people,” Santens says. “We didn’t reach the kind of tipping point where there are so many people really excited about basic income that they make it happen … I think it’s only going to keep growing, just like Medicare for All.”

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