Can the Yang Gang Make Money a Force for Good in Politics?
Yang’s supporters have a faith in money that could upend campaign fundraising as we know it.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the Yang Gang's faith in money could upend campaign fundraising as we know it.
Dozens have gathered on the Santa Monica Pier in California to tout their support for Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur and upstart Democrat presidential candidate best known for his support of universal basic income. But their jovial sign waving and slogan shouting has upset one bystander — a busker playing a guitar nearby. “I hope you guys go away pretty soon, because, man, this is really messing up my show,” the musician, Larry Poling, says.
Instead of arguing with him, two Yang fans step up and place a dollar bill in the busker’s bucket. And then another donates. And another. Soon, Poling is surrounded by Yang supporters, a seemingly unstaged demonstration of the positive effect money can have on individual lives — emblematic of a candidate who has run on a platform of giving each American citizen $1,000 a month, with a slogan of “Humanity First.”
Cash has mostly been a boogeyman of American politics, particularly since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling ushered in an era of virtually unlimited spending by shady actors. Yet where others have focused dollars on advertising more traditionally, the Yang Gang is also giving out cash to support individual campaigners.
That’s potentially controversial. Just as conservatives have sought creative ways to skirt campaign finance laws, one could argue the Yang Gang’s creative crowdsourcing tactics are in-kind donations of their own — contributions aiding the campaign without having to be disclosed publicly.
But there’s no denying that by using unconventional tactics — from trading Twitter follows for campaign contributions and handing out “Democracy Dollars” for elections to “stock banking” — they’re transforming the conversation around money and its influence on politics.
“The question is, How do you counter a system held captive by lobbyists?” Yang says. “We need a new source of money that’s tied to our people.”
Collecting small amounts from ordinary voters is a strategy other campaigns have adopted too. In 2012, Elizabeth Warren, now a presidential candidate as well, raised more money from small-dollar online donors in Massachusetts than in any Senate campaign ever. In 2016, Bernie Sanders, another White House contender, nationalized the focus on small donors as a way of combating corporate greed and the outsize influence of super PACs in the electoral system. “It’s the idea of a lot of people banding together and sort of offering up what they can,” says Amanda Coulombe, the get-out-the-vote director for Warren in 2012.
But Yang’s campaign is going a step further to argue that money should be seen as a public good, capable of fostering trust and encouraging community, at a time when Democrats are increasingly skeptical of its role in society.
Some Yang supporters have opened accounts with Robinhood, the free stock-trading app, promising to donate stocks to the campaign through a process nicknamed #StockBanking. A trucker who goes by the online moniker Fred the Felon raised $10,000 in less than 12 hours to wrap a Yang banner around his truck. Another fan, Heidi, crowdfunded $1,228 to put a Yang decal on her jeep, which she has been touring Iowa with. Heidi eventually returned the money because she was worried about violating campaign finance law, but she’s now offering to write a personalized chalk message in Iowa supporting Yang for a $60 contribution to the campaign.
After Yang offered $1,000 per month for 12 months to people who retweeted and followed him this summer — a model for his UBI platform that doubled as an extremely cost-efficient marketing campaign — some supporters have followed suit by promising to donate $1 (or more) for each new follower they get. The blatantly transactional tactic is surprisingly effective … leading to thousands of followers.
Sure, some of those proclaimed Yang supporters could be taking advantage of his fan base’s generosity, pocketing the contributions for themselves (most post screenshots as “proof”). But the trust involved is part of the point of Yang’s platform, argues Scott Santens, a UBI expert and Yang supporter. UBI puts primacy on straight cash, rather than benefit programs offering food or health care, as creating a safety net. “That’s what basic income is: that we should unconditionally trust everyone with sufficient access to everyone’s basic needs,” he says. “There is the same element here, where we are more trusting of each other — it’s OK to think of this as a mutually beneficial thing.”
Yang’s optimistic view of cash is not similarly shared by other Democratic candidates. He criticizes what he calls a rules-based approach to politics. “It’s not so much a rules problem; it’s a power problem,” says Yang, who has talked about advocating “human-centered capitalism” over democratic socialism.
Indeed, there is a reason Sanders supporters haven’t had similarly cash-focused schemes, even if they do emphasize the democratic power of small-dollar donations, says Santens, who backed Sanders in 2016. “It does tie into the ideology. I definitely don’t see it in the Bernie or Warren camps.”
Another Yang campaign strategy, Democracy Dollars, would give citizens $100 each to donate to their favorite candidate. A similar voucher program in Seattle led to a 250 percent increase in city residents who made a campaign contribution in local elections, according to a study by the University of Washington.
Such direct methods like Yang’s have another benefit over mandatory public financing models that give money to candidates rather than common people, notes Beth Rotman, director of money in politics and ethics at the public watchdog Common Cause. Yang’s model engages “everyday Americans,” while public financing alternatives may “encourage people not to donate,” she says. Contributing to campaigns has been tied by campaign finance experts like Michael Malbin to increased civic participation.
Yang differs ideologically with the emphasis on public financing espoused by Sanders and Warren, with Santens describing their views as “neoliberal paternalism … [that] people don’t know what’s best for themselves.”
So while candidates like Yang, Sanders and Warren may seem alike on several fronts — from their calls for reform to their small-donor support — their worldviews on money paint very different pictures. Money does talk, and for Yang, it’s a positive message.