Elections

Rise of the Pink Hats

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang speaks in Iowa City, Iowa, March 10, 2019. (Scott Morgan/REUTERS)
The meaning of Andrew Yang’s presidential-campaign-as-meme

In every meme there is a kernel of truth. And so it is with “NEETbux.” The meme, born on 4chan, is a portmanteau of money — “bucks” — that is paid out by the government, one’s parents, or an inheritance, to NEETs (an acronym coined 20 years ago by the U.K.’s aptly named Social Exclusion Task Force to refer to people Not in Employment, Education, or Training). To say you receive NEETbux is to lord that fact over people who work for a living, to put a positive spin on what is usually considered an embarrassing admission.

The kernel of truth in this meme is that the U.S., with its structural economic problems and its growing population of social outcasts, pays out NEETbux to a number of people that is large enough to give rise to the depressing term. Disability checks paid to the 30-year-old Battlefield V veteran with social anxiety are NEETbux. So too is the allowance paid to the high-school dropout who can’t be bothered to wake up in the morning, or whose job was automated away. And so too is presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s signature proposal to pay every citizen a $1,000 monthly universal basic income.

Yang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants and founder of recruitment nonprofit Venture for America, is running for president as a Democrat. Citing dysfunction and technological flux, he has staked his intrepid campaign on the message that the economy “is going wrong for millions of people” and that he will make “big moves” to right it. It’s landed with the NEETbux crowd. And so Yang has replaced Donald Trump as the meme candidate. On Twitter and 4chan, the red hats are being swapped for pink hats evoking the “vaporwave” aesthetic. The half-ironic #YangGang is the new half-ironic #MAGA. Few commentators know what to make of Yang himself. All that’s clear is that, having amassed more than 65,000 small-dollar donors, he will, improbably, be permitted to participate in the first Democratic primary debate.

Yang is not simply an avatar for the dispossessed. Less problematic than Trump, he has become a wider phenomenon in the net-literate world. Journalists have approvingly referenced #YangGang in a way that they never could the assorted tropes of the alt-right. Yang has been shrewd, doing everything an outsider without the instant name recognition and deep pockets of Donald Trump ought to do to generate buzz. He’s been written up in Bloomberg and Vox. He’s appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast, in what his campaign manager says was a breakthrough. He’s gone on Sam Harris’s podcast and Ezra Klein’s, the Breakfast Club radio show and Tucker Carlson Tonight. He’s held town-hall events in Iowa and New Hampshire. And perhaps most important, he operates a well-run, good-natured Twitter account.

The writer Wesley Yang has been tracking Andrew Yang’s rise since 2012. He suggests that the time is right for the U.S. to coalesce around an Asian American as a grand unifier, a “compromise candidate.” (He says this earnestly enough to make you think it’s not just a metaphor for his thesis on the peculiarities of the Asian-American condition.) In a country riven by conflict — whether between anxious whites who believe they are being steamrolled in service of a new order and those racial minorities who feel that the old order denied them an equal claim to belonging, or between a mobile knowledge class and a rooted lumpenproletariat that decreasingly counts itself as part of the labor force — maybe the time is right for someone who, “tasting the fruits of both [sides of the culture war], is denied the entitlements of either.” It’s a clever thought.

But the time is probably not quite right. Yang is polling at 1 percent, and while his policy set is impressively comprehensive (and suggests a familiarity with the hobby-horses of the technocratic blogosphere), his signature proposal is not the sort of thing that will mobilize Bernie Sanders supporters or the DSA crowd. He proposes “consolidating some welfare programs” to offset the cost of the universal dividend and wants to impose a 10 percent value-added tax to pay for it, opening him up to an attack from the left. It’s hard to see the DNC apparatus getting on board. Yang may offer something for everyone online, but his natural constituency can’t be much larger than the #YangGang.

So it may not be worth reading too much into this entrepreneur’s candidacy, which a few months from now will go into the books as a curiosity if it doesn’t disappear down the memory hole of the Internet that fueled it. But in every meme there is a kernel of truth, and inasmuch as Yang’s rise is a meme (not to belittle it, for it is impressive) it must indicate something. That NEETs remain anxious about their economic prospects? That their online activities continue to exert an outsize influence on the culture? That the guardrails to power are corroding? That the people are frustrated with a decadent political class that has failed to answer fraught economic and cultural questions, and are intrigued by a sharp man who defies the party duopoly and promises starry-eyed solutions?

I’ll defer to other commentators. But one minor truth Yang’s candidacy will cement is that while the cultural influence of the meme class may be disproportionately high, the ability of anonymous message-board users — whom credulous journalists said put Donald Trump in office and to whom Hillary Clinton dedicated an entire bewildering speech during her presidential campaign — to affect the vote count has been overstated.

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