Usually you have to win to leave a legacy. But the rules have never applied to Andrew Yang.
Yang’s cannonball run for New York City mayor flew fast and high, before plummeting to an earthly fourth place on Tuesday. As Yang rides off toward his next shiny object, it shouldn’t be lost on us how his trajectory was even possible.
The justification for Yang’s candidacy was celebrity, built on a charming presidential run and a boatload of charisma. He doesn’t wear a tie. He doesn’t vote. He doesn’t look or sound like others. He had no political baggage, scores to settle, or chits to honor. Yang saw a rulebook early on that wasn’t written for him and ignored it.
In his mayoral campaign, he was the first to slip Zoom and hit the streets. Reporters and opponents chased after, as Yang sucked up the race’s early oxygen to become the candidate of movement and energy. He isn’t normal, but he looked like pre-pandemic normalcy as the only 3-D figure in a flat field—a push he kept up even after he had to isolate when an aide caught the virus, and then again when he did.
As others plodded carefully curated media plans, Yang hogged the cameras and chatted with anyone who would listen. As others leaned into the en vogue language of the online left, Yang spoke like someone you’d actually want to talk to—vulnerabilities and all. While his campaign lived on Twitter, Yang never mistook its heartbeat for real life.
Yang’s social media platform was, itself, something of a policy platform. The medium is often Yang’s message—and reporters heard it. While the internet idea of Andrew Yang has always dwarfed the man, he leveraged extremely online reporters to make that hologram possible.
Where others would triangulate and obfuscate, Yang seemed comfortable admitting to the great many things he doesn’t know. When he’d slip, he’d move colorfully across the city to change the story. It’s hard to pin down politicians who never dig in.
Yang knew he needed to make the race a popularity contest. He danced, he cheered, he made sure it wasn’t a chore to be a part of it all. When his people heard him say he was winning, they felt like they were, too.
As opponents wasted time perfecting tomes, Yang’s policy book was a business card: cash relief, open schools, safer streets. He seemed the only one who knew our tired city didn’t have the energy to parse the particulars.
When it came to the teachers’ union, police reform, and mentally ill homeless, he shared popular views many progressives would only admit privately.
Yang seemed to know exactly where there was daylight between New York City politics of 2021 and opponents schooled in the past.
And they never quite knew what to do with him.
The field foolishly ignored him before foolishly obsessing over him. They went after his Hudson Valley house and no-show voting until remembering just how many voters they were criticizing in the process. They clumsily muddled fair critiques of his New York know-how with more loaded suggestions of carpetbagging.
None of the attacks stuck. In the end, it was Yang himself who flopped.
In a race with little big thinking, Yang didn’t cough up the lead because he couldn’t deliver something larger than his warmed-up and trimmed-down basic income proposal. It was the small stuff that did him in.
As voters tuned in, Yang badly botched basic questions on the MTA, he proposed things that already existed, like homeless shelters for victims of domestic abuse, and he showed scant understanding of the city’s finances. Yang even wanted us to believe his buddy Chris Cuomo would help him navigate his governor brother in Albany.
The difference between staying out of the weeds and not knowing the basics became clear as the race sobered. Moments of refreshing policy curiosity became flirtations with civic anti-intellectualism. Once a maverick willing to touch third rails, Yang was made to sweat too easily by small questions for someone auditioning for the second-hardest job in American politics.
As his path got muddier, Yang fell hard off his high horse. He complained about media coverage, without admitting how central the overexposure had been to his legitimacy. He attacked other candidates and he couldn’t handle a few protesters. The cheerleading anti-politician all of a sudden seemed like a candidate we’d seen many times before. The wholesome bit that originally felt authentic quickly seemed like more of an act.
Though I suppose it may always have been.
Eric Adams, Maya Wiley and Kathryn Garcia aren’t natural charmers. They didn’t sell themselves so much as they sold tested models of leadership. They’re accomplished representatives of schools of thought. The rationale for Yang was always, well, Yang.
In Yang’s rise and fall, these are lessons.
The crusty nature of our city’s politics is ripe for a shakeup. The Yang campaign exposed the need for fresh thinking. The media and public rewarded Yang for breaking some rules, saying what others tiptoe around, and baiting reporters with joy where they live online.
Not all press is good press. But most of it is. Yang flooded the zone, pared down his message to real language, and controlled the conversation. It gave him easier exits from early stumbles, even if he couldn’t ultimately survive under the bright lights he turned on.
No campaign—and Yang’s was excellent—can paper over a candidate who hasn’t done his homework. Celebrity helps, but that you can win shouldn’t be the rationale for it. For a guy who ran a test prep company, Yang didn’t cram enough to make up for his breezy resume.
We should be wary of cult candidates. Yang went from in on the joke to the butt of it partly because he couldn’t muster charm when he started losing. You can’t put on a show and then be upset when people come to see it.
His gang of supposedly data-minded disrupters didn’t help. They proved mostly to be government-skeptical disenchants and millennial libertarians who speak fluent internet. Like any cult, the closing days saw many mirror Yang’s devolution from happy warrior to sore loser.
But attributing Yang’s early success to his celebrity alone ignores the counter conventions that stymied his more experienced opponents for most of this race. Like many in the city’s political firmament are bound to do, it will be foolish to dismiss the campaign’s approach just because its candidate lost.
Yang’s fall wasn’t the result of campaign miscalculation or an opponent with a breakout performance. As the race matured, Yang just didn’t know what he was talking about. Had he done even a little more homework, his campaign’s read of the field and the moment could have made him mayor.