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Andrew Yang Visits UCI for Distinguished Speaker Series

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Andrew Yang spoke to numerous attendees about his push for voting reform, the threat AI poses to the average American and other topics that relate to his political party, the Forward Party at the Irvine Barclay on Nov. 15. The event was part of the UCI School of Social Ecology’s Distinguished Speaker Series, hosted by Social Ecology Dean Jon Gould.

Yang began the talk by introducing himself as the son of immigrants who had never planned on becoming a politician. According to Yang, he grew up in a household that emphasized academic and professional achievement.

One of the key areas Yang focused on in his talk pertained to the “dysfunctional nature” of the American electoral system. Despite Yang’s triumph in improving public sentiment towards the concept of a universal basic income, Yang said he still felt “terrible” about the direction that American politics is heading. 

He pointed out that the approval rating of Congress is currently between 20- 30%, and that despite this low approval rating, 94% of Congress is re-elected every voting cycle.

 “We’re being set up by the biggest design flaw in the history of the world,” Yang said. 

In his opinion, modern American politics have gone awry because “90%of congressional districts in the country are actually drawn to be either very blue, or very red in general. You kind of know if it’s going to be a Democrat or Republican representing you from the get-go … so what this means is that if I’m a member of Congress and I know if I get through to the general election I’m going to win because my district is either blue or red, how can I actually lose my job?”  

Yang claimed that the answer to this issue lies in the U.S. primary elections. 

In a primary election, candidates of each party run against each other. The winners of primary elections are then placed on ballots for the general election, which determines which candidates will be voted into office. In a state that typically votes blue like California, primary-winning democratic candidates running for state-wide positions like Governor and Secretary of State will typically end up winning general elections as well. 

Yang quoted an unnamed female U.S. senator to illustrate his point and explain why little effective change seems to be made by Congress on key issues. 

“An issue is worth more to us unaddressed than addressed. Because if it’s unaddressed I can get you mad, I can get votes, and I can raise money on it,” he said. 

“What happens if I lean forward and try and address the problem? I get attacked from within my own party, I [get accused of working] with the enemy, I’m [considered] ideologically impure. My job security goes down and I get primaried”. 

Yang said it is for this reason that he fights for voting reform.

 “You have a two-sided system now where each side is actually more rewarded for staying in their corner and blaming the other side than actually having to bridge the gap and do anything [about the issue],” he said. 

He claimed that the design flaw is that politicians are incentivized not to act based on the will of the American people, but on the 10-12% of ideologically “extreme” members of Congress who can make or break a legislator’s chances at being elected in the primaries. 

Yang’s solution to this issue involves the adoption of nonpartisan primaries and a ranked choice voting system. Under a nonpartisan primary, anyone can run for any given office without necessarily stating their party affiliation, while also allowing voters to vote for any candidate regardless of their party affiliation. This means that Democrats would be allowed to vote for Republican candidates and vice-versa in the primary elections. 

With a ranked-choice voting system, voters rank candidates by personal preference. If voters’ first choice candidates fail to receive greater than 50% of first choice votes, then the candidate with the lowest amount of first choice votes is eliminated. Those who placed their first choice votes for the eliminated candidate would see their votes transferred to their second choice candidate. The process continues until one candidate holds the majority of votes.

Yang pointed out the success of these voting systems in Alaska, where former Alaska Gov. and 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin lost her 2022 bid for Alaska’s House seat to Alaskan native and Democratic candidate Mary Peltola under its newly implemented non-partisan primary and ranked-choice voting system. He also argued for the fiscal feasibility of voting reform, with Alaska having spent roughly six million dollars in its transition to nonpartisan primary and ranked-choice voting systems. 

In the latter half of the event, Yang sat down for an interview with Gould, who asked questions that had been submitted by students. 

During the interview, Yang was interrupted twice by different members of the audience, both of whom made remarks relating to the strike by UC academic workers that started the day prior to the event.

The first interruption took place as Yang spoke about U.S. political and ideological division. A man who had positioned himself at the front of the theatre yelled “on the topic of public education, 48,000 academic workers are currently on strike at the University of California. So does the Forward Party endorse crossing picket lines to collect a speaking fee, or is that a unique personal position?”

The remarks were met with eye rolls by Gould, who asked the interrupting individual to leave and said that there were “plenty of other opportunities for us to discuss that issue on campus.” The man was then ushered out of the theatre, as other audience members could be heard making remarks like “get out of here.” 

Yang declined to comment, stating that he was not “aware of the particulars of what’s going on in terms of negotiation.”

The Q&A portion continued as Yang spoke on the inflation rates and the impacts that he has observed it has had on his community. Minutes later, a different member of the audience interrupted the interview segment, shouting “Bernie Sanders supports workers, why don’t you! Your party’s a joke! Support workers!”

Gould simply answered with “thank you for coming,” and Yang did not respond.

School of Social Ecology Dean Jon Gould and Andrew Yang react to a man yelling from the audience about the UAW strike. Image from Youtube / UCI School of Social Ecology

As the talk continued, Gould informed Yang that Trump had just announced his candidacy for the 2024 election. “So we only have a couple minutes left. While you and I have been speaking, former President Donald Trump just announced his re-election campaign.” 

Yang provided his first public comments on Trump’s announcement, stating that “the fact that this man successfully ran for president and may be the Republican nominee this time around just shows how much our system needs a rebound.”

Yang also spoke on the Democratic Party’s potential candidate, President Joe Biden, as well. “If we have a Biden vs. Trump rematch, I want you all to reflect on what that would say about our system. Their combined age will be 159. In a country of 330 million people do we really think those are going to be our two best choices?” 

With the event drawing to a close, Gould asked Yang about his intent to run for president again, to which Yang responded “I’m not driven by a desire to hold office or a particular perch. I just want to see our country through to a positive outcome where our lives are improving and we’re not living in fear. So [if] there’s something I can do that pushes us in that direction I’ll seriously consider it. And there are people I know that are in the same boat.”
Simon Jeau is a Campus News Intern for the fall 2022 quarter. He can be reached at sjeau@uci.edu.