If a political candidate offered you $1,000 a month, would you vote for them?
This isn't a mayoral hopeful buying votes to make a runoff. This is Andrew Yang, Democratic presidential candidate, talking about why Americans are going to need a Universal Basic Income after the robots take all our jobs.
Yang, a tech entrepreneur from New York, was at Greenhouse Lofts in Logan Square in March to rally Chicago members of the "Yang Gang," as his supporters call themselves, and sell copies of his book, The War on Normal People.
I went to see Yang because a presidential candidate who visits Chicago is as rare as an honest alderman. The Midwest will be the battleground of the 2020 general election, but that won’t include Illinois, an irredeemably blue state considered a gimme for the Democrats.
Beto O'Rourke's Midwestern tour took him to the countertop of a coffee shop in Iowa, to a Culver's in Wisconsin, and to a job training center in Michigan. But he drove his minivan right down I-94 without even stopping for a hot dog in the nation's third-largest source of votes.
I left the Yang rally convinced that more candidates should visit Chicago. But first, a bit about Yang's platform.
Yang believes "we're in the third inning of one of the greatest technological and economic transformations in American history" — that it's "not immigrants taking away our jobs, it's automation."
In the next two to four years, he predicts, artificial intelligence will replace call center workers. In the next five to ten years, self-driving vehicles will put truck drivers out of work. Amazon is already destroying the retail sector — "thirty percent of American malls are closing" — and its cashier jobs.
People are angry about this. In the 2016 presidential election, Yang says, there was a strong correlation between places where automation is replacing workers and places where Trump won the vote. "He got a lot of the problems right, but he got the solutions wrong," Yang said.
Yang proposes a Value Added Tax on technological innovations, which he says would provide $1,000 a month for every American over 18 and fund Medicare for All. If we're not going to be able to work in the new economy, we're going to have to make that economy work for us. "Imagine a Chicago where everyone is getting another $1,000 a month," he said. "You'd spend it on student loans, health care, car loans, tuition for your children. It goes right back into the local economy."
Yang qualified for the Democratic debates by raising money from 65,000 individual donors. He predicts that when voters see him on TV, "they're going to say, 'Who the hell is that guy?' Then," he says "they're going to listen to me and say, 'That guy makes a lot of sense.' "
A lot of Chicagoans have already made that decision. Hundreds of people crammed into the room where Yang spoke on Monday. Some held up signs with the acronym, "MATH," which stands for "Make America Think Harder" and refers to Yang's background in data. Many supporters had heard Yang on the comedian Joe Rogan's podcast, which has millions of listeners, or visited his website. Most, it appeared, were under the age of 30.
That last fact is why more presidential candidates should visit Chicago. We don't have a first-in-the-nation caucus, and we're not going to be a factor in the Electoral College, which helped make 94 percent of 2016 campaign events happen in just 12 states.
But Chicago is a source of young volunteers who can be dispatched to nearby states that matter: Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio are all just a few hours away by bus. A lot of young Chicagoans grew up in those states, and can speak the local language.
I was in Gary, Indiana, on Election Day 2008. The city was flooded with volunteers from Chicago, who drove voters to the polls and handed out literature on street corners. I'm convinced that's why Obama is the only Democrat since 1964 to win Indiana.
Obama didn't have to work hard to win the hearts of Chicagoans; he was their candidate.
The 2020 hopefuls, on the other hand, are going to have to show up to get us excited enough to spend hours on a bus and knock on the doors of strangers in swing states. That's why Bernie Sanders was smart to hold a campaign kick-off rally at Navy Pier to celebrate his activist roots at the University of Chicago.
Now let's see Beto O'Rourke, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, John Hickenlooper, and the rest of the Derby-sized field. If, after the election, journalists are writing about How the Midwest was Won, they may acknowledge that volunteers from Chicago played a role.