A year ago, it would have been surprising to hear that long-shot Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang would speak to a crowd full of people at The Colonial Theatre less than a week before the New Hampshire primary.
But that’s exactly what Yang, a 45-year-old tech entrepreneur and philanthropist, did on Wednesday night, pitching his solutions to raise up those left behind by a post-industrial American economy at a venue usually reserved for top-tier candidates.
“We’re in the midst of the greatest economic and technological transformation in the history of our country,” said Yang, describing a pattern of automation that he said has eliminated over four million manufacturing jobs over the last few years — 12,000 in the Granite State alone — with devastating consequences for local communities.
“If you’ve been to those towns after the [manufacturing] plant closes, the shopping district closed, people left and that town has never recovered,” said Yang.
Everyday people are struggling from record levels of opioid addiction, depression and student loan debt, Yang said, while tech companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook make unprecedented profits from automation and data without giving any of the proceeds back to the people whose data they collect.
Yang’s signature idea to reverse those trend lines is a proposal for universal basic income, what he calls a “freedom dividend,” which would give every American age 18 and older $1,000 per month.
“This will balance the most extreme winner-take all economy in the history of the world,” Yang said. He compared his proposal to the Alaska Permanent Fund, which provides payments to every state resident from money generated by Alaska’s natural resources.
Yang said he would take measures to make politicians less beholden to corporate lobbyists. He proposed an end to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United, which ended regulations on corporate spending in political campaigns and would require a constitutional amendment to undo, and advocated term limits for members of Congress, which, he said, would better align the government’s interests with those of the American people.
Yang also proposed “democracy dollars” — providing every American with $100 per year to give to candidates of their choice, which would compete with large donations from special interests, he said.
In addition to the freedom dividend, Yang said he would invest in families and young people through education, including by funding 100 percent of special education in public schools, up from the 15 percent currently provided by the federal government.
“Imagine a country where every parent could look at their child and say to them, ‘Your country loves you, your country values you and your country will invest in you and your future.’ That is how we turn it around,” said Yang.
Declining economic prospects for Americans, especially for younger generations, are the real source of the country’s pain, not the man in the Oval Office, Yang said.
“Trump is not the cause of all our problems and Democrats are making a mistake by treating him like he is,” he said. “Donald Trump is a symptom of a disease that’s been building up in our community for years and decades.”
The full house included many Yang supporters, many of them young voters.
“In our country there’s a huge partisan divide and I think he could heal that,” said Keene State College student and Yang campaign volunteer Bryce Bodie, 22, adding he appreciates Yang’s slogan: “Not left, not right, forward.”
“Most politicians try to pit people against each other, but not Yang. He says he’s fighting for all humanity,” said Amanda Watson, 23, a Walpole resident and L.A. Burdick employee who said she first saw Yang speak in August and has seen him speak eight time since.
Amy and Jackson Stone of Swanzey said they both voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, but are voting for Yang on Tuesday.
“I was sold. He’s in touch with people and invested in the health of our country and American families,” said Amy, 44, who works at the YMCA in Keene. “You can’t just vote against Trump. You have to vote for someone with substance.”
Many attendees were still undecided, including Bart Cushing, a Gilsum resident who owns a water well and pump company.
“I’m looking for someone who’s pragmatic and realistic,” said Cushing, 62. “I think the $1,000 a month deal is interesting. A lot of this stuff we’re paying for in government programs, so the freedom dividend may actually go to offset that. I think we’re already spending $1,000 a month.”
In addition to Yang, Cushing said he’s still considering voting for several other presidential candidates, including Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and President Trump.
In contrast, Cushing’s wife, Betsy, a 58-year-old homemaker, said she’s “a total Republican and Trumper.”
“I’m coming here and will listen to Yang,” she said, “but I’m set on Trump.”