Metamodernism: the Case of Andrew Yang

5 mins read

By Jacob Sandström

What’s the opposite of Donald Trump? An Asian man who likes math. This rhetorical question became the catchphrase of one unlikely candidate for the presidency in the U.S, the former entrepreneur Andrew Yang. He stated that “I’m convinced that the reason why Donald Trump´s our president today is that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri and Iowa over the last number of years” (Washington Post 2019-03-26). To address the consequences of this automation he made a name for himself in the Democratic primaries with audacious suggestions such as the Freedom Dividend (i.e. universal basic income), Medicare for All and human-centered capitalism. His campaign was seen as a longshot at best, but Yang came to be one of the top contestants in the race for the Democratic nominee. However, on the 12th of February after the caucus in Iowa and and primary in New Hampshire the run for presidency came to an end due to low voter turnout.  

Yang and his candidacy was in many ways different compared to the other candidates. Firstly due to his ideas and policies, and secondly in the way he communicated these messages. Even though the campaign has come to an end it came to be an indicator of a shift in how politics was presented, and as so its relevance remains. The impact is still to be seen, but how should it be understood in the current political climate, and has contemporary movements in culture enabled Andrew Yang’s strive towards presidency? Will Andrew Yang and his candidacy just be a historical parentheses, or is it an introduction to what future politics will look like? 

For now, we’ll leave the previous questions hanging in order to establish how the media has described and portrayed Andrew Yang. The american mainstream media has had a hard time understanding his candidacy. Initially he was disregarded due to his lack of political experience but when his campaign gained some momentum and his numbers in the polls began to rise the continued lack of coverage in media became suspicious. A controversy emerged under the hashtag #YangMediaBlackout where Andrew Yang’s strongest supporters – who call themselves the YangGang – argued that the media tried to exclude the candidate from media visibility. Some examples of this is MSNBC that for a long time missed to include Yang in lists of the Democratic candidates, despite him outpolling many of the other candidates. Moreover, NBC once referred to Andrew Yang as John Yang. After hauling in $10 million in the third quarter of 2019, CNN chose to exclude Andrew Yang and instead include Cory Booker who raised $4 million less. For a more comprehensive presentation, Scott Santens presents a list of media exclusion on Vocal. Fair (2020-01-04) has reported that during the Democratic debates to introduce the candidates to the public, Yang is continuously the one with the least speaking minutes (even candidates that polled lower spoke considerably more).

Moreover, Eugene Daniels (Politico 2019-12-19) criticised Yang’s ironic mindset in a reportage and wrote that “[on] the trail with Yang, the tug of war between serious and silly is constant. He presumes that the zaniness that got attention to Yang in the first place isn’t going away. In the piece Daniels wanted him to speak more like a traditional candidate and seemed disturbed when Yang, in the middle of a question about the other presidential candidates, went back to joking around. Daniels concluded that the sincerity of his persona had gotten him so far, and that is probably the only way forward for Yang.  

This lack of understanding of Andrew Yang and his candidacy, it can be argued, is a result of media analysts having a bias toward the political establishment and using a too narrow perspective of the current political context. I will argue, Metamodernism provides a better understanding of the case of Andrew Yang. 

Metamodernism is a contemporary movement in philosophy, culture and aesthetics, popularized by David Foster Wallace, Donald Glover, Shia LaBeouf, and Marina Abramovic. Looking first at its precursors: Modernism emphasized rationality, science, the grand narratives and developed at the time of the enlightenment. Later, as a response, came Postmodernism, a project of critique that emphasizes relativity, deconstruction and the discourse in the construction of truth. Metamodernism (sometimes called Post-postmodernism) comes as a reaction to the paradigm of Postmodernism. It’s emphasizing the struggle between commitment vs. detachment, enthusiasm vs. irony, naivety vs. knowingness, and thereby, as a consequent, Modernism vs. Postmodernism. By the metamodernists this is described as an oscillation between two poles, and this constantly ongoing movement makes it look like it’s stuck in the middle. This is where we find Metamodernism. Note that Metamodernism is a complex cluster of ideas and should not be viewed as a coherent theory and this brief introduction is one fraction of the ideas within. 

The previously mentioned critique by Daniels (Politico) is precisely a result of a metamodern paradigm when the differences between sincerity and irony becomes a blur. Andrew Yang is the political actor who is squirting whipped cream into the mouths of two kneeling volunteers during a campaign meeting; he is the candidate who loves to crowd-surf, and whose internet fan-base makes memes, songs and videos about him. In all of the prior examples social media is used as a catalyst where the memes and videos connected to the political discourse of the candidacy is not only tolerated but appreciated and used by the campaign.

The metamodernist oscillation is constantly present in the character of Yang. When a boy once asked him to put his hand in the dab position he obliged right away. “I got him to do it!” the boy squealed. Yang looked at him wryly and said, “You shouldn’t take too much pride in that, because I’ll do almost anything.” Then he was back to talking about labor-participation rates, health and life expectancy, and John Maynard Keynes. 

Dovere (The Atlantic 2020-01-17) asked: “Can he convince voters he’s commander-in-chief material while continuing to indulge in the oddball routine to which he ascribes much of his success so far?” According to metamodernism, very much so. The question however is whether a majority of the public has accepted this as the new paradigm and since his candidacy now has come to an end, the time for metamodernism in U.S politics is yet to come. 

Objections against the point of view that metamodernism should influence politics is that a political message needs to be addressed with clarity and that politicians should act as politicians. However, if that means moving back to the political discourse that enabled the rise of populism, polarization and political discussions concerning the tone rather than the policies I’m not sure that’s the way forward. Or as Andrew Yang himself put it: “I think Americans now realize that you can be very serious in your message and vision while still also being a human… and enjoying moments on the trail.” Sincerity is about performing one’s true self to others, and even though he might not be the president of today, he has the candidacy of tomorrow.

Illustration: Therése Lager

Jacob Sandström is studying at the Political Science Program at Uppsala University. For this semester he as gone rogue and is currently studying Theoretical Philosophy. Area of interest is the meeting point between politics, philosophy and culture.

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