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Andrew Yang discusses new book and big ideas in live forum

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Universal basic income, the idea that every adult in the country should get some kind of minimum monthly financial support, used to be something you might hear about in a university lecture hall or at a rally for a fringe candidate. But now the idea has gone mainstream, and a big reason for that is Andrew Yang. Yang, of course, ran for president in 2020 and lost in the Democratic primary. This year, he ran unsuccessfully to become the mayor of New York City.

But despite his lack of electoral success, Yang has surprised the political establishment by generating a fervent base of support, in large part by moving universal basic income, or UBI, to the forefront in campaign speeches and debate stages. Now, Andrew Yang is back with more big ideas, which he writes about in a new book. It's called "Forward: Notes On The Future Of Our Democracy." In it, Yang takes on what he calls a broken political system in the U.S.

I spoke with Yang earlier this week in front of a live audience on Twitter Spaces. That's Twitter's social audio platform. We took some questions from listeners as the conversation progressed. I started by asking him - what exactly does he mean when he says we have a broken political system?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW YANG: Michel, right now, our country is more polarized than it's ever been. We can all feel it. It's resulting in violence. And unfortunately, it's going to get worse, not better. We all can feel that, too. And in my book, I detail how the political incentives are actually driving us toward the extremes compounded by media organizations - NPR excepted. You all genuinely are (laughter) an exception to this. But media organizations are rewarded for telling people what they want to hear and separating us into ideological camps.

And then social media pours gasoline on the whole thing, where the more inflammatory and divisive you are, the better your messages are going to perform. So unfortunately, we're trapped in something of a doom loop. But I want everyone listening to this just to think about how polarized we become as a country, where families literally can't sit down for the holidays together, and so many people are despairing for the future.

MARTIN: Let's go to some questions. James Wilford (ph).

JAMES WILFORD: Thank you guys for taking my call and stuff. I appreciate listening to you guys. And, Andrew, it's an honor to speak to you.

As a Trump supporter, as I am, the reason why I'm bringing that up is because there's a - I'm not calling to argue or anything like that. I'm speaking civil. I don't like what's going on right now in Congress, on both sides, you know? We're not bad people as a conservative, as I am. And Democrats I don't think are evil. I think what we need to do is have everybody get along.

If - I don't know if you're going to run for president again. But if you do, what can you do to change that in Congress and in the Senate to make both people get along instead of just fighting like little kids?

MARTIN: All right. Thanks.

YANG: James, what you've said is exactly what, in my opinion, most Americans are thinking right now, which is - why is it that we can't see each other as human beings, get along? I have family members who voted for Trump. I love them. Seventy-four million Americans voted for Trump. The problem is that we're being set up, and our politicians are being set up. They're being set up to attack each other and be at each other's throats because that's the way they're going to raise more money, gain more stature and keep their own jobs.

The national approval rating of Congress right now, as we're having this conversation, is about 28%. Three out of four Americans agree with you, James. You're like - why can't you just get along and get things done? The individual reelection rate for members of Congress is 92%. In other words, it doesn't matter if we're upset about what's going on in Congress. The individual member is going to get reelected. But the reason they're going to get reelected is that they're going to have to make their case not to 51% of voters in their district but to the 20% most ideologically extreme voters in their party.

So, James, the reason why it seems like our legislators can't get along is because if they do decide to compromise, they're more likely to be challenged in the primary and their job security will go down, not up. My mission is to change the process to open primaries and ranked choice voting so that every legislator has to try and appeal to a majority of us and not the folks on either extreme.

MARTIN: This would be a good time to sort of jump in and ask you to explain a bit more about ranked choice voting because this is one of the kind of signature issues that you're advancing in your book and also with your new political party, the Forward Party. It's one of your sort of top planks - ranked choice voting and open primaries. Just talk a little bit, if you would, about why you think this is so important and why you think this is going to fix - part of the fix for the problems that we're talking about.

YANG: Thank you, Michel. This is the fix. Most Americans actually have no say in their representation because the primary is going to be decided again by the 20% most partisan. And then by the time it gets to the general, it's a done deal. So this distorts the incentives all through the system and the way to change it is through open primaries and ranked choice voting, which would enable multiple people to run. And then there is no one who can be accused of being a spoiler or wasting their vote.

You can vote for whomever you like. And if your first choice doesn't make it, your vote will flow through to the second choice. This would also reward candidates that appeal to a broader swath of voters, which would make everyone, again, more reasonable. And it sounds wonky, to your point, Michel. But open primaries and ranked choice voting actually are the incentive switch, the systems change that we need to make progress in this country.

And just like now, where people associate me with universal basic income, that's the what. This is the how. This is the real solution as to how we actually get something like universal basic income in our country. Because right now, 80% of us can be for something and then it doesn't become policy. And the reason for that is that our legislators are incentivized to do things that don't necessarily line up with the will of the people, and that's what we have to change.

MARTIN: Mr. Yang, I got to push on you just a teeny bit here. I'm a little surprised by - I'm going to call it a tone of kind of bemused contempt that you have a little bit toward people who've dedicated their lives to politics. I mean, you're not mean about it 'cause you're not mean anywhere in the book. But I have to say that, you know, another way to look at career politicians is to say career public servants. I mean, if the heroes of the story are all people who did something else first, isn't that part of the reason we have one of the richest Congresses in history? Isn't that part of the reason why so few young women, for example, are in politics?

I guess what I'm saying is I don't feel like you treat them with the same level of kind of sympathy, for example, that you do other people who are caught in a web of systems that don't work well.

YANG: Oh, Michel, I am tremendously sympathetic toward people who are in public office and are frustrated and are stuck in these dynamics that we're describing. I know a lot of them, you know? I admire a lot of them. A lot of them are outstanding people who've stepped up and are in office trying to do their best. And we owe them better than a set of incentives that again are just going to reward them for being antagonistic towards the other side and for not delivering results like they'd want to. I want them to do what they came to office to do as opposed to be stuck dialing for dollars and doing all of these back-and-forth press appearances that don't actually move us forward.

MARTIN: Let's go to Joe (ph) - forgive me, Joe, if I'm not pronouncing your name correctly, Joe Esses (ph). If you're ready to talk with us, we're ready to hear from you.

JOE ESSES: Hey, Mr. Yang. My question is sort of about third parties in the U.S. And what would it take for a third party to achieve real political success in the U.S. in today's political climate?

YANG: This is the question. So I want to break this down a little bit because it's core to what I'm fighting for now. If you look at the U.S. Constitution, there's not a word about political parties. George Washington heartily disliked them and feared factionalism. We have a duopoly that's been in place. And at this point, a lot of Americans don't think it's working very well. Fifty-seven percent want a third party, 60% say both parties are out of touch. But now the mechanics are set up so that it's very, very difficult to set up a third party.

So to the core of this question, the process change that needs to happen to allow for any political dynamism - Forward Party, any third party - is open primaries and ranked choice voting, which can be decided at the state level. There are 24 states that have ballot initiatives that would make this process change. So enough of us get together, we can make it happen. And then just like that, our representatives will be more reasonable and rational and even-handed. And you would see different points of view emerge, which would result in a much more modern and effective democracy than this ancient, decrepit, crumbling duopoly that's 130 years old, that we know is not working. And then when someone tries to make a change, people say, oh, you know, it can't be done. Why can it not be done? Because not enough of us have gotten together to change it.

MARTIN: That's all the time we have for today. Our thanks to Andrew Yang for joining us today. His latest book is called "Forward: Notes On The Future Of Our Democracy." And thank you so much, Andrew Yang. Thank you to all who participated. And on we go. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.