The 2020 race for president, so far, has been almost entirely predictable. Joe Biden continues to lead the Democrats in many polls, thanks to his name recognition (thanks to Obama) as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren fight for the progressive wing of the party. Just as expected. And, on the Republican front, Trump continues his never-ending campaign of petty insults and rambling, unhinged speeches, to the satisfaction of his die-hard fan base.
All the other candidates, up to and including a few random billionaires, fall right in line with the political binary. Some candidates lean slightly left on one issue or slightly right on another—but all congregate around typical party talking points, while remaining comfortably within the extreme edges set by Bernie Sanders on one end and Trump on the other.
With the two outsider candidates, it’s almost irrelevant that one is running as a Democrat (Yang) and the other as a Republican (Istvan). Neither candidate sticks to the usual party talking points. Instead, Yang and Istvan craft forward-looking policy proposals, based on the latest science, data and technology. As a result, they both have policy ideas with wide appeal across party lines—something almost unheard of in this age of hyper-partisanship.
Andrew Yang, who’s been running a shockingly successful campaign for someone who started with zero name recognition, is primarily known for his universal basic income (UBI) policy. He wants to give every citizen over the age of eighteen a thousand dollars a month. He calls this the freedom dividend. This idea isn’t unprecedented, as it has been explored in the past, but it definitely sets Yang apart from all the other candidates, whose policy ideas sound entirely routine by comparison. With UBI as his centerpiece, Yang has developed a battery of policy proposals that very often go beyond the standard Democratic toolkit. For example, he’s adamant about redefining how we measure the economic prosperity of ordinary Americans. Rather than focusing on gross domestic product (GDP), Yang proposes measuring prosperity “using a wider index that measures human as well as monetary indicators,” including under-employment, income inequality, environmental quality, infant mortality, etc. He also envisions a social credit system, whereby people could be rewarded for their work in ways that don’t depend on the typical monetary market.
Ultimately, Yang has a vision of a new kind of economy that solves modern problems using modern solutions, irrespective of whether a solution happens to align neatly with a capitalist or a socialist agenda. When I spoke with Yang in a long-form interview for Quillette, he emphasized this basic point several times: “Unfortunately, our political class is decades behind and the goal would be that we could catch up. But we don’t have limitless time … We need to catch up as fast as possible.”
And then there’s Zoltan Istvan. Like many, I first encountered him in 2016, when he was running for president as the founder of the Transhumanist Party—a political party centered around radical science and technology projects (specifically life-extension projects), which upholds the rights of cyborgs and posthuman beings. His policy ideas, which I have also written about in Quillette, included things like transforming the military industrial complex into a science industrial complex—i.e. instead of building bombs, putting money into longevity research and curing cancer. After an unsuccessful but widely publicized 2016 presidential run, Istvan went on to run for governor of California, with a special focus on funding UBI through leasing federal land.
If Yang is an outlier among Democratic candidates, Istvan is definitely an unusual fit for the Republican ticket. He told CNET, “Our goal is to try to really get the GOP to embrace a new way of looking at the world, one that is futuristic and transhuman … I think it’s quite possible to be fiscally conservative and open-minded. Naturally, we’re taking on Trump too, who I don’t think is helping science and tech much.”
As of this writing, Istvan’s policy ideas are spelled out in a twenty-point plan on his website zoltan2020.com. His plan includes ambitious policies, such as instituting a federal land dividend for UBI, prohibiting the law from interfering with genetic editing and other pro-science initiatives, ending the IRS and ending the drug war. In addition to his individual policy ideas, it’s likely that he will try to appeal to Republican voters through his credentials as an outspoken advocate of small government. The Independent notes that Istvan “describes himself as pro-choice, pro-immigration, secular, and a supporter of LGBTQ rights,” which might make it difficult for him to appeal to traditional Republicans. But it seems safe to say that traditional Republicans are not the main focus of Istvan’s campaign.
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the two biggest outliers of their respective parties have a lot in common. Most obviously, both candidates are highly keyed into issues involving technology—and both are confident that technology should be embraced, rather than shunned.
The similarities between Yang and Istvan were noted as far back as February 2018 by Futurism.com. When I spoke with Yang in October of that year, he brought up Zoltan Istvan unprompted and said, “I’m a fan, you know. And some of the transhumanists in California, when I was out that way, said, ‘Would you like to be our candidate?’ I was like, ‘Heck yes!’” He also observed, “It’s like I’m the next futurist … but more the presentist than Zoltan, possibly.”
From the moment Zoltan Istvan announced his bid for the 2020 race, the Istvan and Yang Twitterspheres began to overlap. For example, @RYBWomen tweeted: “Very excited to see Zoltan Istvan join the presidential race for the Republican Party! He and Andrew Yang (Democratic Party) both have #UniversalBasicIncome as a main goal for the future of America.”
— Author/Businessman Kev🧢 (@liteofevolution) November 22, 2019
A similar idea was voiced by @demar8812:
— Devin Martin (@demar8812) November 20, 2019
It seems quite unlikely that Yang and Istvan will actually join forces as third-party candidates, but I have to admit that I love the idea of Yang and Istvan on the same ticket. If they were to run together, would anyone be able to tell—based simply on their policy positions—who was the Republican and who was the Democrat? Surely not easily! The politically savvy could pick them apart based on Istvan’s libertarian penchant for small government and Yang’s endorsement of Medicare for All. But, to a casual observer, a Yang-Istvan ticket wouldn’t be red, blue or purple. It would be some entirely new thing—something marked primarily by an openness to new ideas and a drive to find truly out-of-the-box solutions to real-world problems.
Because of their outlier status and unorthodox political positions, it’s unclear where they stand on the traditional Democrat/Republican binary. Is Yang a moderate Democrat, as he is often described? Or is he the most progressive candidate running—even more progressive than Bernie, perhaps, given his future-focused, data-centric policies? Is Istvan a natural reaction to Trump from the wing of the Republican party that still values reason and science? It seems more likely that he is an entirely new kind of Republican, never seen before.