MAY 27, 2021
Meyerson on TAP
The Two Cults of Andrew Yang
According to some of the polls in the notoriously difficult to poll Democratic mayoral primary in New York City, Andrew Yang may be falling behind Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams with just a few weeks remaining before Election Day. Whether Yang makes the cut or not, we have to recognize that by one metric—the ability to appeal to improbably diverse groups of voters—he’s either a political genius or one of the most cynical politicos in the game today.

The smart money’s on the latter.

In his campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination, Yang was able to assemble a smallish group of devotees—chiefly young, male techies who dubbed themselves the Yang Gang. The meme the campaign devised for them was “Make America Think Harder,” and its acronym—MATH—was emblazoned on campaign caps and T-shirts as a rejoinder to and parody of the Trumpies’ MAGA slogan. This first Yang cult, if we may call it that, was a subset of Silicon Valley wannabes, who, by current Democratic standards, tilted disproportionately to private-sector solutions for public problems and a mild brand of libertarianism.

In his current campaign for mayor, however, Yang’s core constituency, besides, understandably enough, Asian Americans, is the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects, who number perhaps half a million of New York’s eight million residents. The key issue for the Haredim, as they’re called, is keeping their own ultra-Orthodox schools—their yeshivas—free from governmental regulation. An 1894 state law requires private and religious schools to provide a secular education equivalent to that in public schools, in addition to their instruction in religious doctrines and such. As the ultra-Orthodox have grown in number and political clout, however, the yeshivas have managed to skirt this requirement. A 2018 city survey of yeshivas found that 26 of the 28 in the study failed to provide anything resembling a basic education. Graduates have complained that they never heard about such well-known events as the Civil War and American slavery until after they graduated and gingerly set foot outside the Haredi self-created ghettos. Over multiple millennia, anti-Semites have persecuted Jews, but not even they ever managed to dumb them down. That achievement belongs to the Haredim.

This lack of knowledge about anything except ultra-Orthodox ritual not only reinforces the insularity of the various Haredi sects, but gives them political clout, since the Haredi defer to their respective rabbis (or “rebbes” in Haredi-speak) for instructions on how to vote. This top-down uniformity at the voting booth has magnified the sects’ political influence in jurisdictions—chiefly, New York—where the rebbes’ endorsements really matter come election season. That’s one reason why the yeshivas have been able to duck the requirement to teach history, English, science, and math.

This year’s multitudinous crop of Democratic mayoral candidates has largely come down on the side of requiring those yeshivas to provide some verifiable facts and how-to skills to their students—with one prominent exception. “We shouldn’t interfere with their religious and parental choice,” Yang has said on multiple occasions. The MATH man has been to the mountain (of votes, he hopes) and now saith that Haredi kids won’t have to learn science, math, and history. And as the MATH man surely intended, his position has won him virtually universal support among the rebbes, who produce lockstep voting at a level that would have awed the Tammany bosses of old.

The problem for Yang is that for years, the rebbes have instructed their followers to register Republican, as the party that defends religious orthodoxy. The number of Haredi who can actually vote in the Democratic primary, accordingly, isn’t that great.

Nonetheless, we need to salute Yang’s achievement. Alongside his Asian American supporters, he’s managed to build two very distinct cults: Young techie science-math semi-libertarians in 2019–2020, and ultra-Orthodox anti-empiricism, anti-science semi-authoritarians in 2020–2021. Like I said, that qualifies Yang either as a political genius or a pol who stands out for his cynicism even in this most cynical of times.

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