History professor Michael Allen moderates the discussion with businessman and politician Andrew Yang. Photo by Brennan Leach / North by Northwestern

For Andrew Yang, the source of increasing polarization, division and anger in the American political system is the two-party duopoly.

“Our system is not working because it’s designed not to work,” Yang said. “Expecting a system that’s designed not to work to start working is going to drive us all literally insane.”

Yang is a businessman and politician who ran for president in 2020 and most recently faced defeat in the 2021 New York City Democratic mayoral primary. In an event marked by a walkout from Students for Justice in Palestine and some friction with his views, Yang spoke at a Q&A forum hosted by Northwestern College Democrats Tuesday night.

Earlier this month, Yang announced his departure from the Democratic Party, blaming a “stuck” political system in which public servants are “constrained” by their party. He instead created his own political party, The Forward Party, which aims to combat polarization by reforming electoral policies and practices.

“Right now we have a duopoly,” Yang told students, “But the duopoly is growing more extreme because the incentives reward [politicians] for being ... inflammatory, divisive, even angry.”

Yang believes the solution is transitioning from the “two-sided equation” of our current political system to an equation with “many sides.” This would relieve representatives of the pressure to please the most extreme wing of their party and encourage governing based on principle. A substantive first step in this shift, as Yang views it, is the adoption of open primaries, in which anyone, not just members of one political party, can vote for candidates prior to the general election.

"We have incentives that are straight-jacketing the entire Republican party, saying 'if you go against Trump, your career is over, you’re done,'' Yang said. “The Forward Party’s mission is to go to states around the country and make this process change."

The liberation of just a few Senators from this system of incentives, to be able “to vote on principle, or patriotism or their own judgement,” could be the determining factor in the survival of American democracy, according to Yang.

In addition to outlining a survival strategy for American democracy, Yang talked about the merits of universal basic income, the rise of anti-Asian attacks across the country, and advice for college students navigating the post-pandemic world.

About half an hour into Yang's speech, a group of roughly 60 students dressed in black, later identified as Students for Justice in Palestine, rose from their seats and silently marched to the front of the audience.

Group members raised Palestinian flags above their heads, with one flag pointing directly at Yang. Silently, each student walked down the aisle and past Yang before exiting the room for the remainder of the event.  

A representative of the group stated, "We walked out because Andrew Yang’s past remarks actively disregarded Israel’s indiscriminate oppression of Palestinians during May. Additionally we reject his pro-police stance that threatens Black and brown lives.”

Yang did not acknowledge the group, but later said he would speak with anyone who had questions after the forum. Northwestern College Democrats released a statement, clarifying that the organization has “no platform and no official stance as an organization on any political issue, including those that were discussed and protested tonight. Our purpose as an organization is not to promote any particular policy, but rather to give our members — diverse in their ideas, perspectives and political leanings — a space to engage others on the things they care most about and make a positive impact through social action.”

Separately from the walkout, a few individual students vocalized their disagreement with Yang on issues including the role of mental health in anti-Asian attacks and funding of the New York City Police Department.

“I’m literally an Asian American person who lives in New York," said an audience member, "And I really don’t understand why you’re defending or limiting the actual severity of this issue and saying that the perpetrators are mentally ill and that’s an excuse. It’s not. As an Asian American woman and left-leaning person, I’m so disappointed.”

After briefly addressing the commenters, Yang encouraged students to become involved in the political process, fight for democracy going forward, and continue to make their voices heard.

“It’s like our government is on a giant tape-delay,” Yang said. “I'm going to suggest that we don't have time for a giant tape-delay. If you all were in U.S. Congress, it would be an awesome upgrade.”

Looking to the future, Yang denied any plans to run for office but emphasized the importance of rethinking structures that define our current political system, such as closed-party primaries. Yang’s political future with The Forward Party is uncertain, but his certainty of the need for change is unwavering: “We need to make big moves and we don’t have unlimited time.”