(CN) – If you don’t want to take 2020 presidential hopeful Andrew Yang’s word for it, ask his robot.
“Andrew Yang is not a politician,” his campaign’s official messenger bot said. “He is an entrepreneur and problem solver who understands our economy and wants to restore a sense of abundance to all Americans.”
While it’s true the tech entrepreneur is one of two non-politicians in the field – and also appears to be the only one openly using bots to communicate – Yang isn’t the only candidate claiming outsider appeal ahead of the first round of Democratic debates Wednesday and Thursday.
Whether it’s Senator Bernie Sanders or Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, every single candidate taking the stage the next two evenings promises to come in and change the script: they’re not politicians, they’re just regular Americans.
The promise of a dark horse savior is as old as American politics itself.
“It’s a sort of predictable rhythm in American politics that we’ve normalized, this idea of ‘I’m going to come in and shovel out the barn and clean up all of this mess,'” said Dr. James McCann, a political science professor at Purdue University.
One reason? Most Americans don’t trust the government.
A Pew Research Center poll in April marked a new low in government trust that was already on a downward slope: Only 17% of Americans trust the government is looking out for them.
The government is so unpopular that it’s actually a topic of bipartisanship interest. Even if they disagree on the specifics, 79% of Republicans and 86% of Democrats polled are suspicious of the government.
It’s no wonder, then, that Senator Michael Bennet published a book on cleaning up corruption. Or that former Vice President Joe Biden says he’s just a boy from Scranton, Pennsylvania, battling for the soul of America.
“You don’t get a lot of points, persuasively, to say ‘Elect me and nothing’s going to change,'” McCann said.
President Donald Trump won his first campaign on a promise to drain the swamp and by breaking every rule of decorum followed by political insiders everywhere.
“Donald Trump doesn’t care what The New York Times thinks of him. He doesn’t care what Hollywood celebrities say about him,” said Dr. Mark Bauerlein, an avid Trump supporter and English professor at Emory University. “He thrives on the insults, he will play that game and get down and dirty – that’s why he won.”
Yet many Americans remain baffled by Trump’s triumph.
“After [Trump] won the nomination there was a feeling, even among the informed political class, that this was maybe a fluke and that he would be very poorly placed to defeat Hilary Clinton,” said Dr. Peter Buisseret, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.
In a paper he co-wrote in 2018, Buisseret examined the 2016 election as a case study rather than an anomaly.
Buisseret’s model shows a political outsider has an advantage over an insider on the opposing party as long as he or she is also backed by a major party.
“The substantive debate is going to be at the primary stage,” Buisseret said. “My gut instinct is that difference of electability of candidates is second order given there’s never been a stronger enemy for the Democratic Party than Donald Trump.”
Indeed, Democrats are very interested in hearing from the candidates: In an Economist/YouGov poll released Wednesday, over three in four Democrats said they’re interested in watching the debates.
And while Biden continues to lead in the polls, voters appear to thinking about placing their support behind a number of both outsider and mainstream candidates. The average Democratic voter is considering at least three candidates to vote for, with 4-in-10 voters looking at four or more candidates, according to the poll.
For Democrats, the desire to take down Trump is paramount. But seeing him term-tested, even some former Trump supporters have second thoughts.
“We all knew there was something wrong with this country when we voted Donald Trump in, we just didn’t know what it was,” said Russell Lanham, a lifelong conservative from North Carolina. “We voted for Trump because he was supposed to be an outsider candidate, but turns out he’s part of the swamp.”
Lanham never thought he would find himself supporting a Democrat, but he and his wife Elasa were so struck by Andrew Yang’s plan to give every American a monthly dividend of $1,000 that they set up the GrassRoots #YangGang channel on YouTube to document his rallies.
“To be completely honest, $1,000 a month would transform my life,” Lanham said. “We could start our own business. It would get the boot off of our throat.”
Others argue America needs more outsiders because it’s the only way to grow as a nation.
Journalist Zoltan Istvan, who ran for president in 2016 as a pro-science transhumanist candidate, says it’s essential that true outsider candidates be heard in elections.
While many are focused on pairing down the now over two dozen Democratic candidates, Istvan imagines the field growing wider with the Democratic nominee not just debating the Republican nominee, but nominees from the Green Party, the Libertarian Party – and of course the transhumanists – joining in.
“The reason it’s critical is because if America doesn’t have any outsiders coming in, it becomes just a monopoly,” Istvan said. “Ultimately if it just keeps going back and forth from red to blue over centuries that doesn’t seem like much freedom in terms of where the country is going or what its vision is.”