DES MOINES, Iowa — It is the largest Democratic presidential all-candidate event in primary history — the Iowa Liberty and Justice Gala — and Andrew Yang is a rock star.

The 44-year-old political novice — he has never before run for any public office — strolls down the smoke-filled walkway as his "Yang Gang" crowd roars, arrives at the main stage, lifts his arms up in his best Freddie Mercury pose and yells, "Thank you, Iowa!"

He isn't talking to just thousands. He is indeed like a lead singer basking in the glow of the multitude. For this is Iowa — it holds the first-in-the-nation voting for the Democratic nomination on Feb. 3 and thus has outsize influence in American politics.

"I don't know if you realize how much power is in this room tonight," Yang tells the crowd. "I did the math. When I look around the arena tonight, I do not just see 14,000 Iowans. I see 14 million Californians. That's the power in the room — the power to change the course of history."

 

Yang was completely obscure politically when he announced his candidacy in 2017. The native of New York and graduate of Columbia Law School, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, is a millionaire entrepreneur and also runs the nonprofit Venture for America. It trains young entrepreneurs to work for local start-ups in cities across the country.

Presidential elections have a long history of totally unknown non-politicians running, and an equally long history of them failing. Yang already has beaten those long odds by polling higher in Iowa than several long-established senators and governors. He has a hard time believing it himself, but he effectively uses his rise in prominence to convey his political ideas.

"How is a man you never heard of eight months ago speaking after Joe Biden and before Elizabeth Warren? How did a man you never heard of raise $10 million in one quarter?" he asks the crowd at the gala. "It is because I know what the true nature of the problems are and how we can solve them."

Yang's campaign is full of a variety of traditional and non-traditional ideas: He wants universal health care, to lower the voting age to 16, to legalize cannabis, paid family leave for all, for the government to supply "democracy dollars" to citizens so the non-wealthy can contribute to political campaigns, and even has an idea to provide free marriage counseling to couples. But the centerpiece of his campaign is his argument about what the main problem is in this country — the sweeping, damaging effects of "big tech," particularly Amazon — and his big idea to combat those effects: a "freedom dividend" providing every American $1,000 a month.

Yang says he is only in the race because no one would talk about big tech's nasty effects.

"My first move was not to run for president of the United States, because I am not insane," he said.

He says he went to Washington, D.C., to explain to people "that it is not immigrants that are causing our problems, it is technology," but no one would listen. Yang says technology and big tech companies like Amazon are inventing processes — such as self-driving cars, automated checkout kiosks and internet sales domination — that are making them billions of dollars but decimating small towns and the country's lower to middle class.

In September at the Polk County Steak Fry in Des Moines, Yang told the crowd, "Amazon is a trillion dollar tech company sucking $20 billion a year out of your communities. How much did Amazon pay in federal taxes last year? Zero. Thirty % of America's stores and malls are closing as we speak."

He then said Donald Trump isn't the cause of America's problems but a symptom.

"This is the set of problems that got Donald Trump elected," Yang said. "It's going to continue to eat through our economy and devastate rural areas in particular."

Yang's solution? The "Freedom Dividend."

"If you've heard anything about me you've heard this: There's an Asian man running for president who wants to give everyone $1,000 a month," he said. "I know, it sounded like a gimmick."

But, he says, Alaska has the same concept, where the state pays residents up to $2,000 a year.

"How does Alaska pay for it?" he asks the crowd at the Steak Fry. "Oil! And what is the oil of the 21st century?"

The rejoinder from the crowd: "Technology!"

At the gala he tells the crowd: "Our data is now worth more than all the oil. Raise your hand if you got your data check? Where did the data checks go? They went to Facebook, Amazon, Google and the trillion-dollar tech companies that are paying zero or near zero in taxes."

Yang's rise from obscurity in the Democratic Party's presidential race can be attributed in large part to a theme that began in 2016 when democratic socialist Bernie Sanders saw huge success as a candidate running against large corporations that he argued could care less about human beings. Yang is adding to that message — he calls his campaign a "humans first" approach — by noting that tech corporations have only gotten richer, larger and more rapacious since Donald Trump was elected.

Yang has tapped into something almost ineffable in the American psyche, he argues: "GDP is at a record high. Do you know what else is at record highs? Stress, financial insecurity, suicides, drug overdoses."

The odds are still against Yang, but he is enjoying his ride. At campaign events in Iowa he can be been seen singing karaoke (a wobbly version of Simple Minds' 1985 classic "Don't You Forget About Me"). He also engages in crowd surfing. It seems appropriate.

For as Yang says at the end of his rock star appearance in Des Moines at the gala, "Here in Iowa you actually know what the future holds. You saw it happen to your farms and then your factories and now it's on your Main Streets. Soon it will be on your highways. It is up to you to turn the tide. You must be the wave that helps us rewrite the rules of the 21st century economy."