From Grievance to Greatness

Vivek Ramaswamy’s Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit, and the Path Back to Excellence offers a plea for the reinvigoration of American life. Based on the title, one might think that this book is a dystopian screed. It is not. Ramaswamy simply dreams of better things for the nation he loves. “If Americans come to see themselves as fellow citizens rather than each other’s victims,” he suggests, “then our Union can and should stay together.” Ramaswamy does not imagine a Golden Age to which we should return. Instead, he loves America today: “Next to most of the world,” he writes, “we live in a land of milk and honey.” America is “still the land of opportunity.” Indeed, it is.

Diagnosing the Problem

Let’s be clear: Ramaswamy believes we are a nation in peril, in part because of our own self-perception. We have moved from being a nation of underdogs to a nation of victims. “Our forefathers didn’t have any choice but to embrace the underdog narrative,” he muses. After all, they were underdogs. But now, a story of victimhood is “often the fastest path to greater money and influence.” It can also be an easier path, given “the high risk of failure in an established merit-based culture.” The difference between underdog and victim for Ramaswamy seems to be one’s attitude towards one’s circumstances and the degree to which one thinks working hard can make a difference in one’s life.      

Ramaswamy offers a legal explanation for our need to be victims. In the twentieth century, the Supreme Court stood against an expansive federal government, causing President Franklin D. Roosevelt no small amount of frustration. His solution was to pack the Court (with his Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937) to secure the outcome he desired; the Court responded with self-limitation in order to undercut his argument for court-packing (the 1938 United States v. Carolene Products Company). Following Bruce Ackerman, Ramaswamy sees the Court identifying, in footnote 4 of Caroline Products, “the rare times judicial activism was appropriate: to correct defects in the democratic process that had allowed majorities to oppress minorities.” The Court compromised with Roosevelt to secure its independence, but the compromise secured an unusual outcome: In order to challenge laws, Americans had to present themselves as an oppressed minority, or, as Ramaswamy puts it, “groups had to do their best to argue that they were like black people.” 

The quest for victimhood creates confused positions: “We occupy a strange moment where social norms still demand we think gayness is innate, but also demand we think sexual orientation is fluid.” The Court’s focus on victimhood encourages gays—and everyone else—“to pursue the big win of victimhood instead of the slow win of politics.”

Everyone’s a victim. Ramaswamy voted for Donald Trump in 2020 but says he did not deliver what he promised: “But while Trump promised to lead the nation to recommit itself to the pursuit of greatness, what he delivered in the end was just another tale of grievance, a persecution complex that swallowed much of the Republican party whole.” Ramaswamy sees this change as a betrayal of the brand: “To me, conservatism always stood for the idea that you’re responsible for your own life, but everywhere I look these days, I see conservatives blaming other people for their problems.” “Republicans could’ve become the one major party that moved beyond grievance and aimed only for greatness,” he writes. Instead, we have our miserable state of affairs: “Once victimhood becomes part of the essence of both parties, it’s just a national identity.” 

A nation of victims cannot last long. Rome fell to the barbarians, but we “have become our own barbarians, sacking ourselves.” Ramaswamy references Robert Nozick’s “notorious Wilt Chamberlain argument” before offering the following praise of John Rawls: “Rawls’s genius was that he managed to navigate the debate between capitalism and communism in a way no one saw coming.” “In his system,” Ramaswamy writes, “capitalism’s winners don’t use its losers as mere means to an end because inequality is only permissible when it allows those with the least to have more.” 

To be clear, Ramaswamy is not concerned about excellence producing wealth. He’s concerned about multigenerational wealth, the wealth of the meritorious flowing effortlessly to the not-so-meritorious children. These kids are flaccid and slow-witted, at best. At worst, they become cruel and corrupt. The emperor Marcus Aurelius “could deny himself, but not his son,” Commodus. 

“So are we Rome?” Ramaswamy asks. “Sometimes I think we’re Carthage, the great power coming into conflict with the rising one.” Carthage gave way to Rome. Will America give way to China? Ramaswamy warns us that if we fought a naval battle with China today, we’d probably lose. He says the Chinese and Russians are far ahead of us on hypersonic missiles, and he says “our progress is closer to North Korea’s.” 

Proposing Solutions

Ramaswamy artfully describes our problems and also offers reasonable explanations for how we got into this mess. But his answers are not always entirely persuasive. Permit me to offer a few examples.

First, Ramaswamy thinks we should refocus on equal-protection law. “Fighting discrimination doesn’t have to be a competition for victim status,” Ramaswamy writes. He works with Susannah W. Pollvogt’s theory to make his case: “When a law targets a group for unfavorable treatment, Pollvogt says, instead of asking whether that group has special protected-victim status, equal protection law should simply require the government to prove that there’s a connection between the trait that defines the group and the interest the government’s trying to achieve.” She explores instances in which the Supreme Court does not identify a group as a suspect class but nevertheless rules that certain laws are discriminatory. In City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc., the Court struck down regulations against building a group home for cognitively impaired people, not because they found the cognitively impaired people to be part of a historically oppressed group but rather because the city wrote the law to try to prevent people with cognitive disabilities from living near those without them. “Instead of forcing everyone to demean themselves by playing the Oppression Olympics,” Ramaswamy writes, “we can refocus equal protection law on ensuring individuals don’t have their merit burdened by arbitrarily being reduced to irrelevant group identities.”

If forgiveness includes grievance, we will remain a nation of victims. We will say we forgive each other, while still wanting to triumph over each other or see each other disappear.

This approach sounds marvelous in theory, but I wonder how it would play out. First, concerns about discrimination do not focus exclusively on having one’s “merit burdened arbitrarily.” If someone thinks a police officer pulled him over illegitimately, discrimination in that instance is not about the burden of merit. Second, appropriately identifying the trait that defines the group and the government’s legislative goal can be difficult, and racist laws actually connect traits and interests in a way that may outmaneuver this approach.

Second, Ramaswamy does not want us to see ourselves as a nation of victims in the global arena, either. According to Ramaswamy, “we fear that if we aren’t the hegemony, some other nation will be.” We should imagine instead that we are Kantian fishermen realizing, rationally, that if we all overfish, we will have no fish left. But Ramaswamy’s solution to rising global competitors seems to be capitulation dressed up as a collective action problem that will be resolved through rational reflection. This metaphor assumes that other nations are rational; it also assumes that, if they are rational, then they are rational in the way we want them to be. After all, the Chinese may prefer, e.g., total control in Hong Kong with less wealth rather than less power in Hong Kong with more wealth. Finally, a tragedy of the commons—as Elinor Ostrom has argued—can be avoided, but there needs to be an enforcement mechanism. If China—to extend Ramaswamy’s metaphor—overfishes, who sanctions them?

Third, to confront multigenerational wealth, Ramaswamy embraces inheritance taxes as a way to “save meritocracy from degenerating into aristocracy.” Ramaswamy flirts with a suggestion by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez to set the optimal inheritance tax rate in the United States at 59%. Lest you hope, as I did, that he might eventually walk that number back, he doubles down: “If anything, I’d take the figure Piketty and Saez arrive at as a minimum. We shouldn’t allow people to become billionaires just by having rich parents.” 

To which I ask, why not? His answer: A very high inheritance tax is “a way of redistributing duty.” Those who become rich “owe it to everyone else to preserve meritocracy so others have the chance to do the same.” Two points here. First, their success should be proof that the system is, in fact, working. If they can make money through merit, others can, too. Second, people have moral duties apart from those that should be enforced by the state. Americans shouldn’t eat, smoke, and drink as much as they do. But few Americans want the government to restrict our consumption of these things. Similarly, the question isn’t whether those who make money should give generously to others but whether justice requires the state to appropriate people’s holdings involuntarily for the sake of meritocracy. Someone can have the moral duty to give without the state having the legal obligation to make him do it.

Fourth, though Ramaswamy does not want us to see ourselves as a nation of victims, he does explore ways in which he thinks the American worker faces more challenges than in previous generations. Though Ramaswamy doesn’t think a strong dollar and free trade are mistakes, he thinks “we owe it to American workers in our manufacturing sector to acknowledge that their plight is a direct consequence of these policy choices.” He also mentions land and zoning regulations that make moving to a new location more difficult, and he highlights the unreasonable rise in licensing requirements. But he does not mention unions and taxes, though he should have.

Forgiveness and Excellence

Peter Thiel told Ramaswamy, “If you think excellence is the solution to wokeness, you’re wrong.” He “characterized wokeness as Christianity without forgiveness” and offered Christianity alone as its solution. In response, Ramaswamy, a Hindu, combines Thiel’s concern for forgiveness with his own focus on excellence. He offers the example of Daryl Davis, a black musician “famous for his unusual hobby” of “befriending Ku Klux Klan members.” Ramaswamy tells us that “forgiving someone’s bigotry involves not giving up a grievance you have a right to, but understanding that what they did to you was the least and smallest part of who they are, that they merely mistook you for the least and smallest part of who you are.”      

What’s missing from Ramaswamy’s account of forgiveness? Love. “You don’t have to befriend your enemy,” Ramaswamy writes. But that’s exactly what Davis did. One former Klansman said, “Daryl extended his hand and actually just extended his heart, too, and we became brothers.”

Why does this theologizing matter? If forgiveness includes grievance, we will remain a nation of victims. We will say we forgive each other, while still wanting to triumph over each other or see each other disappear.

In Nation of Victims, Vivek Ramaswamy offers his readers a pleasurable and thought-provoking study of our current woes. His examples—some offered at his own expense—provide an excellent backdrop to his analysis. If we treat Sally Hemings—who at sixteen negotiated for the freedom of her future children in exchange for her return to slavery under Thomas Jefferson—“only as a victim,” then we forget “the way she was exceptional.” 

Sometimes you have to read what people are doing in order to realize the ridiculousness of it all. Ramaswamy serves it up plentifully. The best of the worst: A neuroscientist created a fake Native American account, but the neuroscientist’s own followers “became suspicious after she held a Zoom memorial for her fake friend, whom she’d killed off with COVID-19.” Another personal favorite: Microsoft Word informs Ramaswamy that his expletive may offend a reader, before adding, “I will use the word and trust you to be brave and strong.” 

The best example in the book—jaw-dropping, really—is too good for me to repeat here. But if you’re interested—and you should be—it’s at the start of the fourth chapter and involves “a guy mowing his lawn.” Later in the book he adds, “I’m a bit embarrassed about it all, too; everyone I tell this story to gently tells me never to put it in print.” But he did anyway. So kudos to Vivek Ramaswamy for displaying what so many public figures lack: courage.

In Nation of Victims, Vivek Ramaswamy diagnoses a problem: Americans should see themselves as underdogs, but they view themselves as victims. He roots the shift in self-understanding in our nation’s law and history, and he sees a way forward that includes cultural, political, and legal proposals. As the above review indicates, I did not always agree with his proposals, but I found his love for America refreshing and invigorating. You will, too.