Opinion

Vivek Ramaswamy Is Confused

The theatrically combative presidential candidacy of Vivek Ramaswamy seems to be premised on two messages. One is his disdain for identity politics, which he argues creates a citizenry obsessed with victimhood and a corporate sector in thrall to trendy left-wing obsessions, leaving America trapped in a “cold cultural civil war,” as he put it last month in the first Republican debate. The other is his devotion to Donald Trump, whom Ramaswamy relentlessly defended in the debate, promising to support the former president, if Trump wins the Republican nomination, or to pardon him, if Ramaswamy wins the White House. He called Trump “the best president of the twenty-first century.”

Both these stances, however, are complicated or contradicted by Ramaswamy’s literary trilogy: “Woke, Inc.” (2021), “Nation of Victims” (2022) and “Capitalist Punishment” (2023). In these works, Ramaswamy is more thoughtful, but also more confused, than his smiling, trolly, rapid-fire campaign persona. He can’t seem to decide if woke capitalism is a public-relations ploy or a mortal threat to the republic. And even as he lionizes Trump among his conservative heroes, he writes that Trump’s calls for American greatness degenerated into “just another tale of grievance, a persecution complex that swallowed much of the Republican Party whole.” (Swallowing much of something whole is a typical Ramaswamy hedge, one of several categorical assertions in these books that find room for a little wiggle.)

In “Woke, Inc.,” published some seven months into Joe Biden’s presidency, Ramaswamy assails the rise of so-called stakeholder capitalism, the notion that companies should not solely serve the interests of shareholders but should also serve the interests of workers, the environment or society writ vague. The traditional principle of maximizing shareholder value is not just about encouraging corporate greed, he argues, but about keeping capitalists in their lane, making sure that their business judgments do not lapse into moral ones. Yet that is precisely what happens, Ramaswamy complains, when chief executives and investors conspire with activists to push for, say, racial equity audits or socially responsible investing.

Here, Ramaswamy struggles to make up his mind. Stakeholder capitalism is a “farce,” he writes, an example of “corporate opportunism” and “self-interest masquerading as morality,” a “do-good smoke screen” through which businesses distract the public from their perfidy. “The social causes simply serve as a form of reputational laundering for those same companies’ profit-seeking,” Ramaswamy maintains, with businesses “performatively one-upping each other to show that they’re the good guys.”

But if the whole thing is just a lucrative P.R. scam, then it is hard to see how it is also “the greatest long-run threat of all to American democracy itself,” as Ramaswamy warns readers. On one page, businesses are pushing radical agendas and imposing their elite progressive values on our democratic process; on another, they are just “feigning wokeness” to win favor with consumers, “pretending to care about justice in order to make money.” So, is stakeholder capitalism a punch in the mouth to our nation’s principles or just lip service to justice? In Ramaswamy’s writing, the answer is never quite clear.

Even when he is certain that something nefarious is underway, Ramaswamy doesn’t seem quite sure who the bad guys are. He warns that Facebook and Google “have effectively assumed the role of the state itself,” censoring public discourse under the guise of fighting hate speech and misinformation. “The rise of Wokenomics consummates Silicon Valley’s coup over our democracy,” he writes ominously. Yet just a few pages later, readers learn that it is Congress that has “co-opted Silicon Valley” to restrict speech for its own purposes. So, is the tech industry the puppet or the master? Consistency seems irrelevant to Ramaswamy’s scattershot populism. In “Woke, Inc.” there are enough culprits to satisfy everyone.

Ramaswamy can be hazy about his own basic tenets. “I don’t believe in ‘systemic racism,’” he declares in the third chapter of “Woke, Inc.” Yet in chapter 14, he acknowledges its reality. “My problem with woke complaints about ‘systemic racism’ isn’t that it doesn’t exist,” he writes. “It’s that too often it’s used as a vague, judgmental catchall phrase for all of America’s woes.” An author’s views can evolve over time, of course, and a politician’s are almost required to do so. It is less common to see them contradicted across the pages of the same book.

I don’t know if Ramaswamy has an underlying philosophy or just an underlying shtick, but if one of these books captures it, it is probably “Nation of Victims.” In this book, Ramaswamy laments that Americans have lost their scrappy, underdog attitude and defaulted to a mentality of group identity and collective grievance — an outlook that becomes self-fulfilling. “If we divide the world into black and white, virtuous victims and evil oppressors with no shades of gray, we will create the nation that we see,” he writes.

This is not a novel argument, and Ramaswamy highlights the post-Civil War Lost Cause narrative as an early example of the country’s enduring cultural resentments. “Modern America’s victim complex began as a tale of conservative white victimhood after the Civil War,” he writes, only to mutate into “an ongoing story of liberal white victimhood.”

Ramaswamy concedes that “the Constitution brought justice to black Americans with the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education,” but since then virtually every possible identity group has been battling for a perch on what he derides as the “victimhood podium.” The result, he concludes, is a nation that has lost confidence in itself — a culture in decline, a less productive economy, a society that produces activists rather than engineers, a country so weakened that it “would almost certainly lose” a naval war with China over Taiwan.

This could be the core of Ramaswamy’s political message: He marries anti-woke messages to pro-growth ones and links culture wars at home to shooting wars abroad. If Ramaswamy makes any contribution to the long-term electoral prospects of the Republican Party, it will be in broadening the case against identity politics from the realm of book bans and bathrooms to that of economics and national security.

In “Nation of Victims,” Ramaswamy privileges the misdeeds of the progressive left, which he says is so taken by its own fantasies and slogans that it “replaces the voices of black people themselves” who, he suggests, may want more police presence in their communities rather than less. But his critique encompasses the right as well. “The worst victimhood narrative that afflicts modern conservatives,” he writes, “is their budding belief that any election they lose must have been stolen.” Aside from policy differences with Trump over tariffs and spending, Ramaswamy blasts the former president as a “sore loser,” even likening him to Stacey Abrams, the former candidate for governor of Georgia who refused to concede her 2018 defeat — and to be clear, in conservative politics, that’s a serious burn. Ramaswamy also writes that the events of Jan. 6 shook his faith in the United States: “Rome fell to invading barbarians, but us Americans have become our own barbarians, sacking ourselves.”

These books are not the sanitized autobiographies one usually gets from self-congratulatory business executives or aspirants to high office. Ramaswamy offers some family background to animate his political and cultural awakenings — he was drawn to the expansiveness of capitalism, he reports, in contrast to the rigidity of caste he witnessed in his parents’ India, and his youthful conservatism was in part an “emotive choice” to counter the liberal convictions of his father — but these volumes are far more about principled arguments than personal stories, and he includes an eclectic mix of policy wonkery and moral maxims.

Ramaswamy proposes mandatory national service for American high schoolers — he cites Pete Buttigieg’s similar call during his 2020 presidential campaign — and calls for “a hefty inheritance tax with no gaping loopholes” to prevent America’s meritocratic winners from morphing into aristocratic ones. He emphasizes the need for stronger job retraining programs for displaced blue-collar workers, the deregulation of housing markets and the easing of professional licensing requirements. He urges companies to prioritize “diversity of thought” among their employees rather than a diversity “crudely measured by appearance or accent.” And he longs for a “Manhattan Project” (an obligatory reference for policy mavens) for the national semiconductor industry to raise America’s economic and military competitiveness.

Particularly striking are Ramaswamy’s thoughts on how to move the country beyond the identity conflicts that, in his view, erode our sense of nationhood. “The only way to break free of this vicious cycle is to find a way to forgive each other instead of trying to win at the game of playing the victim,” he writes. Our true selves do not equal our superficial identities, Ramaswamy insists, and we become better people when we see ourselves and others as individuals with the power to direct their own lives. “When you free yourself from the illusion that you’re a mere victim, you simultaneously free yourself from seeing others as mere oppressors,” he writes. This plea for collective forgiveness is a welcome break from the hyper-pugilism of Ramaswamy’s campaign appearances, even if his harsh exchanges on the Republican debate stage suggest that his conciliatory side has not yet taken hold.

“Capitalist Punishment,” the latest and slimmest of his books, is something of an outlier in the Ramaswamy canon. It is narrowly cast, focusing on his criticism of investment funds that adopt E.S.G. (environmental, social and governance) principles to guide their strategies. Here, Ramaswamy’s transgressors are the investment firms BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard. “The Big Three are becoming a threat to democracy,” he contends, because they impose social-activist values onto the industries in which they hold significant positions, including the oil and banking sectors, and because pension fund managers adopt E.S.G. investing even if individual pensioners may be ignorant of (or hostile to) such principles. “When elites force their values onto everyone else,” he writes, ordinary people lose trust in important institutions. “And that, in turn, makes society fall apart.”

As in his other works, some tensions emerge in “Capitalist Punishment.” When Ramaswamy complains that E.S.G. investing is radically transforming corporate America but also revels in the fact that E.S.G. funds are “underperforming” and “dropping like flies,” it’s hard to tell if E.S.G. investing is pervasive or in decline. Yet, near the end of the book, readers gain some clarity on Ramaswamy’s own interests and motives.

He calls for antitrust lawsuits against the big three and suggests that Black Rock break itself into two smaller firms. Ever helpful, he also offers an alternative for investors — an investment firm called Strive, co-founded in 2022 by Ramaswamy himself. And here the book reads almost like a fund prospectus:

Though he retains a multimillion-dollar stake in the company, Ramaswamy resigned from the board and relinquished his day-to-day responsibilities at Strive earlier this year because he was running for president. Even so, depending on the standards to which one holds politicians, Ramaswamy’s self-serving approach in “Capitalist Punishment” may be disheartening or pedestrian. At the very least, encountering it does persuade me, as Ramaswamy argues in these books, that there are plenty of business people out there “pretending to care about justice in order to make money.”

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