Book Review: Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit, and the Path Back to Excellence, by Vivek Ramaswamy. New York: Center Street/Hachette Book Group, 2022. 275 pp. $29.00.
Nation of Victims is a strange book.
By turns heartwarming anecdote, personal confession, history lesson, economics treatise, policy position paper, potted history of the highlights of Western political philosophy—and strangest of all—meditation on Hindu mysticism, the book is nothing if not ambitious.
It is also quite readable. Ramaswamy has the gift of an easy and comfortable style that makes even the book’s most abstract passages about as accessible as they could well be.
However, while the book is certainly worth reading for its own sake, it also cannot help but be interpreted as a campaign book, given that Ramaswamy is an announced candidate for the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination.
And in that capacity, the book is problematic.
But before examining its contents, let us say a few words about the author.
Vivek Ramaswamy was born in 1985 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to parents who had emigrated from the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. The family—who belong to the Brahmin caste—are Tamil-speaking. Ramaswamy is also said to understand, but not to speak, Malayalam, the majority language of Kerala.
Ramaswamy’s father was trained in India as an electrical engineer but spent most of his career in the US working for the General Electric company. Later, he studied the law in night school, passed his bar exam, and practiced as a patent attorney.
Ramaswamy’s mother is a geriatric psychiatrist. Both parents, especially the father, are vivid figures in their son’s book.
Ramaswamy graduated from St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati in 2003. He then received a Bachelor of Arts degree summa cum laude in biology from Harvard College in 2007 and earned a JD from Yale Law School in 2013.
Today, at age 37, Ramaswamy is one of the youngest people ever to run for the US Presidency—only barely meeting the Constitutional age requirement of 35 years for that high office.
Before throwing his hat in the ring for the 2024 Presidential sweepstakes, Ramaswamy was best known as the founder and CEO of Roivant Sciences, a pharmaceutical company focused on applying technology to drug development. He stepped down as CEO of Roivant in 2021.
Among Ramaswamy’s several other start-up ventures, we may mention Strive Asset Management, an asset management company that he co-founded with Peter Thiel, J.D. Vance, and others. The company is known for avoiding environmental, social, and governance (ESG) posturing and promising not to mix business with politics, but to look solely to the benefit of its shareholders.
Ramaswamy has published one previous book, the New York Times bestseller Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam, published in 2021.
Nation of Victims falls into two halves. The first half (chapters 1 through 5) is largely descriptive. Its aim is to drive home the problem of woke victimology that is strangling our nation, together with some interesting history to help us understand how we got to where we are.
While it would not be fair to say that the second half of the book (chapters 6 through 9) is largely prescriptive, the purpose of the discussion is largely to justify various recommendations for defeating the victimhood mentality. Unfortunately, the second half is far less persuasive than the first.
The first section of the book is the Introduction. This brief essay borrows the literary conceit of the “Nacirema” (i.e., “American” spelled backward) from the anthropologist Horace Miner, who introduced it in a scholarly article back in 1956.
In this section, Ramaswamy also discusses the phenomenon of Orwellian “doublespeak,” as well as the vital cultural and political importance of honest public discourse oriented towards the truth. In this connection, the dark-skinned author tells us of the denunciations he himself has endured, such as being called an “Uncle Tom,” following the publication of his first book.
The main purpose of the opening discussion of the “Nacirema” appears to be to try to persuade both sides of the American political divide of the importance of taking a more objective and dispassionate approach to our problems.
This seems in keeping with the overall tone of the book, as well as with the persona Ramaswamy is presenting in his early campaign commercials: a moderate voice of reason willing to criticize both the Left and the Right.
Chapter 1 opens with the well-known case of Jussie Smollett to highlight the nature of the problem he wishes to discuss: the fact that victim status has become so highly prized in today’s America that even privileged people like a television actor will go to extreme lengths to claim it.
Early on, the author also contrasts “victims” with “underdogs,” which he introduces by way of the late-nineteenth-century novels of Horatio Alger and, at greater length, through an account of Richard Williams, the father of the international tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.
Ramaswamy closes the first chapter by reviewing the charges and lawsuits leveled against Harvard University for discriminating against Asian students. After explaining some of the lengths that Harvard has gone to to defend itself, he makes the following statement, which I quote in part to give the reader a sense of the author’s lively and winning style (p. 34):
Look, I don’t think we need to bring in Sherlock Holmes on this one. Harvard is discriminating against Asian applicants in exactly the same way it did against Jewish ones, for exactly the same reasons, with exactly the same results, and exactly the same justifications.
Ramaswamy next turns his attention to a thumbnail history of racial relations in the US, beginning with the Civil War. He focuses on a single battle—Gettysburg—and, indeed, on a single incident within the battle, namely, Confederate General James Longstreet’s disagreement with General Robert E. Lee concerning the wisdom of Pickett’s Charge.
According to Ramaswamy, Longstreet was right to resist Lee’s decision to use a division of Longstreet’s subordinate, Major General George Pickett, to attack the Union’s entrenched position at the summit of Cemetery Ridge.
Against his better judgment, Longstreet was finally forced to order the attack.
As Civil War buffs will know, Pickett’s Charge was an unmitigated disaster, giving overall victory at Gettysburg to Meade’s Army of the Potomac and leading to the retreat of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from its campaign north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Lee’s northern campaign represented the high-water mark of the South’s military fortunes during the Civil War. After the failure of Pickett’s Charge, and the loss of the Battle of Gettysburg overall, the North took the upper hand militarily—thus turning those events into the turning point of the war.
Why does Ramaswamy care about Longstreet’s argument with his superior, Lee? Because Longstreet’s initial resistance to Lee’s order was later seized upon by Southerners as a “stab in the back,” turning Longstreet into a traitor who was solely responsible for the loss of the war for the South.
Ramaswamy maintains that this identification of the brilliant General Longstreet as the “traitor” solely responsible for the South’s catastrophic defeat was the primary source of the South’s view of itself as a victim—which, in turn, he believes has had an incalculably negative impact on American history and American society to this day.
I enter into these details of Ramaswamy’s account of the Battle of Gettysburg for two reasons.
First, it is revelatory of the author’s method throughout the book. Again and again, he sketches in vivid and entertaining detail various historical incidents, which he then uses as the basis for points he wishes to make about the origin and nature of our present problems with victimhood.
For example, the author does something very similar with the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection, or due process, clause, explaining how the Supreme Court’s interpretation of that text has evolved over the years since 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.
The turning point came in 1938, in the case known as United States v. Carolene Products Company. In this decision, the Supreme Court introduced the idea that in certain circumstances state laws should be subject to “strict scrutiny.” This immensely significant decision is sometimes glossed by legal scholars as marking the transition from “formal” to “substantive” due process.
The strict-scrutiny standard and substantive due process greatly expanded the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment, eventually leading to the overthrow of the entire Jim Crow regime of racial segregation in the South.
Thus, Ramaswamy traces a direct line from Carolene Products to Brown v. Board of Education (1954), putting an end to racial segregation in public education. If the process had stopped there, he maintains, everything would have been alright. But it did not.
Rather, the strict-scrutiny criterion continued to be applied to an ever-widening range of cases, in which new fundamental “rights” nowhere mentioned in the Constitution were repeatedly “discovered” by the Supreme Court, including the right to an abortion (Roe v. Wade, 1973) and the right of same-sex couples to marry (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015).
This process has led to what Ramaswamy dubs the “Oppression Olympics” (p. 70), in which new, previously unrecognized identity groups continually clamor for recognition as victims worthy of public sympathy and government redress.
Ramaswamy essentially repeats the method I have just outlined with respect to the Battle of Gettysburg and the Fourteenth Amendment over and over again throughout the book.
As I have already indicated, the author is a gifted writer, and these historical vignettes are unfailingly interesting. Therefore, they would not be a problem, were the lessons he draws from equally persuasive.
Unfortunately, many of the author’s vignettes seem to provide a slender reed upon which to hang the freighted historical and psychological conclusions he wishes to draw from them.
For example, does the Southern sense of grievance really arise principally from General Longstreet’s supposed treason? What about other factors, such as the carpetbaggers?
Do the Obergefell decision and the Oppression Olympics really stem directly from Carolene Products? Surely, the sexual revolution of the 1960s—which 50 years on has now evolved to the point that the previously unimaginable has become the socially mandatory—played at least as significant a role.
Ramaswamy broaches several other topics in a similar fashion in the first half of his book. One such topic is Critical Race Theory (CRT) and its sources in Plato’s Republic, in the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, and in the work of the Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell.
Ramaswamy makes the point that defenders of CRT commonly accuse conservative parents of ignorance, claiming that CRT is only taught in law schools. To this, the author tartly observes (p. 91):
You don’t have to get a law degree to know that the divisive way race is taught to children has something to do with academic theories about race. The popular versions are crude, but they’re straightforwardly derived from academic CRT.
Ramaswamy also spends about ten pages (91–101) discussing the influential book The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, originally published in 2010.
For those who may not know, Alexander’s thesis is that the high incarceration rate for Black males in the US is the result of an intentional policy whose purpose is to preserve the Southern Jim Crow regime of racial segregation and oppression by other means.
Ramaswamy points out (pp. 97–98) that Alexander overlooks two inconvenient truths (I paraphrase):
(1) The high Black incarceration rate is a direct result of the soaring Black crime rate, especially murder, assault, and robbery (not just drug abuse).
While Ramaswamy briefly alludes to statistics that back up this claim, he does not press the point nearly as hard as he might have.
For example, the New Jim Crow proponents always complain that the absolute number of people incarcerated by the US is much higher than in most European countries. What Ramaswamy should have said, but does not, is that the absolute number is not the correct metric of comparison.
The correct metric is the incarceration rate compared to the crime rate. As author William Voegeli explains:
. . . for every person who is a murder victim in the United States, the number of people incarcerated is 127. Is that a little or a lot? It turns out to be near the middle of the distribution. Switzerland, widely considered a humane and well-governed nation, has a ratio of 124-to-1: America’s incarceration rate is 8.6 times as high as Switzerland’s—but our murder rate is 8.4 times as high.
The question we ought to be asking, then, is obviously: Why is the US crime rate so much higher than that of most other countries? And why are approximately 60% of serious crimes (homicides, shootings, and robberies) committed by Blacks?
The second point overlooked by Alexander is this:
(2) Law-abiding Black citizens have historically been among the most vocal supporters of tough-on-crime policies.
This time, Ramaswamy does present more evidence to back up his claim, in the form of both statistics and personal testimony. He sums up his discussion with the following astute observation (p. 99):
. . . as the victimhood narrative becomes common wisdom, it replaces the voice of Black people themselves.
Turning to the question of what can be done about the Black crime problem, Ramaswamy contrasts the New Jim Crow narrative with the testimony of an eloquent Black voice, namely, that of Adam B. Coleman in his recent book Black Victim to Victor: Identifying the Ideologies, Behavioral Patterns and Cultural Norms That Encourage Victimhood (2021).
Coleman builds a persuasive case for the crucial importance of family stability as a means of reducing the number of young Black males who become involved with drugs, gangs, and crime. He makes an impassioned plea for Black fathers to marry the mother of their children, stay married, and become involved in the lives of their sons and daughters.
The foregoing discussion represents the last of Ramaswamy’s explorations of victimhood on the part of populations representing the constituency of the political Left. In a spirit of fairness, he then turns his attention to what he believes is a similar culture of victimhood on the political Right.
What does the author point to as the prime example of right-wing victimhood? The bitterly contested 2020 presidential election.
Here, Ramaswamy makes what this reviewer considers to be a significant misstep. It is one thing to be fair and balanced, paying attention to the evidence and the rational arguments on both sides of a contentious issue. It is something else to dismiss one side’s real arguments out of hand, while presenting their opponent’s arguments in their stead.
But that is exactly what Ramaswamy does with respect to the 2020 election. He dismisses the issue of fraud out of hand, without even mentioning the reason why fraud is suspected by so many conservatives.
Namely, radical attorneys general and secretaries of state in half a dozen swing states pushed through massive, illegal rule changes providing for (a) flooding the zone with mail-in ballots, (b) using half a billion dollars in private funds to provide uncontrolled drop boxes which obliterated the chain-of-custody, and (c) most importantly, issuing explicit directives not to match the signatures on the ballots retrieved from those drop boxes against signatures on file in voting records.
Is all of this proof of fraud? Not precisely. Does it amount to a “free and fair” election? Absolutely not!
You can’t change the rules in the middle of an election to make the detection of fraud impossible, and then claim you still have a clean election.
All of this does not even touch on a host of other issues, such as the widespread ejection of Republican election monitors; the corrupt practice of “vote harvesting” (going into a voter’s home and essentially filling out his ballot for him); the relentless stream of highly biased propaganda emanating from the legacy media; and the outright suppression by the FBI of relevant news (think Hunter Biden’s laptop), amounting to election interference.
In short, despite Ramaswamy’s casual claim to the contrary, the evidence that the 2020 presidential election was rigged is real and substantial.
Seeing that the Left claims that anti-fraud election laws like signature verification amount to “voter suppression,” one might say that 2020 was our first experiment with affirmative action in the realm of elections.
As though to make up for his failure to treat this issue fairly, Ramaswamy agrees that the Trump administration was hounded from day-one by a relentless attack orchestrated by Hillary Clinton, the FBI, and the whole Justice Department, amounting to a subterranean coup d’état (my words, not his).
In the author’s words (p. 120):
The Steele dossier was a circle of paid-for disinformation reporting on itself to itself, a snake eating its own tail and liking the taste.
Despite acknowledging these outrages, Ramaswamy tells the reader he is “ready to move on” (p. 121).
That is big of him!
But for a candidate for the Republican Party presidential nomination to, first of all, compare the Left’s victimhood narrative to conservatives’ crying “foul” at the gross irregularities of the 2020 election, and, second, for him to airily dismiss the Soviet-style mainstream media propaganda machine and the weaponization of the Department of Justice with a wave of the hand and speak of “moving on”—that is mighty rich. It is truly something to be marveled at.
How can we move on when the same political forces that created Russiagate, Crossfire Hurricane, and two trumped-up impeachments are in command of the FBI, the DOJ, and now the White House?
Does Ramaswamy really think that, if he becomes the 2024 Republican presidential candidate, the full weight of the Left’s propaganda machine and its lawless police-state apparatus will not be used to crush him just like it crushed Donald Trump?
But let us set aside Ramaswamy’s ill-considered attempt to identify left-wing victimization culture with conservatives’ efforts to have clear-cut violations of their constitutional rights—not to mention of elementary justice—acknowledged and redressed.
The next topic Ramaswamy broaches is “neo-liberalism” (or “libertarianism”), which is a political philosophy that exalts the free market above all other considerations. In this passage, the author presents himself as a “conservative” in the traditional sense of maintaining that there are fundamental values for the sake of which the free market may need to be curtailed.
After describing the hollowing-out of American manufacturing and the Midwest communities that depended upon it, he criticizes neo-liberals for (p. 122):
. . . ignor[ing] this crisis among blue-collar workers because their commitment to growing the economic pie outweighs their commitment to making sure everyone gets a piece.
He sums up the discussion of economics in this section with the following stirring statement (p. 126):
Maybe you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, but people deserve more; they’re not just means to an end, no matter how good the end. As a nation, we can’t take people’s livelihoods from them then just point to the GDP.
He calls the particular balance between a commitment to free-market economics and a commitment to fairness, the “missing shade of red.”
In the second half of his book, Ramaswamy switches gears and begins to consider in more detail various ideas for addressing the various problems brought to light in the first half.
Chapter 6 opens by asking “Are We Rome?” (p. 135) However, rather than discussing the causes of the Fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, Ramaswamy focuses on the much earlier Punic Wars, especially the invasion of Italy by Hannibal in the Second Punic War.
The reason is that Ramaswamy believes the US in the twenty-first century AD more closely resembles the Roman Republic at the end of the third century BC than it does the late Empire.
How is that? Rome was saved from defeat at the hands of Hannibal’s much larger army only by the brilliant strategy of the Roman general, Quintus Fabius Maximus, known as Cunctator (“The Delayer”).
His strategy? Basically, to refuse to engage Hannibal in battle and, instead, to nip at his army’s heels in guerilla fashion. Simplifying somewhat a complex history, we may say that after 17 years of fruitlessly pursuing Cunctator, Hannibal withdrew his forces from Italy.
What is the point of rehearsing this once-famous but now-obscure military campaign?
The point is that Ramaswamy believes we are in the same position today vis-à-vis China that Rome was in with respect to Carthage in 218 BC. He recounts in eye-opening detail (pp. 147 ff) China’s naval superiority over us, concluding—not to put too fine a point on it—that we must abandon Taiwan to its fate and placate China for as long as possible in order to save our own skins.
This is the heart of Ramaswamy’s foreign policy, at least so far as he presents it in Nation of Victims. It appears indistinguishable from that being pursued at present by the Biden administration.
In what is surely his most incoherent chapter, Ramaswamy goes on to discuss Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative (CI),” which he interprets to mean that we should not seek a dominant place in international affairs.
It is true, of course, that if everyone sought to dominate the world, the result would be catastrophic. Thus, seeking to dominate the world is not universalizable, which means that Ramaswamy is correct to say that it violates the CI.
Unfortunately, Ramaswamy misses the elementary point that in a world in which others seek to dominate us, the CI entitles us to defend ourselves, seeing that the principle of self-defense is universalizable.
Chapter 6 is the nadir of Nation of Victims. After that, things begin to improve.
Chapter 7 is devoted to economic policy. Indeed, it is basically a plea for fiscal sanity.
Like many others, Ramaswamy worries that the Biden administration’s profligate spending will precipitate a financial crisis. He also urges a return to economic basics, such as lower taxes and deregulation, to get the economy back on track, as opposed to squabbling over how to redistribute an ever-shrinking pie.
More originally, Ramaswamy includes in this chapter an interesting discussion of the principle that “culture is upstream of economics,” by which he means that to return to prosperity, we will need to do more than rein in deficit spending and lower taxes.
In a quite interesting discussion—clearly, Ramaswamy’s heart lies in political economy, not foreign policy—the author examines a new cultural trend that he refers to as the “Pro-Laziness Movement” (p. 166). These are young people who live off of federal checks while living at home with their parents, spending all day playing video games.
These young people not only aggressively defend their right to live this way, they recommend their lifestyle as morally superior. Apparently, they feel they are actively helping to “smash capitalism.”
They may well be right.
Ramaswamy, for his part, has this to say about this trend (p. 167):
It’s part of the age-old promise of bread and circuses: it’s legal to bribe citizens to reelect you as long as you do it with the government’s money.
Chapter 8 is the strangest chapter in a strange book. One of its main points is to counsel forgiveness, and, of course, no one could quarrel with that.
But in the middle of a discussion (pp. 203 ff) of a Black man (Daryl Davis), who, it seems, befriended many high-ranking members of the Ku Klux Klan and convinced them to quit that organization, the author inserts a brief excursus into Hindu theology (pp. 206–209).
(He does not quite come out and say so, but it appears from this book that Ramaswamy is a devout Hindu.)
The upshot of this theological aside seems to be that we are all only fleeting manifestations of the underlying reality—unchanging and devoid of distinguishing characteristics—and therefore we should not take our own self, or our own point of view, all that seriously.
The application of this idea seems to be that it will allow us to understand that our identity as victims is an utterly insignificant feature of our true, inner nature. And this realization will make it easier for us to let go of our victimhood status.
Or something like that.
Moving on to Chapter 9, Ramaswamy presents us with his chief policy prescription on the domestic side.
He begins with an interesting potted history of recent theories of politics and political economics, moving swiftly from John Rawls to Robert Nozick to Thomas Piketty. Here, the author’s chief concern is the alleged fact that meritocracy contains the seeds of its own destruction.
Taking his argument chiefly from the socialist Piketty, Ramaswamy notes that those who rise to the top of society in business and commerce—for the sake of argument, let us call them the “one percent”—tend to provide their children with excellent educations and to bequeath their vast fortunes to them.
Like a good socialist, the author apparently disapproves of the lamentable fact that blood is thicker than water. On his view, it is deeply unfair for the children of the one percent to get such an unearned advantage over others in the meritocratic race to the top.
In short, Ramaswamy feels that the desire of parents to give good things to their children is an insult to the principle of meritocracy, upon which our entire social and economic order is based.
And he has a plan to fix that.
Ramaswamy’s solution? Much higher inheritance taxes.
How much higher? The author mentions that Piketty suggests a rate of 59%. However, he himself feels that that figure is probably too low. A higher tax rate will be required to save the meritocratic principle.
Finally, in another leftist, big-government touch, the author endorses the idea of the federal government’s providing a free college education for poor National Merit Scholars and others in return for a period of public service.
While this proposal will not please Ramaswamy’s fellow neo-liberals, it might find more favor with some of the grassroots, MAGA supporters he will need to defeat Donald Trump for the Republican nomination.
Summing up (p. 237), Ramaswamy says that we have a “duty” not to favor our own children and that this supposed duty lies at the heart of “justice,” as he understands that term.
Finally, he says:
[A] theory of justice as duty may just be our missing shade of red.
In other words, on the evidence of this book, confiscatory inheritance taxes and a vast expansion of federal funding in higher education make up the beating heart of Ramaswamy’s domestic policy program. If I were his campaign manager, I would make sure he keeps quiet about all of this when he is out on the campaign trail.
Nation of Victims has a Conclusion, which largely consists of a lyrical meditation on Hindu philosophy and religion. This time, the exposition is even more personal and has a highly mystical tone.
Ramaswamy’s takeaway moral from the Conclusion, and the book as a whole, is that America is seeking rebirth.
Amen to that!
However, whether the stark choice Ramaswamy offers between the Fall of Rome or reincarnation will resonate with American voters, I doubt very much.
1. William Voegeli, “Crime and the Democrats, Revisited,” Claremont Review of Books, Volume 23, Number 2, Spring 2023; p. 16.
2. Heather Mac Donald, “On Uncomfortable Truths About Policing And Crime,” Interview with Inez Feltscher Stepman, “High Noon” podcast and transcript, May 26, 2021, Independent Women’s Forum, ipr.org.
3. See, for example, Joseph Fried, Debunked?: An Auditor Reviews the 2020 Election―and the Lessons Learned. Washington, DC: Republic Book Publishers, 2023; John Fund and Hans von Spakovsky, Our Broken Elections: How the Left Changed the Way You Vote. New York: Encounter Books, 2021; and Mollie Hemingway, Rigged: How the Media, Big Tech, and the Democrats Seized Our Elections. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2021.
4. Ramaswamy is alluding here to the famous thought experiment, known as the “missing shade of blue,” presented by the great Scottish philosopher David Hume in Book I, Part I, Section I of his first book, A Treatise of Human Nature (1740).