No One Left to Blame

REVIEW: ‘Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit, and the Path Back to Excellence’ by Vivek Ramaswamy

January 29, 2023

Vivek Ramaswamy was in sixth grade when he became a conservative, and the man to blame, he writes in Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit and the Path Back to Excellence, was General Electric CEO Jack Welch.

Ramaswamy’s father was an engineer at GE and, thanks to Welch’s famous penchant for ruthless cost-cutting, Ramaswamy explains, "the threat of layoffs hung over our head." Because of that insecurity, his father took night classes to get a law degree. His mother, a geriatric psychiatrist, worked extra hours. Tagging along to the nursing home after school, Ramaswamy would play piano for the patients. Sitting in the back of his father’s law classes, he took an interest in the ideas of Supreme Court justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, mostly because they seemed to be the two men that wound his liberal dad up the most.

"So I became a conservative because I was a bratty kid taking Scalia’s side against my dad," writes Ramaswamy. "That’s the cute little story I give in interviews, at least. There’s a kernel of truth to it. But looking back on it, the financial insecurity my family faced and watching my parents do whatever they could to fight it played as big a role as those Scalia opinions. A bigshot CEO had casually made us live under the constant threat of layoffs, but those nights watching my dad take on law school … convinced me that our destiny was in our own hands, that our fate wasn’t intimately up to other people."

In other words, Ramaswamy’s immigrant parents chose agency over victimhood. And Ramaswamy did the same thing, describing his own conservatism, with striking openness, as "a psychological defense mechanism against being victimized myself at a vulnerable time." Ramaswamy’s résumé matches his bootstrapping ethos: By his early 30s he had made hundreds of millions of dollars thanks to Roivant, a drug development company he founded in 2014. And though he is still in his 30s, he is now a rising conservative star—a fixture on Fox News characterized in a generally unsympathetic recent New Yorker profile as "the CEO of anti-Woke, Inc." Not a coveted role for many New Yorker readers, perhaps, but one that Ramaswamy relishes.

In Nation of Victims, Ramaswamy argues that America today is increasingly characterized by exactly the kind of victimhood he has always resisted—and that is anathema to the values that made the country great. But these days, victimhood is "one of the few things we’ve all got in common. Black victims, white victims, liberal victims, conservative victims, Indian victims. … Victims, ultimately, of each other, and sometimes ourselves."

Where once we told ourselves underdog stories, now it is tales of victimhood that have currency, he argues. These two kinds of stories have more in common than you might think: "In both narratives, the protagonist is a sympathetic figure who faces overwhelming odds through no fault of their own. In both, the meat of the narrative involves struggling against an unfair world, and the story can only be successfully resolved once the hero attains the worldly wealth or victory their virtuous heart deserves." The crucial difference though, is that whereas "the underdog makes a demand of themself, the victim makes a demand of those around them." And America is increasingly opting for the disempowering second option. Horatio Alger is out, Jussie Smollett is in. Or was, until his hate-crime hoax was exposed.

Ramaswamy traces the rise of American victimhood back to the Civil War, with the Lost Cause Southern grievance being an early example of the kind of whinging he has so little time for. After the Civil War ended, a constitutional war raged on and eventually built the framework for what he calls the "oppression Olympics" that dominate today.

Many of the examples of this form of victimhood will not be new to readers. But Ramaswamy is unsparing and persuasive about identity politics and self-defeating antiracism that puts "equity" ahead of excellence in classrooms across the country. From the language we use to the laws we follow, the problem is pervasive. The causes and effects of victimhood crop up in less predictable places too. He finds a kind of victimhood in an idleness exemplified both by America’s shrinking workforce and the complacency of monopolistic incumbent firms. On the world stage, Ramaswamy worries that America’s superpower status fosters self-loathing and a lack of seriousness that threaten inexorable decline. Are we Rome, he, like many big-picture prognosticators, asks nervously.

Throughout the book, Ramaswamy is careful to characterize victimhood as a both-sides-of-the-aisle problem. His chief example of right-wing victimhood is the postelection whine-fest of former president Donald Trump and his supporters, which he calls a "persecution complex that swallowed much of the Republican Party whole." Having voted for Trump in 2020, he calls the belief that every election they lose is stolen "the worst victimhood narrative that afflicts modern conservatives."

But there isn’t all that much more to Ramaswamy’s critique of contemporary conservatism, and so his argument doesn’t quite add up to his conclusion he later draws, that when he "listens to conservative pundits and politicians, they offer only grievances, not meaning" and that when he looks at modern conservatism "he sees only a void, an absence of content covered with a thin veneer of victimhood." Ramaswamy seems more comfortable referencing conservative victimhood than picking through the gory details. That’s a shame, because victimhood really is a compelling lens through which to see so much in American politics clearly—on the right and the left.

The tough and unyielding Ramaswamy ends Nation of Victims on an uncharacteristically wishy-washy note. How to solve this endemic, legally encouraged, bipartisan problem of victimhood? With a national "reincarnation" triggered by forgiving one another and breaking the cycle of grievance: "Let go of your false inferiority; let go of your false superiority. Let go of the grievances that give you a false purpose." The kind of national rebirth Ramaswamy rightly wants will be a messier, harder process than simply letting go.

Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit, and the Path Back to Excellence
by Vivek Ramaswamy
Center Street, 288 pp., $29

Oliver Wiseman is executive editor of the Spectator World, the U.S. edition of the world's oldest magazine.