In his new book, “Nation of Victims: Identity Politics, the Death of Merit and the Path Back to Excellence,” author, entrepreneur and Philanthropy Roundtable board member Vivek Ramaswamy turns from the question of how corporate America went woke to address the question of how America, once a nation of underdogs, has instead become a nation that celebrates victimhood.
Ramaswamy, who recorded this video as part of the Roundtable’s True Diversity initiative, has advocated alongside this organization for valuing each person as a unique individual – and embracing a rich diversity of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences to empower people, promote equality and improve lives. This book lays out his argument for why Americans should pursue “exceptionalism” and “revive a new cultural movement … that puts excellence first.”
Early in the book, Ramaswamy declares, “We’re a nation of victims now. It’s one of the few things we’ve all got left in common.” He makes a persuasive argument using history, constitutional law, psychology, sociology, biology, foreign policy, philosophy and economics to explain how the country got to this place – and how we can move forward.
Becoming a Nation of Victims
Ramaswamy points out that, from its founding, the United States was a nation of people who overcame obstacles. Early on, the American Dream was epitomized by author Horatio Alger’s stories of the plucky underdog who, through hard work, grit and a little luck, surmounted the odds against him and succeeded. Now, however, Ramaswamy argues the underdog mentality has been supplanted by a close cousin: the victimhood mentality.
Ramaswamy believes the seeds of modern American victimhood can be traced to the Civil War, when he says a defeated South changed from viewing itself as an underdog to a cheated victim, making a villain of Confederate general James Longstreet. At the same time, a constitutional war unfolded with the resulting law encouraging people to embrace their tribal identities rather than a national identity. As Ramaswamy explains, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Slaughterhouse Cases mark the point at which the nation’s high court abandoned the question of which rights Americans have under the 14th Amendment due to their status as citizens.
In subsequent cases the Court instead focused on the far more subjective question of which fundamental rights all people possess as human beings. These later rulings developed a doctrine protecting the fundamental rights of people as human beings and provided instructions regarding which groups of people ought to be regarded as victims deserving of special protection. The result was the law incentivized Americans to present themselves as victims rather than as citizens. Over time the courts gave themselves more and more power to determine who counted as a victim.
How the Victimhood Mentality Hurts America
Modern America’s victimhood-narrative mindset manifests itself in several ways. One is a trend toward looking at racial issues through the lens of critical race theory (CRT). According to Ramaswamy, “What all forms of CRT have in common is that they divide the world into oppressors and their victims; they simply disagree on the mechanisms of the oppression.” Another is the development of a “sore loser” mentality in politics on both the Left (e.g. Stacey Abrams) and the Right (e.g. Donald Trump). Ramaswamy notes, “Ironically, Republicans and Democrats are converging. Maybe no one likes a sore loser, but it seems like everyone likes being one. The new wisdom for both parties is that any election you win is legitimate, and any you lose must’ve been stolen. Wallowing in this shared victimhood narrative may soothe the sting of defeat, but it’s poison to the rule of law.”
Ramaswamy goes on to compare America to Carthage, China to Rome, and Taiwan to Sicily, saying America’s focus on victimhood is affecting its ability to compete internationally. His rationale is victimhood causes national decline by making the economic pie smaller as everyone focuses on grabbing what they can rather than expanding the pie. A nation declines economically through decreased productivity and culturally through division due to perceived unfairness.
“Human happiness is greatly affected by the perception in the fairness in distribution of goods. … Human and animal studies demonstrate that it’s not inequality that we object to, it’s unfair inequality, and ensuring that citizens have equal opportunities to succeed would create a perception of fairness, even in the presence of wealth inequality,” he says.
The Path Back to Excellence
Given what he views as a sorry state of affairs in the country, Ramaswamy calls for a return to a merit-based culture of excellence instead of one of victimhood. To achieve this, he believes mutual forgiveness and a ”theory of justice as duty” are necessary. The first step is recognizing that everyone has valid claims of victimhood and forgiving. After all, he says, America is “locked in a grievance-fueled race to the bottom propelled by two major forces: cyclical control of the political levers of power and unrestrained backlash to the entrenched cultural ones. 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 says forgiveness enables excellence, offering the example of accomplished Black musician Daryl Davis, who has befriended Ku Klux Klan members, ultimately resulting in over 200 white supremacists abandoning the KKK. Davis did not accept the identity of black victimhood or allow himself to feel harmed. Ramaswamy observes, “He’s been so successful at persuading white supremacists to abandon their racism through the simple power of being himself around them, unencumbered by the false identities they or anyone else would impose on him.”
He goes on to say, “Forgiving someone else’s bigotry involves not giving up a grievance you have a right to, but understanding that what they did to you is the least and smallest part of who they are, that they merely mistook you for the least and smallest part of who you are.”
Ramaswamy offers a thought-provoking examination of how America became a nation that has embraced victimhood and is engaged in fierce internal conflict via identity politics. While some of his proposed solutions to addressing this problem might be contentious and some members of our community may not agree with this approach, his urging not to base one’s identity on victimhood – or the identity of others on their prejudiced actions – arguably provides a path forward to forgiveness and healing for the country.