GOP Candidate Vivek Ramaswamy Wants Real-Life Starship Troopers

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy thinks young people should earn the right to vote by joining the army, like in the sci-fi classic Starship Troopers. It’s a political nonstarter, but it says a lot about how conservatives see the world.

A still from Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film Starship Troopers. (Tristar Pictures / Touchstone Pictures)

If you don’t know who Vivek Ramaswamy is, I don’t blame you. He’s currently hovering around third place in polls on the race for the Republican presidential nomination behind Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis — but it’s a distant third. And he’s been so reluctant to criticize the front-runner that I can’t help wondering if his real goal is to become Trump’s running mate.

Like Trump himself was in 2016, Ramaswamy is a wealthy businessman with no political experience. Like the rest of the Republican field, he wants to invade Mexico. The most distinctive thing about Ramaswamy is a policy position so extreme that his own campaign staff reportedly hates it. He wants to raise the minimum age for automatic voting rights to twenty-five.

That’s obviously pretty eyebrow-raising in itself, but what really caught my attention about Ramaswamy’s proposal is that it would allow some eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds to get back their right to vote. They could earn it back by passing a civics test, becoming first responders, or joining the military.

The idea of earning the right to vote by joining the Army is hilariously reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven’s science-fiction classic Starship Troopers (1997). In the world of the movie, as viewers are told in bombastic public service announcements, “Service guarantees citizenship!”

Of course, Verhoeven knew he was making a dystopian satire. Ramaswamy is overruling his staffers’ concerns because this proposal represents his fondest political hope. And it’s one that reveals a lot about how the Right sees the world.

Ramaswamy vs. Young Voters

Plenty of Republican politicians have been willing to chip away at young people’s voting rights through such mechanisms as passing laws forcing college students to drive back to their hometowns if they want to register to vote. It’s not hard to see why — in the 2022 midterms, 63 percent of voters in the eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old age range voted for Democrats.

But only a politician as eccentric as Ramaswamy would openly advocate the age group’s disenfranchisement. Actually implementing his proposal would take a constitutional amendment. It’s awfully hard to imagine that happening. And if there’s one thing that would get even fewer eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds to vote Republican, it would be nominating a candidate who openly said that he didn’t think they should be allowed to vote.

But as much of a nonstarter as it may be in those senses, so far it doesn’t seem to have disqualified him the eyes of Republican primary voters. Right now, Trump overwhelmingly dominates the race, with DeSantis coming in a distant second — but depending on which polls you’re looking at, Ramaswamy is doing about as well as or better than people like Nikki Haley, who used to be governor of South Carolina, and Mike Pence, who just three years ago was vice president of the United States. And it’s not impossible to imagine Ramaswamy actually getting Pence’s old spot on the 2024 Republican ticket. Stranger things have happened.

Whether his star continues to rise or not, though, so far other Republicans don’t seem to be treating Ramaswamy as a crank. And that’s interesting in itself.

Voting Rights and the Right

The majority of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds losing their voting rights is a stomach-churning idea. Millions of people who live on their own and work in workplaces regulated by labor laws and have their lives shaped by government policies in a thousand other ways would lose the right to shape those policies. But raising the age isn’t even the worst part of Ramaswamy’s proposal.

The idea that voting rights come with the transition from dependent childhood to relatively autonomous adulthood makes sense in a general way, but any specific cutoff is bound to feel a bit arbitrary. No one wants to extend the franchise to twelve-year-olds, and there has to be a cutoff somewhere, but there’s surely nothing magical about eighteen as opposed to, say, seventeen or nineteen. And the way we stagger the rights of adulthood in American society has little rhyme or reason to it — sixteen for driving, eighteen for voting, twenty-one for drinking or — in most states — renting a car. As much as twenty-five seems like an unreasonably late age for the most basic right of citizenship, I suppose I might feel differently if I hadn’t grown up in a society that set the bar seven years younger.

The part that’s much worse, and much more revealing about how many conservatives see the world, is that — starting with the eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old age bracket — Ramaswamy’s fantasy is all about changing the way we think about voting rights. The fundamental premise of democracy is that everyone has a basic right to self-government.

Those of us on the socialist left take this idea to its logical conclusion. In the workplace no less than the political realm, we apply political theorist Michael Walzer’s maxim that what “touches all” should be “decided by all.” We don’t think some people should have more power over the shape of our collective existence than others just because they have enough money to own their own business.

But even more mainstream small-d democrats who wouldn’t go that far think that the right to have an input at least in political decisions is innate. Like, say, the right to free speech, you don’t need to do anything special to earn the right to have a say in decisions that impact you. It’s something everyone should have just for being a person.

The truth is that the Right, with its love of hierarchy and its instinct toward seeing politics through a prism of individual sin and individual virtue, has never been entirely comfortable with that idea. There’s something about the notion of making people jump through hoops to earn a right to have a say in their society’s collective decision-making that scratches a deep itch in the right-wing soul.

Robert Heinlein, Paul Verhoeven, and Vivek Ramaswamy

Science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein was certainly scratching that itch when he wrote the original Starship Troopers novel in 1959. Heinlein started out as a New Deal liberal, and even volunteered for democratic socialist Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor of California in 1934. But he’d made a sharp turn to the right by the 1940s. He’s often thought of as a libertarian, which might imply anti-interventionism in foreign affairs. But in the 1950s, Heinlein was every inch a Cold Warrior, and that shows in Starship Troopers, where humans are engaged in a brutal and righteous war against an alien race of Arachnids (or “bugs”) who seem suspiciously, well, collectivist.

In the world of the novel, the only way for anyone — male or female, young or old — to become a citizen of the Terran Federation with a right to vote in the federation’s elections is through military service. The protagonist, Juan Rico, does exactly that, and the battle scenes make for a good read. But the lion’s share of the novel’s word count is taken up with lectures in which Heinlein’s ultra-militaristic ideology is put into the mouths of drill instructors, “History and Moral Philosophy” teachers, and other characters.

The genius of Verhoeven’s adaptation is that, first, he reverses this ratio, transforming his Starship Troopers into a much more entertaining story and, second, he brutally satirizes Heinlein’s militaristic authoritarianism even as he retains much of the original dialogue. Bombastic music, dark, over-the-top humor, and military imagery suspiciously reminiscent of the Third Reich make it abundantly clear what Verhoeven thinks of lines about how, for example, “the moral difference between a civilian and a citizen” is that a citizen “accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic.”

Vivek Ramaswamy would let civilians become citizens at the age of twenty-five — and even before then, he allows a couple of alternate routes to voting rights. A candidate for president, who may harbor real hopes for at least the VP slot and who in any case doesn’t want to be laughed off the debate stage, is bound to restrain his fantasies a bit more than a science-fiction novelist writing about warfare between humans and insect-like aliens seven centuries in the future.

But the instinct to see political power not as something everyone has a basic human claim to participate in, but a prize some are more worthy of than others, ties together Heinlein and Ramaswamy — and reflects a much deeper conservative impulse. So does the idea that warfare is a particularly worthy and virtuous activity.

Personally, I’ll take a hard pass on that vision. Peace and democracy may not stir the blood the way war and hierarchy do — but they’re infinitely better for us.

I love Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. And I’m sure a movie depicting a society where everyone’s needs are met and everyone has a meaningful say in collective decision-making would be far less entertaining to watch. But that’s the world I’d actually want to live in.