In 2020, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang successfully established himself as a minor cult figure with a pitch that was superficially heterodox but fundamentally banal. A few years on from Yang’s quixotic effort, Republican primary contender Vivek Ramaswamy now looks to be replicating a version of the same thing from the Right.
Possessing an Ivy League education and filthy rich to the tune of over a billion dollars from his work in the biopharmaceutical industry, Ramaswamy is only an “outsider” in the narrowest of senses: he’s a wealthy millennial moneyman who has launched a long-shot presidential bid and has no prior political experience. In most other respects, much about Ramaswamy’s campaign is thoroughly conventional.
He has deep ties to fellow billionaire Peter Thiel and Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and thinks (alongside the vast majority of self-identified Republicans) that Trump’s current legal woes are politically motivated persecution. Just like his Republican colleagues, he wants to invade Mexico and has declared war on the scourge of “woke capital” as well. Ramaswamy has published three books since 2021, all of them having roughly the flavor of the first, entitled Woke, Inc: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam.
Truth be told, even this seems like a bit of an act. Before launching his campaign, Ramaswamy paid an editor to scrub his Wikipedia page of all reference to his past associations with the Soros family, which figures prominently in plenty of antisemitic conspiracism on the Right. Thanks to recent campaign filings with the Federal Election Commission and reporting by the New York Times, we also know that Ramaswamy’s vocal anti-woke stance is at odds with many of his own investments in companies that openly embrace the principles of ESG (environmental and social governance) — another favorite bogeyman among conservatives today.
Where Ramaswamy has stood out is in his headline-chasing willingness to pitch absurd policies and ideas, among them a Starship Troopers–esque proposal to raise the voting age to twenty-five with exceptions for those age eighteen to twenty-four who pass a civics test, become first responders, or join the military. His latest offering — basically a mash-up of phony populism, Silicon Valley disruption hokum, and multilevel marketing — is arguably even dumber.
Dubbing it “Vivek’s Kitchen Cabinet,” Ramaswamy recently rolled out a program to reward supporters a 10 percent cut of any funds they help raise for his campaign. Each participant will reportedly be sent a unique fundraising link that will “track the amount of money that is contributed,” with incentives offered to more successful participations including “exclusive campaign swag, a personal call with Vivek, and invites to special events.”
Also of note is Ramaswamy’s chosen packaging of the idea, which his campaign touts as a way of “democratizing political fundraising.” “As a political outsider and first-time candidate,” Ramaswamy remarked in a recent press release, “I was stunned to discover the degree to which the political class cashes in on the electoral process. I found out that most professional political fundraisers get a cut of the money they raise — why should they monopolize political fundraising? They shouldn’t.”
“A small oligopoly of political fundraisers is already making an ungodly amount of $$ on this election,” he elaborated on Twitter. “It’s disgusting. I’m breaking up that cartel. . . . If someone else is getting rich on this, it might as well be you.”
A small oligopoly of political fundraisers is already making an ungodly amount of $$ on this election. It’s disgusting. I’m breaking up that cartel. Today we’re launching the Vivek Kitchen Cabinet: starting today, *anyone* can fundraise for the Vivek 2024 campaign & make a 10%… pic.twitter.com/k2y9ZL8WPe
— Vivek Ramaswamy (@VivekGRamaswamy) July 10, 2023
When you actually think about any of this beyond the marketing pitch, you quickly realize the idea is less novel than it sounds. Campaigns have long offered select fundraisers perks for bringing in cash, invariably in the form of exclusive closed-door events and access to the candidate. The innovation (if that’s the right word) of Ramaswamy’s scheme is that these things will now potentially be open to anyone.
Professional consultants and fundraisers have certainly come to play an outsize role in election campaigns, and their influence is often a toxic one — motivated more by greed and grift than earnest citizenship. But whatever one calls Ramaswamy’s idea, it’s more or less the opposite of democratized political fundraising. Effectively, Ramaswamy is calling out the swamp creatures who populate the upper ranks of the political class, only to offer supporters a piece of the very swamp they inhabit.
Meaningfully democratic political fundraising would aim to reduce the influence of money and create a better firewall between private profit-seeking and the public interest. Offering grassroots supporters a cut of the cash they bring in, by contrast, basically collapses any remaining distinction between democratic politics and pure transaction. Throw in cash incentives to sign up your friends and some carnival barker sloganeering and you’d just have a classic pyramid scheme.
It’s still early in the primary season, meaning there’s ample time for Ramaswamy to one-up his current offering with more in the same genre of zany reaction. He’s currently third in the Republican primary polling, having recently crept up into the high single digits and, having opted not to antagonize Trump, has a definite edge over the likes of Mike Pence or Chris Christie with a primary electorate that still mostly approves of the former president. Unlike Ron DeSantis, whose campaign has dropped like an anvil since it launched, Ramaswamy definitely isn’t trying to win either — a fact that will give him plenty of latitude to jockey for earned media with more crackpot ideas.
His actual goal is a somewhat open question. Trump’s improbable 2016 victory has visibly helped normalize the idea of running for office among wealthy people who have no formal political experience — if nothing else because it suggested that the established rules around who could or couldn’t win no longer applied.
Ramaswamy could be angling for Trump’s vice-president slot, though the likelier motivation is probably more banal. Something else Trump’s 2016 campaign proved is that raw exposure can basically be an end in itself and, if your actual goal is to sell books or establish a media profile, there are few ways of doing either more effectively than running for president and courting headlines by being as outrageous and provocative as possible.