“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
Extensive discussions have recently occurred in transhumanist circles on the desirable strategies, tactics, and directions for transhumanist political activity in the United States. One question in particular has stood out among these discussions: Is it a wise or prudent choice for a transhumanist, especially a prominent one, to endorse a Presidential candidate from one of the two major political parties (Republican or Democratic) and to actively work to support that candidate’s election, when that candidate has not expressed strong sympathies with the transhumanist vision of overcoming human limitations through scientific and technological progress? Some transhumanists may believe that such an endorsement would gain them influence within the political mainstream, perhaps eventually leading to advisory positions and the ability to direct political elites toward decisions that are more conducive to accelerating technological progress or removing barriers to the arrival of radical life extension.
However, this expectation is mistaken. Here I outline several major reasons why, to achieve the best possible outcomes, transhumanists should stand apart from the two-party political system. Instead, transhumanists should pursue their advocacy goals – be they policy-oriented or focused on education of the general public on emerging technologies – through their own independent organizations and voices. This approach does not rule out collaboration with other, non-transhumanist institutions and individuals, nor does it prevent one from acknowledging both the merits of certain non-transhumanist candidates’ positions and the flaws of some transhumanists’ chosen strategies. However, it is imperative to avoid the perceived compulsion to subordinate oneself to the two-party political system just because it is there.
(1) The existing two-party political system in the United States is an obstacle to transhumanism and cannot be effectively used as its instrument. The two-party system is designed to preserve the very institutional status quo which puts forth barriers to technological advancement and causes the rate of progress to currently lag far behind its potential. Both the Democratic and the Republican political machines primarily exist to protect those with political connections, who might be dislodged from positions of economic privilege by dramatic technological change and the attendant reshuffling of the social order. As such, the rhetoric of the major political parties tends to be concentrated on relatively minor differences in governance styles, personalities, accidents of history, and “hot-button” issues over which elected officials have little substantive influence (for instance, abortion, religion, and gun ownership). This is a strategy of distraction, used to keep the public focused on matters largely outside of any politician’s control, thereby leaving the dominance of today’s politically connected special interests intact by default. At the same time, the fundamental questions raised by transhumanists about possibilities for dramatically improving the human condition, deliberately go unaddressed on the campaign trail. Mainstream politicians do not wish to discuss the colossal changes that could and should be wrought by emerging technologies.
(2) Current major-party candidates would never accept transhumanism anyway. Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or any of the others running with an “R” or “D” next to their names will not change by an iota if endorsed by even a prominent transhumanist. All of these candidates will disregard the transhumanist endorsement, each for their peculiar mix of reasons, but with a strikingly similar outcome. No matter how strongly a transhumanist endorses these actual or would-be politicians, their mainstream advisors will not let transhumanists into their circle. This is actually a compliment to the transhumanists, who stand apart from and above the political status quo. It is not the transhumanists who must bend to the political status quo. Rather, the political status quo is precisely what transhumanists must overcome in order to achieve their aims. The way to bypass the establishment’s grip on politics is not to join the establishment, but rather to shift the discussion and climate of public opinion so as to render the establishment reluctantly compelled to follow the currents of change, made possible by emerging technologies in a hyper-pluralist society.
(3) Endorsing an establishment candidate will alienate the transhumanist base. Instead, a prominent transhumanist would do much better to pay attention to and leverage the ideas and projects originating from the natural constituencies of transhumanism – futurists, researchers, technology entrepreneurs, philosophically inclined laypersons, and “digital natives” of the millennial generation. Through a bit of organization and creative marketing, a prominent transhumanist could harness the energies of these creative, talented, and industrious individuals into major intellectual, infrastructural, and public-awareness victories for the transhumanist movement. The impetus for a movement such as transhumanism – and, more generally, any ideological movement that seeks radical societal change – is precisely the lack of accommodation for that movement’s ideals in the current society. The energy of the movement’s base will be lost if they see its direction as one of sacrificing its core distinctiveness and ideals in order to fit within the mainstream political mold and to seek acceptance by political elites to whom the movement’s ideals are completely foreign. If Hillary Clinton or Ben Carson (or any mainstream candidate who comes to mind) suddenly achieved philosophical enlightenment and announced strong personal support for transhumanism, then this would be a victory for transhumanism and a sign that the candidate is worthy of serious consideration. But for a transhumanist to endorse a mainstream candidate without that kind of gesture on the candidate’s part is simply a signal that the candidate does not need to change in order to gain or retain the support of the transhumanist.
As an analogy, consider the very different fates of Ron Paul and his son Rand. Ron Paul – a libertarian and Constitutional conservative whose views are profoundly incompatible with those of the Republican Party establishment – only ran as a Republican to raise the profile of his educational efforts in favor of individual liberty and limited government. But he never endorsed one of his Republican rivals for the nomination, even after dropping out of the races in 2008 and 2012. He did not agree with the policy stances of John McCain and Mitt Romney, so he simply stood aside and continued to express his principled views. He remains highly esteemed in many libertarian and constitutional conservative circles today. By contrast, Rand Paul endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012, thinking that this was a stepping stone to securing the Republican nomination in 2016. However, this decision alienated Rand Paul’s natural libertarian political base (which despised Romney). At the same time, Rand Paul is still far too libertarian to be accepted by the Republican elite, in spite of all of the compromises he has made over the past few years in order to appear “electable” and palatable to establishment media commentators and pollsters. As a result, he is a minor contender for the Republican nomination, quite unlikely to win or even advance his standing.
By analogy, the transhumanist movement is extremely unlikely to show even a modicum of concerted support for a particular establishment candidate – whether Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, Bernie Sanders, or Bobby Jindal. (As noted above, this is also a justified outcome, since none of these candidates would accommodate the vision and objectives of the transhumanist movement.) On the other hand, an explicit transhumanist – Zoltan Istvan – has rallied many transhumanists behind his candidacy, but he can only maintain their enthusiasm in the political arena for as long as he remains in the running. Istvan has been able to garner considerable sympathies from transhumanists who are otherwise extremely varied in their political persuasions and metaphysical worldviews. However, once a transhumanist candidate is no longer running, his supporters will go their separate ways. The libertarian transhumanists will either abstain from voting or endorse the Libertarian Party nominee (as I, for instance, did in 2008 and 2012). Many of the democratic, egalitarian, and socialist transhumanists will strongly support Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. A few might even favor the Green Party nominee. If Istvan stays in the race, however, many of these transhumanists will be tempted to support him until the end. Even if they do not get to cast a ballot for Istvan, they could help with activism, crowdfunding, and publicity-raising initiatives.
(4) Endorsing an establishment candidate will be seen as a defeat for transhumanism. If a prominent transhumanist advocates for the election of a particular front-runner, this will essentially be perceived as a concession to the political mainstream and the two-party system. Transhumanism only has a chance if it remains independent of the Republican/Democratic hegemony and instead continues to be an outside voice, gradually influencing politicians to change their ways – not because transhumanists have joined them, but because the evolution of society and public opinion leave them no other choice. If instead the establishment’s favored pundits get to say, “Aha! Even the starry-eyed, utopian transhumanists recognized the futility of their lofty dreams and decided to come down to Earth and join us sensible people” – then this will be seen as a major blow to visionary transhumanist ideals.
(5) Because transhumanists do not hold primaries, nothing prevents them from remaining independent voices until the end. It is understandable that, as the electoral season unfolds, both Republican and Democratic contenders would eventually drop out to support the leading candidate of their party. Transhumanists, however, are under no such compulsion. For instance, Zoltan Istvan has no rivals for the Transhumanist candidacy, and can formally remain in the race for as long as he wishes. He does not even need to have a massive fundraising base to do so. Even if he eventually ends up with $0 for campaign purposes, he could make a few statements, write a few articles, give a few interviews now and then, to stay officially in the running and in the public eye. No matter what happens at the polls, he will then be remembered as a pioneering transhumanist candidate who never gave up or gave in. This legacy could secure his place in history, much like Ron Paul’s principled, unyielding character and actions secured his.
For all other transhumanists who are not running for office, there is absolutely no need to endorse a candidate who is the last man (or woman) standing after the primary processes of the major parties are concluded. Voting should not be about backing someone whom one expects to win, but rather about expressing one’s own ideals and aspirations for superior policy decisions and outcomes.
As I pointed out in my original endorsement of Zoltan Istvan’s campaign,
In fact, much of the sub-optimal equilibrium of the two-party system in the United States arises from a misguided “expectations trap” – where each voter fears expressing his or her principles by voting for the candidate closest to that voter’s actual policy preferences. Instead, voters who are caught in the expectations trap will tend to vote for the “lesser evil” (in their view) from one party, because they tend to think that the consequences of the election of the candidate from the other party will be dire indeed, and they do not want to “take their vote away” from the slightly less objectionable candidate. This thinking rests on the false assumption that a single individual’s vote, especially in a national election, can actually sway the outcome. Given that the probabilities of this occurring are negligible, the better choice – the choice consistent with individual autonomy and the pursuit of principle – is to vote solely based on one’s preference, without any regard for how others will vote or how the election will turn out. One is free to persuade others to vote a certain way, of course, or to listen to arguments from others – but these persuasive efforts, to have merit, should be based on the actual positions and character of the candidates involved, and not on appeals to sacrifice one’s intellectual integrity in order to fulfill the “collective good” of avoiding the victory of the “absolutely terrible” (not quite) candidate from one major party, whose policy choices are likely to be near-identical to the “only slightly terrible” candidate from the other major party. While an individual’s vote cannot actually affect who wins, it can – if exercised according to preference – send a signal as to what issues voters actually care about. Whichever politicians do get elected would see a large outpouring of third-party support as a signal of public discontentment and will perhaps be prompted by this signal to shift their stances on policy issues based on the vote counts they observe. Even a few thousand votes for the Transhumanist Party can send a sufficient signal that many Americans are becoming interested in accelerating technological innovation and the freedom from obstacles posed to it by legacy institutions.
In order to preserve the desirable role of voting as an expression of genuine individual preferences, the least constructive course of action is to vote for someone just because others might, or because that person is considered by establishment media and pundits to “have a chance of winning.” Ultimately, whether a transhumanist ends up voting for a third-party candidate, a major-party candidate, or not at all, is not so important as whether that transhumanist actually voted according to his or her individual conscience and principles.
A Vision for Transhumanist Political Involvement
Given that support of the two-party system should be a non-starter for transhumanists, what is a better way? The best approach is to gradually shape the external environment to which politicians respond, instead of playing the game of politics by the rules at which establishment politicians are adept. Conventional politicians seek to get elected and re-elected and must therefore cater to multiple constituencies, often with contradictory interests and preferences. But this does not need to be the way of politics. Ron Paul, for instance, was a pioneer of the educational campaign – the use of the publicity attached to political involvement as a means primarily to spread a message and change the climate of public opinion, rather than to win office. The educational campaign is more resilient than the conventional campaign, since it does not need to be concerned with weekly poll figures or donations from special interests who seek special favors. Zoltan Istvan has also endeavored to pursue this approach through his numerous writings, interviews, and the Immortality Bus campaign. As an incredibly energetic, determined, and active individual, he has been able to attract major publicity on a minimal budget. Istvan’s educational campaign should continue for as long as possible – ideally all the way up to Election Day 2016. His continued presence in the race would give many transhumanists a compelling reason not to acquiesce to the two-party system with cynical resignation.
But, far beyond the 2016 election season, the formation of a Transhumanist Party infrastructure in the United States creates the possibility of a much longer-range strategy for influencing public opinion toward an enthusiastic embrace of emerging technologies and the imperative of technological progress. Indeed, the possibility exists to take the concept of an educational campaign a step further. Instead of having the election of candidates to office as its primary objective, a transhumanist political party – be it the United States Transhumanist Party or a State-level affiliate – should instead focus directly on education, activism, and policy recommendations. We do not so much need politicians in office with a “T” next to their names, as we need the climate of public opinion to be favorable to the vision of the future that we advocate.
It is with this vision in mind that Wendy Stolyarov and I formed the Nevada Transhumanist Party on August 31, 2015. (See the officially filed Constitution and Bylaws here and a searchable version here; also join the Facebook group here, as Allied Membership is open to any person, anywhere, with a rational faculty and ability to form political opinions.) While an initial impetus for this decision was to further raise the profile of Zoltan Istvan’s Presidential campaign, the long-term benefit of establishing an infrastructure for discussion and activism among transhumanists is even more important to us. The Nevada Transhumanist Party is a State-level political party unlike any other. While we support the efforts of the United States Transhumanist Party, we are also independent from it in governance and decision-making. We will not be fielding our own candidates or funding any campaigns in the foreseeable future. Rather, we will use volunteer efforts to coordinate educational events – both online and in person – and connect individuals who are interested in the possibilities made available by emerging technologies. Over time, we will build a network of support and will encourage participation by as many people as are interested. Indeed, the Nevada Transhumanist Party Constitution explicitly embraces the concept of making alliances with others to attain specific objectives without sacrificing principles or independence. We also aim to achieve the maximum possible inclusiveness in terms of party membership, receptiveness to member input, and delegation of authority to members who are interested in undertaking beneficial projects that help advance the principles and objectives expressed in the Nevada Transhumanist Party Platform. We will enthusiastically endorse any worthwhile project that is consistent with these aims. Our goal is not to win any particular election, but rather to move toward a society in which any elected official will need to respect the transhumanist vision and do nothing to impede it, in order to attain office and remain there. This allows us the luxury of a long time horizon, consistent with the long-term vision that transhumanism itself holds for our hopefully long-lived future.
If more of us reject the notion of politics as a winner-take-all horse race and replace responses to day-to-day poll fluctuations with a steady, principled effort toward securing the long-term prospects of transhumanism, then we will have won a lasting victory against politics as usual. In the process, we might just create the better world that conventional politicians keep promising, but never deliver.