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Zoltan Istvan’s presidential campaign is wacky as hell. It’s also necessary.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Zoltan Istvan thinks he can actually win.

Don't get him wrong. The presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party — who I joined on his campaign bus, a 1978 RV fixed to look like a coffin, last week — knows he won't win in 2016. But for him, the run is the first step in a much longer project that he thinks can culminate in real, tangible victory.

Ideally, that means taking the presidency. But more fundamentally, Zoltan wants to radically alter the agenda of American politics. "The future is less about social security, climate change, immigrant border traffic, taxes, terrorism, the economy, and the myriad other issues that flash across news headlines every day," he once wrote, "and more about how far we are willing to use science and technology to fundamentally alter the human being and experience."

Right now the 2016 candidates are talking about Iran, taxes, and a border wall. Zoltan wants them to be talking about designer babies, 300-year lifespans, and whole brain uploads.

After a week on the trail with him, I don't know that Zoltan's fit to be president. But I think the challenge he poses to other candidates deserves an answer. The future really will be defined by technological change more than than it will be by income tax rates or regional power politics in the Gulf. And our politics aren't built to handle that reality.

Designer babies really are coming. Will we be ready?

Zoltan’s obsessions are weird, but so was Al Gore’s fascination with climate change in the ‘80s


Internet and global warming obsessive Sen. Al Gore, left, with his 1988 Democratic presidential campaign rivals Jesse Jackson and Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.

Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Zoltan was told by the organizers of I Am Digital, an entertainment subconference of the CTIA Super Mobility 2015 trade show (the CTIA being the professional group for the wireless industry) in Las Vegas, that he'd be speaking to hundreds, maybe a thousand attendees. But minutes before he was supposed to go up last Wednesday, the room was empty, and had a capacity of, optimistically, 80.

Earlier in the day, I had told Zoltan about how GOP presidential longshot Rick Santorum drank a milkshake, alone, in a Carroll, Iowa diner as part of his attempt to visit all 99 Iowa counties. "This is a disaster," Zoltan told me after we sat down in the empty room. "I need a milkshake." Once the speech was actually underway, things picked up. The room was well populated by the time Zoltan finished; I counted about 30-40 attendees. Not a disaster. But not exactly a mass following, either.

Thinking about the task before Zoltan, I kept coming back to a dig Michael Kinsley made in the New Republic back in 1987, when a 37-year-old Tennessee Senator named Al Gore was making his first run at the White House. Gore's platform, like Zoltan's, focused less on issues of immediate political relevance and more on technological and social trends he thought would ultimately swamp the latest Reagan administration scandals in importance. Kinsley was not impressed:

Decades from now, if we are all frying for lack of ozone or roasting in a global carbon dioxide greenhouse, if our supercomputers are lonely and unlinked, if genetic mutants have seized control of the Congressional Biomedical Ethics Board, the concerns of today's other politicians will seem criminally petty. But the "pragmatic," "visionary," "problem-solving" approach to politics that Gore has perfected is in some ways an evasion of politics.

Sitting in a nearly empty room at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas, listening to Zoltan launch into his spiel about cranial implants and reversing aging and bionic eyes, it would've been easy to dismiss him, like Kinsley dismissed Gore. But Gore was right. The internet and global warming were legitimately more important, in the long run, than what Michael Dukakis and Dick Gephardt (and Joe Biden) were talking about at the time. If we had taken aggressive action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and secure an open internet in the late 1980s, we'd be living in a much better world today.

I don't know if Zoltan's vision of 2043 is as accurate as Gore's vision of 2015 was. But he's the only candidate in the race even offering one.

Crawl, walk, and then run

A diner. In the desert.

Peggy Sue's 50's Diner: the most important political restaurant since Granta.

Dylan Matthews

But the thing about Al Gore is that he became vice president. In a country with halfway reasonable voting rules, he would have become president. He managed to attain real power while preserving an idiosyncratic-but-correct set of priorities. How can Zoltan repeat that?

Well, Zoltan explained over a late lunch in Peggy Sue's 50's Diner in Yermo, CA, last Monday, the first step is dropping out of the race. As portraits of Judy Garland and Lucille Ball looked on, he mapped out his preferred way of exiting the 2016 race.

Following all the way through to the general election would be too hard. The ballot access rules for third-party candidates are too stringent. Getting on the ballot in California alone would require spending millions of dollars on petition-collection drives. Zoltan figures he can achieve access in two states with particularly lenient rules — Utah and Hawaii. But he still plans to, at an opportune point, drop out of the race and endorse Hillary Clinton. He's a Transhumanist first and foremost, but of the two major parties, his pro-LGBT, pro-choice, pro-stem-cell-research, pro-defense-cuts platform fits much more comfortably with the Democrats.

Basically, Zoltan doesn't want to keep playing the outside game. He doesn't want to win press as a protest candidate — or just do that, anyway. He wants to gain a position of real influence. And he thinks the way to do that is to drop out, endorse Hillary, and be rewarded with an advisory position on the campaign or in the White House.

Now, I know a fair number of people with the same goal as Zoltan, who are now jockeying for a job on the policy staff of a major primary campaign, or in a future White House. There are a few things they all tend to do: go to Harvard or Yale Law, work at a think tank, maybe do some management consulting. The one thing they definitely don't do is launch a self-consciously doomed third party presidential bid.

How do you solve a problem like Zoltan?

People. Table. Meeting.

A meeting of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

Bioethics Commission

But even if this plan works, why does Zoltan want an administration job? It's not like he's going to be in the cabinet; even he'd concede that much. Could he really do more for the cause of transhumanism inside government than writing and agitating from the outside?

The answer is that he thinks he has a shot in 2024. If he becomes a respected figure in Democratic circles, he could make an outsider bid in the 2024 primaries and perhaps emerge a real contender. Sure, he won't have any elected experience, but neither do Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, and they're taken seriously as GOP candidates. Even if they lose, they're likely to make it onto the nominee's VP shortlist, and they're getting primetime air at CNN and Fox News debates. That could be Zoltan's airtime too.

There's something to this. The bar for making the presidential campaign stage isn't especially high. You just have to be perceived by the media as viable and/or make a non-abysmal showing in early primary state polls. Al Sharpton was in the 2004 Democratic debates, for example; Harvard law professor Larry Lessig will quite possibly be included this fall, despite registering rounding-error-level support in polls.

And that's valuable airtime that Zoltan could use to spread his message. Fiorina and Carson's platforms aren't noticeably different from those of other Republicans, but Zoltan's will definitely stand out in contrast to Cory Booker or Kirsten Gillibrand or whoever else is making up the 2024 Democratic field. His Transhumanist Party bid got journalists from Vox and the Telegraph on the bus; a semi-serious Democratic bid could get dozens of outlets on board.

But if Zoltan were to enter the Democratic race right now, he probably wouldn't make the stage. He needs a bigger profile first. That's where the publicity-raising Transhumanist Party bid and the (fingers crossed) White House job come in. They turn him from Vermin Supreme into Larry Lessig, and get him up on the stage.

Of course, Zoltan is open to other routes that raise his profile sufficiently. Asked if he could imagine changing his mind about dropping out and backing Hillary, he answered in the affirmative: "Someone could walk in with a lot of money." Zoltan is very frank about how fast and loose he's playing with FEC rules — "I am breaking various laws with campaign finance. I'm willing to admit that" — and so it's not too unexpected that he'd be game to put some Super PAC millions to good use.

Love in a time of brain implants

The operator is on the right.

Zoltan looks at a drone whizzing by.

Dylan Matthews

Zoltan's roadmap is hardly foolproof. But walking around CTIA Super Mobility 2015 — which mostly highlights smartphones, smartwatches, and other mobile gear — the prospect of Zoltan sharing a stage with major candidates started to look more and more appealing — or at least more and more entertaining.

Take, for instance, the time that he stood over a Ferrari in a Las Vegas convention center and explained why he thought that robot sex would render sports cars pointless. One booth was showcasing a connected sports car, which got Zoltan pontificating on the uselessness of conspicuous consumption in a "post-mating society."

"I think with some of the stem cell technology coming out, and cloning technology, we'll be having our own cells as children at some point," he explained. "Frankly, when you combine two sets of genes, you have so many mistakes." And if you don't need a new set of genes, why buy the Ferrari to attract the person carrying 'em? "This will be archaic someday," he concluded, pointing at the car.

Hold on, I said. People will still want to have sex in the future. Some Ferrari owners are hoping to attract a mate but others just want to get laid for the night. Surely expensive cars will still be useful for that. "We'll probably have a chip implant for that, just to stimulate us all the time," Zoltan retorted. Jamie Bartlett, the Telegraph reporter, started to get exasperated: "You say that for everything!" "You're going to have so many chips in your brain by the end of this," I added.

"Do you really think having a chip implant could be as good as having actual physical intercourse?" Jamie asked. "Oh, I think it'd be far superior," Zoltan replied, not missing a beat. "You're going to be able to have exactly what you want, and you can have it all the time." He's quick to clarify, though: "I'm not saying it's a good thing. If my wife heard me saying this, she'd probably be upset. But the reality is that if you want something and you can program a simulation to be exactly that, all the time, you may never go back."

The funny thing about Zoltan is that he doesn't embrace these simulations because he prefers them to real life. He embraces them because they'd let him experiment with parts of real life that are now closed off to him. "I advocate for a society that moves beyond gender," he said as we talked in front of the Ferrari. "In the 50-year future, I would enjoy trying to be a different gender in a virtual reality environment for a while. I'd enjoy becoming a fish. I'd enjoy becoming a car, like in those Disney movies."

It's an interesting contrast with his volunteer, Roen Horn, who accompanied us on this trip. Roen's sole goal is living forever. "If I die in the heat death of the universe," he once told me, "my life would be as meaningless as if I died tomorrow." (He pushed back when I suggested he probably wouldn't survive said heat death: "It's just a theory, it's hypothetical! It's not proven. We could fix it with technology, like everything else.") As such, Roen is obsessed with eating healthy and avoiding vices like alcohol that might cut his life expectancy. He refused to order anything at Peggy Sue's 50's Diner, declaring the entire menu too unhealthy. He even expressed a precautionary antipathy toward GMOs, exactly the kind of technological advance that transhumanists should be psyched about. He's not certain they're safe, and he doesn't want to eat them and risk it (most scientists disagree with him, I should note).

But Zoltan drinks — in fact he drinks most nights, he said.

He ate a big, juicy burger at Peggy Sue's. He loves gambling, especially blackjack, which we played three straight nights in Primm and then Las Vegas. When he owned real estate in Reno, he told me, he used to go hit up a casino after work most days. Roen wants to live forever for its own sake. But Zoltan wants to live forever because he clearly deeply enjoys being alive. During one hand of face-up blackjack at Buffalo Bill's casino in Primm, Zoltan explained that he likes to hit on 17. He knows it's irrational. He knows basic strategy recommends you stand. That's what makes hitting such a rush.

The case for taking wacky futurism (a little) seriously

It's easy to dismiss Zoltan and Roen's debates as fanciful. And they are — they're premised on assumptions about future technological progress that are impossible to verify.

But lifespans are going to get longer. Immortality doesn't seem likely, but living until 150 definitely does. More and more sophisticated biohacking implants that can run blood tests and connect to payment networks are already in the works. Genetic engineering is still an imprecise science, but it's getting more precise every day, and it's a matter of time before our current usage of genetics in screening embryos and fetuses for birth defects gives way to editing in desirable traits.

Those are big changes, and debates about them are currently happening on the fringes of American politics, among bioethics specialists and medical researchers and wacky futurists like Zoltan. They're much too important to stay there.

That's why, as bizarre and quixotic as it is, I can't help but have a certain respect for Zoltan's campaign. He is actively trying to get the American political system to confront hugely important questions that are currently not on any politician's mind. It might not work. But it's an attempt worth making.

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