Zoltan Istvan

The presidential hopeful aiming to upgrade America

Zoltan Istvan has transitioned from being a National Geographic reporter to real estate mogul, and now a science fiction author who has his sights set on the presidency. Istvan, whose name sounds like that of a science fiction novel protagonist, has ideas for the nation and humanity that live up to the futuristic grandeur of his given name. He is just one of several bold individuals running against the current President of the United States in the Republican primary. Despite the unlikelihood of unseating a sitting president as a minor candidate, Istvan is determined to become president, if not in 2020 then at least in the next twenty years.

In 2016, Istvan ran as a third-party candidate with the Transhumanist Party, a group that believes in upgrading human bodies with technology to become immortal. The party has caught the attention of many sci-fi nerds, tech enthusiasts, and forward thinkers from varying political ideologies across the internet. The party even hosted several Google Hangout primary debates in late 2019 with over six candidates participating. However, Istvan, once the face of the party, has been replaced by leftist Ben Zion for the party’s 2020 election run.

After unsuccessfully running for governor of California as a libertarian, Istvan decided to abandon third parties altogether and has joined the Republicans, stating the party “needs to be woken up to science and technology the most”. Although Istvan also claims he “is not beholden to any party,” he wants to run with a major party to gain recognition and have his ideas “make sense to the parties [he is] representing”. Istvan even suggests he might run for the democrats in 2024 or 2028, and that his dream running mate would be Andrew Yang due to their shared vision of a technology-driven future.

Istvan’s proposed policies cannot be boxed into any one party’s platform; even the Transhumanist Party has shifted away from his strategy of focusing on immortality in exchange for the more palatable phrase “significant life extension.” Istvan is still focused on abolishing the notion of dying, claiming he would “declare aging a disease” on his potential first day in office to generate massive funds for securing immortality. In addition to eternal life, Istvan is extremely passionate about increasing technology use and advancement, specifically in the human body. One of his concerns is the human body’s inferiority to artificial intelligence, saying “we’re gonna have to put on robotic limbs, we’re gonna have to tie in headsets or implants in our brains to allow us to interface with machines in real-time” to keep up. His other policies include legalizing all drugs, providing a universal basic income, and putting serious effort into competing with China.

Istvan is aware that the majority of Americans may think his ideas are odd, but his goal for his candidacy and the potential presidency is to “cultural shift in terms of accepting transhumanism as America’s way forward.” Rachel Edler, Istvan’s designer for his 2020 campaign and the architect of the coffin-shaped Immortality Bus that traveled across America in 2015 spreading the transhumanist gospel, is passionate about the push into the mainstream he is making. Edler stated that “a lot of his campaign ideas are really interesting and kind of new concepts for people…it’s interesting to work on his campaign and kind of see other people’s reaction to everything he’s working on.” Like Istvan, Edler believes that “science and technology is really important and should be a bigger thing in the U.S.,” and plans to vote for him if he makes it on the ballot in her home state of California.

However, being an outspoken and radical figure has caused Istvan to draw some criticism. Alex Pearlman, a reporter and bioethicist, caught the attention of Istvan with her knocking of him and the Transhumanist movement on Twitter in 2015. After spending two days on the Immortality Bus, Pearlman gained respect for Istvan despite several disagreements the two shared. Her main criticism is that Istvan and most transhumanists are more concerned about cyborg rights than real social movements.

“There’s a dismissal of issues that affect people who are historically marginalized and oppressed groups, they don’t feel like they have a place in transhumanism because they’re still fighting for recognition of existence now and thinking ahead so far about immortality and cyborg rights is ridiculous frankly to a lot of people,” Pearlman says.

Pearlman sees this as a large issue for Istvan and those with similar viewpoints to him. While she believes Istvan and transhumanists are “aware that their movement is mostly comprised of straight white men who want to be robots,” she does not think they are a “self-critical group.” Pearlman theorizes that many people might consider themselves to be transhumanists but reject the label because “they’re not talking about solving real issues, they’re talking about solving issues about robot personhood.” Despite these points of disapproval, Pearlman believes if “he actually articulated a vision that included legitimate policies for healthcare and defense spending and infrastructure,” Istvan may be on track to becoming commander in chief.

Istvan and his otherworldly ideas may seem unrealistic or fantastical to the average American citizen. However, transhumanism has resonated with enough people from across the globe that some aspects of it, like the concern over job loss to AI, already appear in national debates. While he may not be the Republican nominee in 2020, there is little doubt that anything will stop Istvan in his quest for the presidency, perhaps not even death itself.

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