A llama joined the pro-Bernie Sanders protesters at the Democratic National Convention entrance in Philadelphia. Photo by Zoltan Istvan.

A Transhumanist Goes to the Conventions

The RNC was surprisingly more open to transhumanism than the DNC.

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Jul 28 2016, 3:28pm

A llama joined the pro-Bernie Sanders protesters at the Democratic National Convention entrance in Philadelphia. Photo by Zoltan Istvan.

Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, author of The Transhumanist Wager, and a 2016 US Presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond human ability.

Somewhere between a roaming white llama, a purple face-painted dancing mystic, and a pack of born-again, sign-waving Christians screaming that I was going to burn in hell, I saw the irritated soul of America.

It wasn't the America you see on CNN or hear about on NPR, but rather it resembled a traveling circus performing under the sprawled-out tent of democracy—and the tent was faded and fraying at the edges.

Either way, as the 2016 Transhumanist Party Presidential candidate—someone who advocates for robot rights, brain implants, and AI to one day replace all government—I fit right in.

Earlier this month, my volunteers and I had decided to attend both 2016 national conventions—the GOP convention in Cleveland (which ended last week) and the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia (which ends Thursday). We wanted to be the voice of science and technology at these 50,000+ person gatherings. Political conventions are known for being wild affairs, but this year promised to be more so since both nominated candidates were historically disliked.

The delegates smiled, welcoming me to the club, asking if GOP speaker and transhumanist Peter Thiel was a friend of mine

At first, I felt sheepish crashing another candidate's political coronation. Of course, I wasn't allowed inside the conventions—only speakers, delegates, journalists, and special guests are let in. But standing outside the Philadelphia Wells Fargo Convention Center and the Cleveland Quicken Loans Arena, amidst the thousands of protesters and activists that were there, I realized I was right at home. What I didn't suspect, though, was how different the conventions would be from one another.

Most people are still coming to terms with Donald Trump as the Republican nominee. A year ago, a convention dedicated to Trump seemed outlandish, but he managed to pull it off and score the nomination. Millions of Americans—not just Ted Cruz and Mitt Romney—are still in shock and utterly dismayed that a celebrity non-politician has the GOP crown.

Because of this, the feeling on the street in Cleveland was supposed to be one of grievance, despair and even possibly terror and violence. Gauging by the sheer amount of armed police on the ground in downtown Cleveland, you'd think it was a war zone. In the end, the convention went off pretty much without a hitch, and instead of chaos, many protesters like me found a posh street party, cute cafes, and even some celebration (presumably because no one was shot protesting). Like thousands of others, I surprisingly enjoyed myself.

That doesn't mean the Public Square wasn't tense. It was filled with Alex Jones and company yelling at communists. Anti-abortion and Black Lives Matter protests also occurred. Police had to form tight lines to keep the peace a few times. But the vibe was distinctly not dangerous or hostile. Trump winning the nomination somehow made us all look at ourselves, shake our heads, and chuckle. His win broadened our experience of America. People will say it's not in ways we want—but surely it's in ways that are true to who we are, for better or worse. People celebrated that, and even the often smiling police—who once arrested 400 people at a Republican convention in 2000, but arrested only 24 people this time—knew that.

A purple-face painted mystic performs a ritual near the entrance at the Democratic National Convention. Behind him, a born-again Christian in a red shirt recites scripture with a megaphone. Photo by Zoltan Istvan.

On the other hand, the Democratic convention was solemn—even amidst various protests. Unlike the GOP convention, no one expected violence at the DNC—but no one also expected such sadness, too. Thousands of protesters were yelling and mourning over Bernie Sanders and the political revolution he started but couldn't finish. One woman told me tearfully she traveled 1,500 miles in hopes the Democratic delegates might somehow still make Sanders the nominee. On Monday, I watched glimmers of hope pass from hundreds of faces as Bernie promoted Hillary Clinton in his speech on the conference opening day. On Tuesday, as Hillary was historically championed the Democratic nominee, some people packed up and left Philly.

Amongst this scene, I tried campaigning and gaining new voters. Unfortunately, my techno-optimist message was difficult to hear. When I told protesters my goal was to get science and technology to play a more dominant role in American culture, many responded saying these were secondary issues—and currently unimportant. The Sanders fans wanted equality, college debt banished, and police brutality to stop. As soon as I told them I supported a Universal Basic Income, free education, and green tech to solve climate change, they took a liking to me. But science and technology, sadly, was not on their minds.

Another interesting point about the convention was protester diversity. For all the criticism that Trump and the Republican Party gets about being racist, the protesters (and supporters) outside the GOP convention were packed with diversity. There was an extremely large amount of different races, creeds, ethnicities, political philosophies, and social movements afoot—including an all women's group of "Muslims for science," which I appreciated. The protesters and supporters that couldn't get into the Democratic convention were nothing of the sort. Everywhere I looked were young, white Americans, many camping out at FDR Park in South Philly. Diversity was limited, even if everyone was preaching for it. On the other hand, regarding gender, I did see more women protesters at the DNC than the RNC.

Another major difference between the conventions was the interaction between delegates and the public. In Cleveland, I spoke to many delegates—the street leading to the entrance was not barricaded and open to the public. In Philadelphia, 8-foot-tall gates, sometimes-closed-off subway stations, and poor planning made it difficult to talk to any delegates—which ultimately resulted in distant angry protests against many of them (instead of potentially helpful 1-on-1 conversations). Many people commented on the irony of Hillary having more so-called "walls" up than Trump.

Fundamental Christians and their ever blasting megaphones warning of the impending end of the world were a perennial fixture at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Photo by Zoltan Istvan.

Interestingly, many of the delegates I spoke to at the GOP convention didn't seem to care what my futurist policies were or weren't. What they cared about was that the transhumanist ideas I suggested could move the economy forward. Luckily, they can, I insisted. Gene editing tech, exoskeleton technology, and driverless cars—core transhumanist issues—are going to make many new billionaires. The delegates smiled, welcoming me to the club, asking if GOP speaker and transhumanist Peter Thiel was a friend of mine.

This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. I tend to lean a bit left in my policies, and the Christian right—rulers of the GOP—were supposed to despise me. After all, I'm an atheist candidate. Yet, it turned out, at least at their convention, that my musings were welcome.

The Transhumanist Party and my campaign generally aim to be politically centric, and we focus on how we can best promote a science and technology agenda. Nothing on Planet Earth affects our lives more than innovation in science and tech, so you'd think the major candidates would be talking more about it. Sadly, they're not. It's politics as usual with them, which is perhaps why so many Americans are disgruntled about the major candidate choices they have.

I wasn't the only outsider presidential candidate to crash the conventions. Libertarian Gary Johnson visited the Republican Convention, and Jill Stein of the Green Party led rallies at the Democratic Convention. If the major parties aren't careful, and don't listen more to the demands of the American people, 2016 might be remembered as the year the two-party system disappeared. For me, that would be a welcome respite to the defeatist political circus America has become. New voices and ideas—and more than two major national conventions to protest and party at—might just be the new norm.