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Tim Ryan’s Theory of Everything
The former Ohio Representative and Senate candidate wants Democrats — and the country as a whole — to start thinking outside the box and getting down to the root causes of our problems.
Tim Ryan is not one for conventional labels, and he’s certainly not one to defend the status quo. From our politics to our economy to our broader culture, the former Ohio representative and Senate candidate sees a nation plagued by division, decay, and disconnection. He wants to solve these problems by stepping back, taking a deep breath, and zeroing in on their root causes.
How can leaders take the temperature down, overcome Twitter unreality, and win the middle? We interviewed Ryan last week — a few months after his dynamic campaign won almost 400,000 split-ticket voters in Ohio.
In Ryan’s view, it’s time for Americans to stop spinning their wheels and wasting their energy on the culture wars and usher in an “age of reform, renewal, and recommitment to each other.” Our conversation covered everything from mindfulness meditation to why he overperformed in the 2022 Ohio Senate race to the state of the Democratic brand and his vision for the future.
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When it comes to mindfulness, Ryan is a true believer. He first encountered the practice on a retreat almost 15 years ago and is quick to tout its practical benefits:
It’s good to not be in Pavlov’s Dog mode with your Twitter account, right? On Twitter, somebody pushes a button and you go nuts. Mindfulness reduces that from happening too often… It keeps you from burning energy on bullshit. You can focus on stuff that is not relevant and you can get wrapped around the axle on it, and you burn all kinds of energy.
From a policy or systems perspective, the practice of mindfulness — especially Buddhism — encourages us to ask what’s the root cause of suffering. I’ve kind of adapted that to how I think about the challenges that we have in the country. We should be focused on the root causes of these issues. And I think a lot of the frustration in the body politic today comes from the fact that people see politicians arguing and fighting about things that are just really band-aids, you know, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We’re not getting to the root cause.
As for why Ryan significantly overperformed other statewide Democrats running in Ohio?
We had a very blue collar message. A lot of people are like “Oh, Tim talks to white working class people.” And that just drives me nuts because I talk to working class people, whether you’re white or Black or brown, whether you’re gay or straight. If you’re out there busting your ass, I’m your guy. I focused on manufacturing, good middle class jobs, pensions, healthcare costs, good schools for our kids — really bread and butter stuff…
I think we overperformed because of that blue collar message tied with a pragmatism but then also an optimism. You know, I’m proud to be an American, we’re lucky to be here. And we need to take that gratitude and meet the moment.
When it comes to Republican culture war attacks, he was blunt about where progressives go wrong:
Republicans will throw up some trope — some bull crap that they’d make up — and Democrats will want to get in a fight with them about it… That’s the problem: sometimes the Democrats will take the bait and end up on the side of an argument that 80% of the American people don't agree with.
And he didn’t mince words about the state of today’s Democratic Party:
Democrats have been celebrating that we did so well in this past election. But, first, we lost the House and we didn’t make the gains we needed in the Senate, and then we were running against fascists — against people who are literally insane, like J.D. Vance, Dr. Oz, all these guys. And we won some of them, but barely. People are asking themselves whether they want to vote for the fascist or vote for the Democrat — and they have to actually think about it! I mean, we barely pulled ‘em off in some of these races, but the fact that people actually have to think about that is pretty fucked up.
Finally, he called for Americans of all stripes to rediscover their unity and start talking to each other again:
We really need an effort in the country to unite and build community totally upstream from politics or voting. Just the culture is poisoned by this stuff. Everybody’s on their phone having separate experiences and there’s no unifying culture like we had coming out of the depression and World War II, where you had a whole generation of Americans who were united…
We need an age of reform, of renewal, of recommitment to each other to solve them… It’s gonna take a conversation, because you don’t know if the solution is progressive or conservative or free-market until you start having conversations, and that’s where we need to be. The problems are American problems, but we won’t know which side has the solution until we start talking.
These were just a few highlights from our conversation with Ryan. The full interview has been edited for length and clarity and posted below.
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The Welcome Party: You wrote a book more than a decade ago making a pretty provocative argument that mindfulness has an important role to play in healing our nation. This feels like something that’s, if anything, more relevant now than it was back then. Could you tell us why you think it has the potential to be so transformative for the country?
Tim Ryan: It’s an interesting practice — and it’s a practice that you have to do daily if you can.
It’s about awareness really. We have awareness, but then we get distracted and we lose it. We get out of our bodies, we get out of our minds. You know, like, “this guy’s out of his mind,” like, “literally he’s out of his mind”. And so the whole idea is: How do you get into your body? How do you get in your mind? And how do you cultivate more and more awareness?
Through mindfulness, which takes a lifetime to practice, you can start to see your blind spots. I’m not anywhere near where I need to be — and you can ask my wife for verification on that — but it helps me. It reduces your stress, keeps you calm, helps you focus, which is really important in politics.
It also helps you reduce your fight or flight mode. That knee jerk reaction gets tamped down a little bit, which is very helpful. It’s good to not be in Pavlov’s Dog mode with your Twitter account, right? On Twitter, somebody pushes a button and you go nuts. Mindfulness reduces that from happening too often.
And then from a policy or systems perspective, the practice of mindfulness — especially Buddhism — encourages us to ask what’s the root cause of suffering. I’ve kind of adapted that to how I think about the challenges that we have in the country. We should be focused on the root causes of these issues. And I think a lot of the frustration in the body politic today comes from the fact that people see politicians arguing and fighting about things that are just really band-aids, you know, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We're not getting to the root cause.
So this practice has helped me kind of see through the delusions that we have, generally speaking, and focus on the root causes of our problems.
Do you think those on the front lines of the battle for our democracy could especially benefit from these practices? What does mindfulness do for you when you’re out on the campaign trail?
Yeah, it keeps you from burning energy on bullshit.
You can focus on stuff that is not relevant and you can get wrapped around the axle on it, and you burn all kinds of energy. And then it gets very easy to not be present when you’re campaigning or with people. When that happens, you’re not delivering remarks from an authentic spot because you’re in your own head. I think mindfulness really helps you keep things in perspective and be present when you’re with people and listening to them and really trying to pay attention.
It also helps with keeping the drama to a minimum. And a lot of times candidates cause the drama within their own organizations — in campaigns or as an official office holder. Like look at all this nonsense just in the last few weeks in our politics. It’s just unforced errors, just craziness, you know? Mindfulness keeps you out of that stuff, for the most part.
Kevin McCarthy could use just a few of those mindfulness sessions…
Obviously we’re a bit biased given our work alongside your campaign, but it’s widely recognized that you ran one of the most compelling campaigns of the 2022 cycle. You turned a race most people had written off into a national battleground and drew $30 million out of Mitch McConnell’s coffers to shore up J.D. Vance (which could’ve gone to other races where Democrats were on the ropes). And you overperformed other statewide Democrats running in Ohio — obviously not by as much as you’d hoped — but you ran ahead of every other statewide Democrat this cycle by ~8-10 points. Why do you think you overperformed others on the ticket?
Well, we had a very blue collar message.
A lot of people are like “Oh, Tim talks to white working class people.” And that just drives me nuts because I talk to working class people, whether you’re white or Black or brown, whether you’re gay or straight. If you’re out there busting your ass, I’m your guy. I focused on manufacturing, good middle class jobs, pensions, healthcare costs, good schools for our kids — really bread and butter stuff. But from a messaging perspective, it came down to just really honoring those people who go out there and bust their rear ends every single day and feel like they are forgotten.
And in a lot of ways they are. Look at what’s happened in the last 40 years in the United States: the erosion of the middle class, the fact that corporations were able to make all kinds of money but went “to the hell with Youngstown, Ohio” or the Mahoning Valley or Toledo or down the Ohio River. And they were like “you guys need to get retrained.” Retrained for what? Or “you need to move.” Like what? Is a guy from Marietta or Youngstown gonna sell his house for $80,000 or a hundred thousand dollars and move to San Francisco? I mean, you can’t even buy a driveway in San Francisco for the cost of a home where I grew up.
I think that’s why we saw a lot of crossover appeal on our campaign and I think a lot of it came from just taking the temperature down, too. We had a lot of Republicans — obviously WelcomePAC’s team and John Bridgeland and others — who were really instrumental in giving permission to a lot of other Republicans. John was Senator Rob Portman’s former Chief of Staff and he and others really gave people a place to land, permission to say “I’m not a Democrat, but I like Tim. I feel like he’s gonna go down there and do a good job. He’s not gonna get into some of the crazy issues that are just gonna be divisive — he wants to try to solve problems.”
I think we overperformed because of that blue collar message tied with a pragmatism but then also an optimism. You know, I’m proud to be an American, we’re lucky to be here. And we need to take that gratitude and meet the moment. The frustrating part is that we’re not.
You’re what we like to call an independent or “brand-differentiated” Democrat. None of your TV ads mentioned your party affiliation, but you directly took on a lot of progressive tropes like defunding the police and being inattentive to inflation. In one of those ads, you stood in a bar and slammed the Democratic establishment for supporting bad trade deals. Pundits started to ask whether you were running against your own party. Tell us about the state of the Democratic brand in Ohio and why you felt the need to push back against it so aggressively.
Well, I mean, President Biden was at 35% approval in Ohio — maybe 37%. Just generally, the Democratic brand is not good here. I mean, it’s toxic in many parts of the state. And then we also had a base of Democratic voters who were disappointed that, because of the filibuster and those kinds of things, we couldn’t get a lot of our priorities around criminal justice or voting rights through the Senate. There was a level of frustration among these voters. What truly hurt us more than anything — and I know it was the same in Wisconsin and other places — was that Democrats didn’t show up at the levels we needed them to.
We had a woman named Jennifer Brunner run for Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court in 2022. Two years ago, she ran for Justice and she won. She was Secretary of State from ’07 to ’10. A great candidate. And she happened to be a Democrat. Two years ago, you could run for a judicial race in Ohio and you didn’t have to put down your party affiliation. So she ran and won, and we were starting to get a foothold in the State Supreme Court. We won like three seats in a row.
She was now gonna run from her safe seat to the Chief Justice seat, but they changed the law to where you had to put a “D” by your name. So she ran in one of the rural counties. Two years ago, she won that county with 51% of the vote. This year, with a “D” by her name — same candidate, same bench, same message, same everything — she got 31%. Just because she had a “D” by her name.
So I try to explain to people that this is what we’re dealing with. And it’s not just in Ohio.
Democrats have been celebrating that we did so well in this past election. But, first, we lost the House and we didn’t make the gains we needed in the Senate, and then we were running against fascists — against people who are literally insane, like J.D. Vance, Dr. Oz, all these guys. And we won some of them, but barely. People are asking themselves whether they want to vote for the fascist or vote for the Democrat — and they have to actually think about it! I mean, we barely pulled ‘em off in some of these races, but the fact that people actually have to think about that is pretty fucked up. We’ve got a lot of work to do.
How much of that do you think is a Fox News problem vs. a problem of how Democrats portray themselves?
Often a little bit of both. I said this on Bill Maher a couple weeks ago, but the Republicans will throw up some trope — some bull crap that they’d make up — and Democrats will want to get in a fight with them about it.
Suddenly we’re having this huge fight about Critical Race Theory. If you ask any teacher, they’ll tell you “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” But Democrats get in a fight about it because we gotta be smarter and win the argument and all that stuff. And the next thing you know, we’re defending something that most parents don’t want us to be fighting for.
It’s not that we don’t want to talk about the history of the country and all our warts and learn from it, of course we do. But why would you take that bait? That’s the problem: sometimes the Democrats will take the bait and end up on the side of an argument that 80% of the American people don’t agree with.
We just had an op-ed go out in The Bulwark talking about the vote on socialism in the House last week and how 86 Democrats took the bait and voted against it because they wanted to get into a debate about whether Medicare and social security qualified as “socialism.” Fox News didn’t have to do an ounce of truth-bending to run the headline saying the vote “split Dems” because it really did.
There you have it. That’s a great example.
You often spoke on the campaign trail about “the exhausted majority” out there. From your vantage point, what’s the general mood of the public — both in Ohio and across the country?
I think it’s still exhausted. A lot of it is economic, and then a lot of it has to do with the constant us-vs.-them fighting that’s stoked by politicians all the time. People are just exhausted and I think that’s why you see so many not voting and checking out.
We really need an effort in the country to unite and build community totally upstream from politics or voting. Just the culture is poisoned by this stuff. Everybody’s on their phone having separate experiences and there’s no unifying culture like we had coming out of the depression and World War II, where you had a whole generation of Americans who were united.
They didn’t always like each other. They got into fights. But the policies that came out of that era — the New Deal, the Great Society, civil rights, the EPA, community development block grants, Medicare, Medicaid, social security — that whole movement came from a culture of people who felt like they were in it together. That was an extension of a culture that was fairly united.
And that has changed. It started in the eighties. It was about individualism, and the pendulum swung back. Then technology came in and now we have a very, very divided country. And you’re not going to get a lot of progress if you’re not semi-united.
You’ve also been critical of a willingness among some national Democrats to let the party’s support keep slipping with working class voters — especially those who don’t have a college degree. What do Democrats need to understand about reaching these voters (many of whom used to be our base)?
I think it goes back to NAFTA, which was passed by a Democratic president. It goes back to when we had the subprime mortgage crisis and the banks got bailed out. Everybody got bailed out, nobody went to jail, and all the consumers were screwed — under a Democratic president. There weren’t any hearings and nobody went to jail. And I think people were just like “these Democrats are in the tank with the big companies, they’re not for us.”
So I think we need to take a page out of the Teddy Roosevelt playbook and be like “fuck these guys.” I mean, I’m as pro-business as you can possibly get, but you can’t sink the economy and say nobody did anything wrong. These guys trapped people into subprime mortgages. Where’s the regulatory framework to prevent that from happening? What was the response to globalization? What was the response to automation?
Neither party adequately addressed those issues. So the Democrats, who were supposed to be for the working class, were in charge when all this seemed to be going down — and they pushed some of these initiatives. That tarnished our brand big-time. And then that gave birth to Donald Trump. And he wasn’t even a Republican, he was just Trump.
That’s the problem with the Democratic Party. You really gotta work to try to reconnect with those working class people. I’ve been critical of President Biden from time to time, but I think he’s very pro-union. That’s a good start. It’s important. The Infrastructure bill, the building and construction trade guys, that’s huge.
I also think we’ve gotta have an honest conversation about natural gas in the Democratic Party and how it is much better than coal or oil. The rest of the world’s going back to coal but we can’t have that. So we can’t be anti-natural gas.
You have communities that are banning natural gas appliances and then you go to New England where New York and these other states won’t let in natural gas pipelines. So now you’re bringing in tankers from Russia for natural gas — or you can’t heat your home so you’re burning fuel oil, which is so much dirtier than natural gas.
Let’s keep going with carbon capture. Let’s keep going with renewables. Let’s keep going with all the technology we’re gonna need to get there. But between now and then, we need to get off coal. Most Democrats don’t even know this, but the country that had the largest carbon reductions from 2005 to 2019 was the United States because natural gas displaced coal, with significant reductions. So why wouldn’t we want to do that in Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, India, China, and Europe? Germany’s now using more coal in the last two years than they have been — all because they took nuclear offline.
Can we take the temperature down long enough to actually have an honest conversation? What’s the root cause of climate change? Emissions. So we gotta get emissions down. I don’t give a shit what it is, but if using natural gas is gonna get us down significantly from the CO2 being released by burning coal, let’s do it. And then we develop hydrogen and wind and solar and we have the blend of energy that is sustainable and creates jobs here in the United States — most of them good paying union jobs in areas of the country that haven’t seen a whole lot, like Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. And you build the pipelines and you export it and you captain ships and the unions are working on the coast to build the liquid natural gas facilities — this is all part of the 50-year plan.
And I’ll tell you that I was surprised because I would say this to college students when I campaigned and you’d have one or two of them who would grumble, but most of them are like “yeah, that makes sense.” We need reductions and we need them now. So to me, that’s the kind of thing that Democrats should be all in on: building an arsenal of energy and being the country that’s leading on reversing climate change.
Observers described you as something of a moderate populist. We often think about how there are many ways to be a moderate. Is that a label you embrace? Is there a better word those of us who want to win the middle should be using to identify ourselves?
I don’t know. Those labels are always tricky. I try to stay away from them because they put you in a box. I just think be pragmatic, solve problems, and be responsible. That's your job as a leader.
Problems may have solutions that are free market-based, we should absolutely embrace those because we don’t need the government doing everything. But there are a lot of flaws in the free market system — like healthcare for seniors. There’s no way to make money off that, so there’s no private healthcare for senior citizens. That’s why we have the Medicare program. We don’t want seniors living in poverty. That’s why we have social security. Companies don’t build roads. Companies don’t do basic research. Companies don’t educate the public at large. So solutions to those problems may be a little more government-run — not because that’s what we want, but because that’s the only entity that’ll do it responsibly.
But if you are saying that we need these programs and that they’re important, it’s also your responsibility to make sure they run effectively. I think that’s been one of the flaws of the Democrats, too: they defend the indefensible. The intentions of these programs are terrific, but they waste a ton of money.
When it comes to healthcare, we’re not focusing on prevention. Here’s an example I use all the time. We want to make sure kids have food, so we have school breakfast and school lunch programs. And at many schools throughout the United States, kids will have a rice crispy treat and a chocolate milk for breakfast. So they’re right at about 80 grams of sugar before they even walk into the first period class. We will feed them this stuff for 15 years and then these kids will get diabetes or pre-diabetes. And they live in food deserts, so they’re not eating a healthy diet at home.
I’m not a prude, trust me. I drink beer. I eat ice cream and chicken wings. But you gotta eat healthy like 80% of the time. And these school breakfast and lunch programs — that’s the government, that’s all taxpayer subsidized. In many schools across the country, those same kids are at 70% of 80% or 90% Medicaid, which is the government’s healthcare program for the poor.
So now you’re pushing these kids to get diabetes and then they’re on the government healthcare plan that has to cover them. When you look at the cost of any patient with diabetes, that’s a very expensive proposition. So if you’re a taxpayer sitting here — whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat — you’re going “of course we want to feed our kids, of course we want poor people to have healthcare, but this system is nuts!”
Why wouldn’t we work with farmers to feed kids healthy food for breakfast and lunch so that we can drive down our healthcare costs? When you look at Medicare and Medicaid from a policy perspective, those are the two biggest drivers of public funding and expenses for the government, but we’re making it worse.
So we need an age of reform, of renewal, of recommitment to each other. Like I said, it’s gonna take a conversation, because you don’t know if the solution is progressive or conservative or free-market until you start having conversations, and that’s where we need to be. The problems are American problems, but we won’t know which side has the solution until we start talking.
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