Tim Ryan Is Testing the Limits of Workerist Liberalism

Tim Ryan’s nostalgia-laced fight to recapture postindustrial Ohio for the Democrats offers a glimpse at one possible future for the party in an era of cultural polarization and a rising China. But it’s not a future anyone should feel excited about.

Democratic candidate for Senate Tim Ryan (D-OH) talks with UPS workers and members of Teamsters Local 413 in Columbus, Ohio, November 4, 2022. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Ohio has loomed large on the American electoral map for a while now, and not just due to its size. With a population of nearly twelve million, the state’s electoral votes can be enough to swing presidential contests, as George Bush’s back-to-back victories in 2000 and 2004 attest. But Ohio’s electoral salience also comes down to its reflection of politically potent national trends: deindustrialization; the shift from a manufacturing-heavy economy to one centered around finance and services; the complex and ongoing reconfiguration of the Democratic and Republican voter coalitions.

For Democrats, the state has frequently been the scene of electoral blowback from the Bill Clinton years. Both Al Gore and John Kerry would have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by securing Ohio’s electoral votes. Hillary Clinton’s catastrophic loss in 2016, meanwhile, ran squarely through Midwestern states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin — each of which was carried by Donald Trump. Though Barack Obama carried Ohio twice, Joe Biden lost it for the second election in a row even as he defeated Trump two years ago.

Presidential elections are decided by too many overlapping and intersecting forces for simple narratives to explain everything. There can be little doubt, however, that Trump’s (at least rhetorically) heterodox messaging around issues like free trade and the decline of American manufacturing helped him make significant inroads. In the electoral realignment underway since the 1990s, Democrats have increasingly foregrounded the interests, preferences, and language of affluent suburbanites and elite professionals — regularly downplaying working- and middle-class voters in erstwhile industrial heartlands.

By the time of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency in 2016, this outlook had become less a passively assumed feature of Democrats’ electoral strategy than an expression of visible and sometimes open disdain. “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania,” Chuck Schumer (now infamously) proclaimed before Clinton’s defeat, “we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia. And you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”

Insofar as there’s political novelty to be found in Ohio’s 2022 Senate race, it’s largely set against this backdrop. With the House almost certainly in jeopardy in next week’s midterms, Democrats are now defending their narrow (and, by the looks of things, increasingly precarious) majority in the Senate — with outcomes in Pennsylvania and Ohio having the potential to tip the scales in one direction or the other.

The latter was by no means destined to be the relatively close race it’s since become. Trump carried Ohio by 8 points in 2020 and, if polls are to be believed, incumbent GOP governor Mike DeWine will next week cruise to reelection by double digits. Despite these trend lines, longtime Democratic congressman Tim Ryan is effectively running neck and neck with Republican nominee J. D. Vance for the state’s open Senate seat. Vance — a former venture capitalist and Trump critic turned sycophant — remains the clear favorite, and national Democrats have perplexingly opted not to allocate significant funds to the race. If the contest is close, however, Ryan’s somewhat heterodox style and approach are almost certainly the reason.

First elected to the House in 2002, at the age of just twenty-nine, he’s served ten terms and established himself as a vintage Midwestern pro-union Democrat: the kind who regularly criticizes free trade, talks about workers, and advocates industrial policies designed to protect domestic manufacturing. He’s also proved politically savvy enough to distance himself from the Democratic brand. “National Democrats have been known not to make very good strategic decisions over the years,” Ryan recently told the Washington Post. “There’s a frustration among the rank-and-file Democrats that the leadership doesn’t quite understand where we want this party to be.”

Ryan’s own district, Ohio’s Thirteenth, is in many ways a microcosm of the Midwest’s economic trajectory since NAFTA. In the decade following the agreement’s advent in 1993, almost a fifth of the state’s manufacturing businesses had shuttered. The Thirteenth was particularly hard hit. Youngstown, its biggest urban area, is one of the poorest cities in America, and today has a population some 60 percent lower than it had in 1930.

Ryan’s response to these developments evinces a keener understanding of deindustrialization and its consequences than one typically sees from Democratic politicians. He’s shown a willingness to speak critically about globalization and even about America’s “broken economic system.”

“We were always supposed to be the party of working people,” Ryan recently remarked of his own party. “And so those rank-and-file union members kept getting crushed, and jobs kept leaving, and their unions and the Democrats weren’t able to do anything for them.” Whatever else, he clearly grasps present-day realities of the American Midwest that the likes of Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer have not.

For that reason, Ohio’s unexpectedly tight Senate race has inspired a wave of interest and commentary in the media. Ryan’s relative political novelty, however, risks exaggerating the extent to which his politics meaningfully break from those of the mainstream Democratic Party. As Ross Barkan notes, he reliably supports most Biden and Nancy Pelosi–backed legislation, is hawkish when it comes to foreign policy, and is trumpeting a somewhat hodgepodge plan to fight inflation that foregrounds tax cuts rather than social spending.

Ryan’s critical orientation toward social liberalism is similarly a double-edged sword. At one time a self-identified pro-life member of Congress (Ryan now supports eliminating the filibuster to codify Roe v. Wade), his anti-metropolitan posture comes with an unsavory dollop of outright conservatism. Despite frequently aligning with Biden and Pelosi, he opposed the former’s plan for student debt relief. His campaign ads have also tended to blend workerist rhetoric with economic nationalism and other decidedly conventional appeals. One released in May, ahead of Ohio’s Senate primaries, is a case in point:

Defunding the police is way off the mark. We need more cops — not less. My party also got it wrong on the trade deals that sent your jobs overseas. I’ve always fought those working against you. That’s why I’ll take on China to bring jobs back to Ohio, and fight for a tax cut that puts more money in your pocket. You want culture wars? I’m not your guy. You want a fighter for Ohio? I’m all in.

Much like Vance, Ryan frames competition with China in explicitly ideological terms. “China’s winning, workers are losing. It’s us versus them: capitalism versus communism,” he declared in an ad that unsurprisingly became controversial. “It is time for us to fight back. . . . We need to build things in Ohio by Ohio workers.” Predictably, their rivalry has often taken the form of a meta-debate over authenticity. In this respect, Ryan clearly has the edge over Vance — whose affected presentation as a scrappy class fighter is pure reactionary cosplay. If he does manage an unlikely victory this month, it will therefore owe as much to adept debate performances and perceived straight-shooting as it does to genuine political novelty.

Regardless of the outcome, Ohio’s Senate race hints at how liberals in the post-Clintonite Democratic Party might adapt to the realities of industrial decline, and it suggests a political strategy distinct from the one still championed by its most committed Third Way acolytes. It also suggests that this distinctiveness has hard limits beyond the level of rhetoric and openness to industrial policy. In the next decade of the twenty-first century, a less out-of-touch Democratic Party may prove politically savvy enough to break from the rote metropolitanism and reflexive deference to global markets that have largely defined its outlook since the 1990s.

Electorally speaking, such a posture might be effective at countering ersatz right-wing class appeals and arresting Democratic voter dealignment. But it would still fundamentally be a form of status quo politics premised on geopolitical competition rather than democratic populism, redistribution, or class solidarity. As China becomes a global superpower, economic nationalism of one kind or another is almost certain to emerge as bipartisan terrain. Such a shift might present occasional opportunities for America’s workers to secure qualified political victories. Winning a comprehensively better future for its working-class majority, however, will clearly require a politics more radical and ambitious than a regionally oriented populism aligned to Washington’s consensus foreign policy goals.

Measured against the decrepit corpse of its Clintonite equivalent, Tim Ryan’s brand of workerist liberalism therefore holds out the prospect of a potentially viable electoral route for Democrats looking to shed the party’s not entirely unjustified image as a bicoastal vehicle for metropolitan elitism. What it is not is a politics capable of delivering a lasting redistribution of wealth and power, or assembling the kind of broad and expansive political coalition necessary to achieve them.