Tim Ryan’s Push to Break From Neoliberalism Isn’t Enough

Tim Ryan understands that decades of neoliberal policies have been disastrous. But his solutions to that disaster leave much to be desired.

Representative Tim Ryan, Democratic candidate for US Senate in Ohio, speaks during a rally in support of the Bartlett Maritime project on May 2, 2022, in Lorain, Ohio. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

The Democratic Party’s pivot toward industrial policy under President Joe Biden has few greater proponents than Representative Tim Ryan. Vying with Republican J. D. Vance for Ohio’s open US Senate seat, Ryan, at forty-nine years old, has spent his political career warning that unfettered globalization has hurt Ohio workers and enfeebled his party across the Midwest.

Neither a neoliberal typical of the bicoastal establishment nor a progressive in the mold of the Squad, Ryan’s politics are all the more distinct given his relative youth. As a representative for Ohio’s Thirteenth District, where the small city of Youngstown has served as a regional emblem of industrial struggle and decline, he has been a torchbearer for a long-marginal strand of pro-labor liberalism within the Democratic Party.

A decade ago, Ryan stood out as a relic of a bygone era. While Democratic strategists routinely declared a rising majority of young knowledge workers was in sight, Ryan stubbornly focused on the workers and core industries reeling from trade shocks that had resulted from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, and other trade agreements with emerging economies.

Once considered obsolete by pundits, Ryan’s vocal defense of manufacturing workers and industrial strategy has become a focus across the political spectrum. His prominence is primarily the result of three factors. The first is Donald Trump’s America First nationalism, whose haphazard protectionism shifted the Overton window and has posed the most significant challenge to the ideology of free trade that the United States has seen this century; the global supply chain crisis caused by the pandemic and then the war in Ukraine; and finally, the rising geopolitical conflict between the US and China, brought to a head by Biden’s stringent export controls that ban the sale of chips and related production to the world’s second-largest economy.

Essentially, the same forces that have given rise to “ultra-MAGA” candidates like Vance have also produced a political landscape favorable to Ryan.

Caveats aside, Ryan is essentially a protectionist whose views exemplify the hardened realism behind his party’s apparent volte-face on free trade. In a race whose outcome will reverberate nationally, a victory for Ryan could determine whether the new “high fence” — a euphemism for protectionist policies — for certain critical manufacturing inputs could strengthen the hand of American workers.

So Long Free Trade?

Ryan’s national profile rose this past spring when his ad denouncing China’s trade and industrial policies sparked a debate over rhetoric and strategy in Democratic circles. He first gained prominence, however, by challenging Nancy Pelosi for the Democratic House leadership in late 2016, followed by an abortive campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

While his campaign fizzled before the primaries, his focus on China and trade issues deviated from the liberal establishment’s ritualized pearl-clutching over Trump’s trade wars. Ryan criticized Trump’s erratic approach to trade policy but supported his use of tariffs to encourage more domestic manufacturing and weaken the attractiveness of Chinese imports. Much like Trump’s trade representative Robert Lighthizer, Ryan has for years condemned China for flooding American markets with steel and stealing intellectual property.

Dismissed by some commentators as an anachronistic voice for bygone industries, Ryan’s call for a national industrial policy was in fact echoed by more competitive candidates such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, who, along with Bernie Sanders, lost in the Democratic presidential primary to Joe Biden. The Biden administration’s determination to ramp up domestic production of electric vehicles, solar panels, semiconductors, critical chips, and other advanced manufacturing technology has made Ryan’s career-long advocacy of industrial strategy appear prescient.

This consistent defense of strategic protectionism has provided Ryan a niche but not a solid floor of popular support. Vaguely to the right of fellow Democrat and Ohioan Sherrod Brown, who against tough odds has won three elections as US Senator on a pro-labor record, Ryan has emphasized cross-class cooperation — an “Ohio First” message with progressive trimmings.

The strategy is understandable. In a state that lost 3,500 manufacturers in the two and a half decades after NAFTA was signed, Ryan is hopeful that with the right incentives, US manufacturers will once again invest in working-class communities. Thus, as much as he wants to be a standard-bearer for Ohio’s working class, Ryan proclaims he will “work with anyone,” including venture capital, to seed long-term private sector investment.

This is a delicate balancing act, made harder by the near-total absence of Republicans like Lighthizer who aren’t actively hostile to labor. (Lighthizer’s ilk are more likely to be found in New England cemeteries than among the “New Right” audiences that the former trade representative has recently addressed.) Still, Ryan’s presence in the Senate could ensure Ohio’s workers are among the top beneficiaries of the successes, if they materialize, of Biden’s industrial strategy.

While Ohio bears the unfortunate legacy of Robert A. Taft, namesake of the reviled Taft-Hartley Act that checked union power early on in the Cold War, the state itself has avoided right-to-work legislation. Contrary to the notion fueled by pundits and some Democratic consultants that Ohio is now irreversibly a “red state,” it has yet to follow Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and West Virginia, which all became right-to-work states between 2012 and 2016 — the very period during which the Democratic Party hit its nadir outside coastal cities.

Unforced Errors

Although Biden has escalated Trump’s strategy to contain China via controls on trade, it is still unclear whether his broader industrial agenda will have a direct impact on the midterms. Moreover, it is an open question whether Ryan’s protectionist brand in fact signals a decisive turning point in Democratic politics.

Vindicated at the level of White House policymaking, Ryan has nevertheless received underwhelming assistance from his party’s heavyweight political action committees and financiers. Despite touting 350,000 small donors, Ryan has secured no help from the Chuck Schumer–aligned Senate Majority PAC, leading him to ask why national Democrats “don’t smell blood” in his fight against Vance.

This suggests a widening disjuncture between the administration’s policymakers — who have acutely registered the importance of trade and industrial policy — and the organizations that set electoral priorities. By any reasonable measure Ryan is probably the best available candidate against Vance and ought to be aided as such. But the narrative about declining party fortunes in the Midwest has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; as in the South, the party has shed hundreds of offices at the local, state, and congressional level. Indeed, ever since Howard Dean pursued a “fifty-state strategy” as chair of the Democratic National Committee during the late George W. Bush years, the party establishment has evinced no appetite to devise a recovery, focusing instead on just a handful of high-profile races in the Southeast and Southwest.

More than any other race in recent memory, Ryan’s represents the Democrats’ crossroads in the industrial heartland. The view among some blue-collar workers that the national party is aloof and has abandoned them provides a foil for Ryan’s self-styled independence.

But the contrast cuts in both ways. In trumpeting differences with the bicoastal establishment, he may be inadvertently reminding voters of the trade deals and broken promises that imploded the party’s base across the Midwest.

There are also hazards to Ryan’s recent emphasis on bipartisanship. While Ohio will benefit from the infrastructure bill and the CHIPS Act, the risk is that Ryan’s volleys against Vance might be seen by voters as a matter of personal enmity, not part of a broader critique of the GOP’s anti-labor and reactionary agenda. On this score, Ryan could do more to highlight how Republicans throughout the region have locked in power through gerrymanders. These maneuvers have compounded the festering problem of working-class dealignment while simultaneously nudging a portion of the working class toward the far right, heightening Ryan’s challenge to forge a diverse and reliable coalition.

Ryan’s growing consternation with the national party reflects a worsening political environment for local Democrats. Tacking more forcefully toward economic nationalism has kept him viable, but it has clear limits, even in a state where protectionist arguments have always had strong appeal.

Particularly for young progressives rightfully alarmed by signs of a new Cold War, Ryan’s rhetoric on China is concerning. Ryan’s hopes for Ohio’s workers, furthermore, are inextricable from an industrial strategy increasingly rationalized by the Biden administration in terms of defense. Foreign policy may be a barrier between the American left and liberal nationalists such as Ryan that simply cannot be transcended.

Protectionism of any flavor is also a source of renewed disagreement on the Left. Until recently, left-wing critics of globalization could countenance, if not encourage, alliances with the likes of Ryan, even if they were reluctant to use the word “protectionism” itself. Because the Right has seized upon it to claim a “populist” mantle, some leftists now insist it is a policy that requires unequivocal rejection. In an international system where emergent multipolarity will only further shape the global economy, such inflexibility may prove counterproductive.

For the American Left to make inroads outside major coastal cities, there needs to be a local Democratic infrastructure that it can influence in the first place. Attempting to push a Senator Ryan leftward is an infinitely better situation than undertaking an uphill campaign in six years to unseat a Senator Vance, who will surely do nothing for workers but enjoy all the advantages of incumbency (including ossified indifference among Democratic powerbrokers to outcomes in Ohio).

Rather eerily, the showdown between Ryan and Vance has the air of a prologue to a dystopian novel. In Ryan, Democrats have a candidate whose victory would at the very least hinder the agenda of Peter Thiel and Charles Koch, and who is keenly aware that ignoring regional crises is perhaps the greatest “unforced error” of US politics. Neglected by party elites, Ryan now trails Vance in the polls.

This highlights the ugly asymmetry at the heart of this election. Whereas Ryan’s victory could create more leverage for local Democrats and workers in the Midwest, his loss would be a defining moment for his party and the country.

Or so it would seem. Reports continue to show that the Democratic establishment has not so clandestinely funded certain MAGA insurgents under the daft notion it will improve the odds for Democratic candidates. This once-unfathomable strategy would be farcical if it were not such an egregious misuse of campaign money. To whatever extent Ryan’s sometimes-outspoken independence has rankled party elites — as well as progressives leery of his protectionist sentiments — it is bewildering that they have not maximized his candidacy, given the utter dread that Vance induces among core Democratic constituencies.

With Election Day approaching, it is clear that the deficits of the national party outweigh Ryan’s own shortcomings. A vigorous Democratic Party in Ohio might have had its pick of rising stars to field against Vance — or better, might not even have Vance to worry about. The reality is that the party establishment has made representatives like Ryan spend their entire careers pleading for economic triage from Washington, at the expense of local party strength and union power.

Under a resurgent Republican Congress with Vance in tow, Biden’s industrial strategy could be steadily pruned of its more progressive elements. Trump’s 2016 victory made clear that there is room for a critique of unfettered free trade; the question is whether an increasingly embattled Democratic administration can persevere in yoking pro-worker policies to such a critique. If the noxious politics of Vance and other MAGA Republicans cannot be dispatched by Midwesterners like Ryan, the outlook will be grim.