Vanderbilt Unity Project Hosts Tim Ryan


Justin Holmes, Staff Writer

In an event titled “Civil Discourse in the Disinformation Age,” the Vanderbilt Project on Unity & American Democracy hosted former U.S. Representative Tim Ryan. Ryan, who served in Congress for 20 years before losing to J.D. Vance in the 2022 Ohio U.S. Senate election, discussed his criticisms of the Democratic Party, his thoughts on political division, and his vision for America’s future. 

The event took place on February 28 in Wilson Hall in front of an audience of around 100 Vanderbilt students, faculty, community members, and administrators, including Chancellor Daniel Diermeier. Former NBC and MSNBC anchor John Seigenthaler led the discussion, which lasted for just under an hour. 

When asked about his life after his November 2022 Senate defeat, Ryan responded that “it’s been kind of liberating,” explaining that he had held public office since age 27. Ryan, who said in his concession speech that it was a “privilege to concede,” reflected on how politics had changed during his time in Congress. Ryan characterized the “desire to seek out conflict,” as a marker for what he termed “the age of stupidity.” “We’re having really stupid conversations when the problems are so immense.” “It’s climate, it’s income inequality, it’s racial justice…it’s our relationship and competition with China, it’s energy, it’s trauma, it’s deaths of despair, it’s mental health issues, it’s our industrial food system, huge problems…and we’re talking about Dr. Seuss,” said Ryan. 

“You’re a little unhappy with the Democratic Party, to say the least,” asked Seigenthaler. “Most days,” responded Ryan with a chuckle. Ryan restated his position as a staunch, loyal and lifelong Democrat, but went on to criticize the party for losing focus on economic issues, being too eager to debate right-wing cultural tropes, and for shunning generational change in party leadership. 

“I am frustrated that the Democratic party that I grew up knowing has lost its focus on the economic issues facing the vast majority of people,” said Ryan, going on to say that this included all people, “white, black, brown, gay, straight.” Ryan praised Democrats for their work passing the infrastructure bill and CHIPS Act,” but said his criticism lay in Democrats’ willingness to go down the rabbit hole on right-wing culture war topics like critical race theory. Quoting a Jimmy Carter aide, Ryan said that “Democrats show up to a gunfight with a 10 point policy plan.” Ryan encouraged Democrats to “talk about these issues so that you’re not down in the weeds and you don’t entertain some of the craziness.” Referencing Sun Tzu’s Art of War “orthodox to extraordinary” principle, Ryan expressed his view that “you meet [people] where they are and lead them to the extraordinary.” 

Ryan, who challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi in 2016 for House minority leader, called for a “generational change” in the leadership of both parties and expressed doubt over whether President Biden should run for a second term. “I love Joe Biden…he displaced Donald Trump, there’s nothing better he could do for the country, he has a good legacy…I think he would have a better [remainder of his term] if he said that he wasn’t running,” said Ryan. Noting that Ryan, who ran for president in 2020, had said that he would not run in 2024, Seigenthaler pressed him for names of whom he would support. In response, Ryan encouraged people to run and “get in an argument about what the future of the Democratic Party would look like.” Ryan also called for a “modernization effort” in US politics, voicing support for ranked choice voting, automatic voter registration, and extending terms to four years in the House of Representatives. 

Throughout the evening, Ryan referenced the lack of trust in society as crucial in understanding the US’s political division. He argued that this lack of trust stemmed from the mortgage crisis and trade agreements that “didn’t address the downside for the communities affected by them.” “If the people don’t trust the leaders, it’s not going to work,” said Ryan.

Responding to a question about loneliness, lack of community, and disconnection, Ryan characterized these issues as fundamental problems for the country. “We are disconnected from each other, we are disconnected from nature, and we are disconnected from what is deepest inside ourselves because of the distraction [of the digital world],” said Ryan. “Politics is downstream of culture. We can’t just registar people to vote if they don’t feel connected to the broader community.” He emphasized the importance of funding public spaces and the arts as tools for building community. 

Ryan said that he is now “doing some work in the natural gas industry…along with renewable energy,” and “building an American energy strategy that is sustainable for the next 30 to 40 years and can address our climate needs.” He encouraged pragmatic energy solutions and praised natural gas as a superior alternative to coal. 

When asked “what gives you hope,” a question that the Unity project asks all of its guests, Ryan responded “the students at Vanderbilt.” “I drew hope and inspiration from the young people here today—they’re big hearted and want to solve our problems. We have to engage them in an honest and thoughtful discussion.”