For the past decade, journalist Dylan Ratigan pushed for political and economic reforms. At the height of the financial crisis in 2009, he left CNBC as a business journalist to host a political reform show on MSNBC. Now he is running for a House seat in upstate New York’s Adirondack region, where his family has roots. He says his message — that everyone must come together to fix our broken political system and predatory economy — transcends party lines.
Ratigan recently spoke to AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld about his campaign.
Steven Rosenfeld: Tell me about your ties to this district and why you think the voters will be responsive to your message, which involves political corruption and economic inequalities.
Dylan Ratigan: I was born and raised in Saranac Lake, New York, which is in the heart of the district. My father’s family came to the district in the 1700s and has been part of the community for centuries, whether it’s the priests, the mayors, the small businesses: Many of them have been run by Ratigans in the past. My uncle now is a priest. My mother worked for Essex County Mental Health for years. My father worked in the hospitals.
This is where I’m from. And like many young people who graduated from high school here, like them, I looked first toward Union College, just south of the district, and then [to] New York City for opportunity.
Rosenfeld: I lived across the lake in Vermont, where I went to college and worked for newspapers for a decade, so I know your district. That’s why I am interested in asking you how political reforms might translate.
Ratigan: Oh no, I’m not running on political reforms. I’m running on the basis of acknowledging that our politics are broken, and that only we can fix this. The campaign is, our politics are broken and we can fix this. This is a district that has suffered terribly as a result of taking a beating in the trade policies, that’s being destroyed by the active delivery of chemical heroin by way of oxycontin into its communities. And is imminently aware of how our politics are broken by virtue of their support of Bernie [Sanders] in the [presidential] primaries and Trump in the general election.
They know the system is broken. They know they have an uneasy feeling in their stomachs that something is not right. And they know that only we can fix this as a group.
Rosenfeld: How are people responding to your message?
Ratigan: When I go into a room and I say, Listen, I have a feeling in my stomach that something is not right. I was eight years old when we beat the Russians at Saranac Lake [in a prior Olympics]. I know the idea of America is anything is possible and the principles of fairness are the basis of who we are as a county, and I drive around the district asking myself how we ended up like this? And then I ask myself, how are we going to fix this?
And then we talk about how we can actually fix this. And I point to the heroin issue, and the drug profits — you have a country that has the greatest potential to lead in the history of the world, based on the greatest idea in the history of the world, that is actively poisoning its people and its children by delivering them legalized heroin. It’s like taking a fork and sticking it in your face.
I don’t know where in the Thomas Jefferson museum there is an advertisement for the future of America where we legalize the profit motive to sell as much heroin as possible to our children and our people as a good idea for the country. And I can’t think of a better set of evidence for how broken our politics are than the fact that we are the only country in the world that is legally dealing and distributing heroin to our children and our communities.
Rosenfeld: I know when the economics are despairing, people turn to self-medication.
Ratigan: Of course. So when you have a loss of pride and purpose for so many, as a result of the trade policies of our broken politics; when you have a loss of pride and purpose as a result of the financial policies of our broken politics; when you have a loss of pride and purpose as a result of our broken political system, and then you start introducing legalized heroin as a solution, you know our system is broken. And you know that we have to fix this.
Rosenfeld: Do you tell people that you can fix this, or do you tell people you will try. . .
Ratigan: What I tell people is, no one person can fix this. The system is so broken, that only we together can fix this — as communities, as a group, as a district, as a country, as a people—and we have an obligation to fix this for ourselves and for our children and for the security of our country. We can all feel what’s happening. And we know that no one person can fix any of this. But we also know that we as a group can fix this.
Rosenfeld: Do people look at you skeptically when they hear this?
Ratigan: No. They lock in with pride and joy — in union halls, in churches, in schools, in private homes, in hotel ballrooms. Eighty percent of the room locks in on that message and they are all-in.
Rosenfeld: Have they not heard this before?
Ratigan: No. They’ve never seen somebody go up and talk about the feeling that we all have, regardless of our political affiliation. [I] say straight up, our politics are broken, and instead of saying, if you elect me I’ll fix everything, which they have heard a thousand times, I’m the first person to stand up and say it’s so broken that I alone can’t fix it, but we together can fix this. And that is where they hook in — on the honesty of the fact that I’m not saying, I’m your savior. I’m saying, I’m your leader, but alone I can’t do this, and we together can fix this. No one alone, including me, can.
Rosenfeld: Is this where the conversation stays, on this emotional wavelength, or does it move to more specifics? Or are people just so focused on a visceral level?
Ratigan: There’s a visceral problem with the American idea right now. And whether you look at paying $300 for a bottle of medicine that should cost $6, or the heroin problem, or the inability to talk about realistic solutions for health care, or local control for education, or any other issue. . .
Rosenfeld: This is interesting. For how many years have you heard people promise solutions: "I’ve got the plan, back me." This is turning this upside-down.
Rosenfeld: Did you expect this when you started to run for office?
Ratigan: This came to me in the rooms. This was developed in the rooms. In other words, I know that something must be done, because there’s too much at risk. It’s one thing to have a broken government when the rate of change in the world is slow. And it’s an annoyance. But when the rate of change in the world is the fastest it’s ever been, and you have a broken government, it’s dangerous to our lives and well-being. And we must engage as a group to fix this. Our liberty and our planet are at stake.
Rosenfeld: Is it just government that’s broken or it also the big actors in the economy?
Ratigan: Well, the economy is dominated by monopolies that don’t serve the people, with the most obvious one being the technology monopoly: Facebook, Amazon, Google.
Rosenfeld: When you talk to people, do they voice that?
Ratigan: People voice a feeling in their stomach. And then everyone has their own pet thing. But they are not saying they are worried about the tech monopolies, no. They’re saying something feels wrong. And I have to engage this year. And I like this guy because he’s smart and he has a background in political reform, and everyone in Washington knows him, even if he doesn’t know all of them, and he’s the sort of person who will never back down to any of them. So he’s a great representative. But he alone can’t fix this. We all know that. Only we can fix this as a group and we need to back him to help him do this.
Rosenfeld: So where do you take the campaign? Do you keep giving talks?
Ratigan: We keep driving. We set the frame, which is our liberty and our planet is at stake. Our politics are broken. We can all feel it in our stomach. And only we can fix this to create the communities, districts and country that we want. That’s the umbrella of the campaign. And then there’s a thousand anecdotes, starting with the heroin deaths and the loss of pride and purpose in the district, as the number-one evidence of how broken our politics are. People think when you say, our politics are broken, that it’s an opinion. It’s not an opinion. When your political system legalizes the sale of heroin, in chemical form, for profit, to your country, that is a factual indication. You’re either pro-heroin or you’re pro-broken politics. I am personally in favor of dealing with our political system, because I am not in favor of heroin — legal.
Rosenfeld: Thank you for your time. Running for office is much harder than people think. You’re in an area that needs representation.
Ratigan: It needs representation. And it needs somebody who understands the district and has a history in the district. And can understand how the broken politics are causing the people in the district to struggle much more than they otherwise should have, starting with the heroin issue and moving to jobs and health and education.
For more information, visit DylanRatigan.com.