California Congressman Ro Khanna took on a Democratic incumbent in a 2016 primary because he said Democrats needed to fight harder for economic and social and racial justice, for peace and a new approach to foreign policy, for bold responses to the climate crisis and for a new economy that harnessed technological progress for human needs. It was a bold agenda, and voters embraced it, sending Khanna to Congress with a mandate to shake things up.
He has done so with a passion. Aligning with veteran members such as California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, he brought fresh energy to the fight to thwart militarism and advance diplomatic solutions to global conflicts. With Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, he led a successful move to get the Congress to signal its opposition to US support for Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen. Khanna also joined Sanders in high-profile efforts to get Amazon, Walmart and other corporations to pay living wages.
Khanna has challenged monopolies, urged tech corporations to invest in rural America and authored a groundbreaking Internet Bill of Rights. He frequently takes on President Trump, but vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus also objects when Democrats compromise on principles.
We spoke to him on Next Left about many of these fights, and about the influence that his Indian grandfather’s anti-colonial activism had on his politics.
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Progressives Are Starting to Define a New Realism for Our National-Security Strategy, The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel
Ro Khanna’s family narrative rivals that of Mike Honda, Mercury News, Scott Herhold
From Council Rock to Congress: Philly-born Ro Khanna is saving U.S. foreign policy from itself, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Will Bunch
Ryan’s Republicans Are Abdicating Their Moral and Constitutional Duty on Yemen: Republicans just blocked Ro Khanna’s proposal to end all US military aid to the Saudi-led coalition that is attacking Yemen, The Nation, John Nichols
In Search of a Green New Foreign Policy, The Nation, Robert L. Borosage
Churchill’s policies contributed to 1943 Bengal famine—study, The Guardian, Michael Safi
“Masters of War,” Bob Dylan
This episode of Next Left was produced and edited by Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Our executive producers are Frank Reynolds, Erin O’Mara, and Katrina vanden Heuvel. Our theme song is “Deli Run,” by Ava Luna.
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John Nichols: Welcome to Next Left. This is John Nichols of The Nation magazine, and this week we’re joined by one of the most dynamic and innovative members of the US House of Representatives. Ro Khanna was just 27 years old when he entered a 2004 California congressional primary as one of the first challengers to a Democratic incumbent, who had voted for the Iraq War. Khanna lost that race, but it marked him as a pioneering bold progressive. He eventually served in the Obama White House, and then took on another Democratic incumbent to win a US House seat, in 2016. He’s served since then as no other member of Congress. Taking on issues of war and peace, corporate monopoly, and the future of the Internet and AI technology.Ro Khanna, thanks for being with us on Next Left.
Ro Khanna:: Thanks. Congrats on the podcast.
JN: I appreciate it. Hey, I want to start out with some of your political roots. Your political ideals I think in many senses trace back a long way, to your grandfather. It’s quite a remarkable story. Why don’t you tell us a little about your grandfather?
RK: I’m very proud of him, Amarnath Vidyalankar. He grew up in Lahore, and he was part of the freedom movement. He worked for Lala Lajpat Rai, who was one of the early freedom-movement leaders in India. Growing up he had a choice whether to start a clothing store—and that’s what his parents wanted him to do, and they were very disappointed when he decided not to because, of course, in India at the time there was a boycott of any British clothing, and so he started to work for Lala Lajpat Rai, and he used to set up the chairs before Lala Lajpat Rai used to address crowds. And then later, of course, he became very involved with Gandhi. He went to jail for the cause in the 1940s for four years from 1941 to ’46, and then becomes a part of India’s first parliament when India gained independence. He passed away when I was about 9. I was born in Philadelphia, but we would go off to India in the summers, and he would tell stories. And then after he passed, of course, he was such a legend that everyone in the family had a story about him, and that had a remarkable impact on my passion for public service.
JN: Immigrant traditions have influenced our politics throughout history. This is not a new thing, but one of the fascinating things is that now so many immigrants and children of immigrants are running for Congress and getting elected. The growing diversity of our Congress is striking. It’s still not what it should be, but it’s pretty remarkable to have Ilhan Omar…
JN: …and Rashida Tlaib and you. You all have come in relatively recently.
RK: And we’ve all come in perhaps not being the establishment and party’s choice. One of the reasons that’s consequential is usually when you have immigrant communities it’s easiest to get elected where there’s large populations of those communities, and they happen to be often in safe Democratic seats, and so you have to be willing to question the status quo, and the status quo has to be willing to be open to new voices. I think you have now, finally, a mobilization that has cracked the establishment politics, where new voices are emerging and, as you pointed out, winning. It’s happening for multiple reasons.
One, the next generation, the kids of the immigrant communities that came after 1965 opened America to Asia, and Africa and so many other countries now are finally of an age that they can participate, so it took 30, 40 years. The second is social media has democratized, I think, communication and lowered the barriers to entry to participating. Third, this new generation is deeply progressive young people in many places and are open to voices.
Finally, I do have to give some credit—I don’t share all of his politics—but I do think Barack Obama transformed the vision of what was possible in American politics. I remember my mom literally crying on the phone. I was in California when he won, and I was amazed by the emotional impact that had on her. I had never seen her have that kind of emotional reaction. I don’t think she did that when I won for Congress. I asked her, and she said, “He’s the first person of color to lead a Western industrialized democracy or Western nation.” Obama’s election was not just racial. It was global. I mean, his grandfather was a subject of Kenyan British colonialism. I think that that dynamic is not fully understood yet, but I think it was a marker of things to come.
JN: Well, it’s interesting you bring your mother in here because your mom and dad were immigrants…
RK: They were.
JN: …coming from India to the States. Obviously, the politics from your grandfather influenced you, but also from your parents. When you were a teenager you got your first public exposure as a political thinker: challenging the war in Iraq.
RK: Yeah. Well, we had a ninth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Rob, who challenged us to get an op-ed published in the Bucks County Courier Times or in the local paper, and the columnist was kind enough to publish my op-ed. He said space doesn’t permit the whole publication, but now I realize that he probably didn’t think the whole thing was worthy of being published. It had the title “Read This 14-year-old’s Lips, George.” I often joke that I thought back then that the president of the United States [George W. Bush] really was going to read my op-ed, and now that I’m a member of Congress, I realize that the president isn’t going to read even my op-eds now. But it gave the sense of possibility. You can be the son of immigrants in a community 99 percent Caucasian when I was growing up and still have your voice heard and make that impact. I do credit my teachers. I do credit growing up in Philadelphia. It’s a very patriotic place. You take field trips every year to the Liberty Bell and to the Constitutional Hall. I’ve said to folks that I believe the American scriptures are the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, [Abraham Lincoln’s] Second Inaugural, Dr. King’s speeches—and the places of worship for probably many of them are in Philadelphia: the Liberty Bell, the Constitution Center. There was an idealism to American democracy that I had growing up.
JN: Obviously, politics was something real for you from an early age. The first time I encountered you was in 2004 when you ran one of the first anti-war challenges to a Democratic incumbent in the country. We’re very interested and excited now by folks who have stepped up and, sometimes controversially, challenged Democratic incumbents. You did that back in 2004 taking, on Tom Lantos, a very honorable man…
RK: Very honorable.
JN: [Lantos has a] wonderful record in a lot of areas, but he had been a supporter of the war in Iraq.
RK: He had been a supporter of the war in Iraq. He had been a supporter of the Patriot Act. To take you back to 2004, I graduate law school, I go out to California. This is a time where the South Asian community is being profiled. I mean, I couldn’t have gone through a metal detector for a year or two without being pulled off for advanced screening. I had a friend who was a law-school classmate, he was a Pakistani American whose brother was actually detained and told to go back to Pakistan. The Patriot Act was a huge part of the challenge, and then this war in Iraq that Lantos had also supported. There was just the sense that this was the wrong direction, and so I thought, “What can I do?” I would run. I would challenge Lantos. I tried to run an honorable campaign.
Of course, I got crushed because you have to remember in 2004 the sentiment against the war hadn’t shifted. I mean, this is a few months after Bush’s declaring “mission accomplished,” and I think I lost 72 to 19, but John Nichols somehow found me and did this column on this young man who ran against the war. After I lost, and a lot of people had given up on me, I used to circulate that column because you had referenced there, I’m just being honest, you had referenced John Kerry’s first anti-war run, and I said, “See, don’t give up on me. Kerry lost too, and at some point maybe my political career can still make it despite a 50-point beating.” I was so shell-shocked by the loss, it took me 10 years to muster the courage to ever run again.
The other thing I was talking about in that campaign: I mean, I was very passionate about restraint in foreign policy, but I was also talking about innovation and entrepreneurship and how do we extend that to different parts of the country, and it’s been one of the challenges in my career because critics will say, “Oh, Khanna,” and they did back then, and they have throughout, “Is he too much for business?” On the other hand, people in the Valley say, “Oh, you’re too critical about our entrepreneurship and innovation, and you don’t get what we’re doing.” Part of my career has been trying to find a synthesis. How do we figure out what a free-enterprise system looks like that actually rewards work and innovation and not one that’s just connected for the privileged and the few and that’s concentrating wealth—where you have Uber, for example, IPO-ing and 6,000 more millionaires created in my area, and the rest of the country is wondering what takes place. I [joined] the Obama administration in Commerce [from 2009 to 2011], because I wanted to make a contribution and understand more about how our economy’s working and working in different parts of the country. It’s a fascinating experience because I originally wanted the job because I thought that I would be able to lead our trade missions overseas and help open up export markets.
JN: Really second only to the president, really running everything
RK: Exactly. When I didn’t get the position I wanted, I was overseeing our domestic offices, and it turned out to be the best thing because I got to go across this country to small towns, to communities and learn about manufacturing and learn about multigenerational businesses. My book on American manufacturing’s resilience came out of that, and my understanding for some of the geographical economic divides came out of my time in Commerce.
JN: That’s one of the under-discussed elements of your mission, of your vision. You go out to very small towns in Iowa and places like that, and sometimes you bring along all the Silicon Valley execs. You have this concept that if this thing is going to work, they’ve got to start investing and creating jobs in farm towns, in rural communities as well as big cities.
RK: And communities of color and inner cities. We can’t have all the concentration of wealth in a few places in this country. We’ve got to create economic opportunity and new industries in communities that feel left behind. Look, most people don’t want to move from the community they grew up in. I read somewhere that the average American lives 18 miles away from their mother, and my mom didn’t like that statistic. When I shared that, my mother said, “[You] live more than 18 miles away.” They’re still in Philadelphia. But the point is, people are seeing their communities [declining], and their concern is not just for them. If they’re 55 or 60 and they were in mining, or they were in a manufacturing industry, that is declining; they have a concern about their own economic security, and, of course, they want their pensions guaranteed, and they want to make sure they can retire with dignity and health care. But what their bigger concern is what about their kids? What is going to happen to them? What’s the prospect for them? They see their churches losing population, their places of worship losing population. They see people moving out. One person in Iowa said, “Iowa needs a choice, not just a flight out or a hand out. We shouldn’t have a choice where either we have got to have our kids—after they graduate high school or college—leave or rely on government assistance.”
They need dignified, meaningful work. The promise of technology was that we were going to be able to do that: that you could now have distributed work. We need to make good on that. I fundamentally believe that we’re in a technology revolution. No one today, I don’t think, would say, “Well, we shouldn’t have had the Industrial Revolution,” but there was a lot of pain in that Industrial Revolution. There were a lot of people who were abused, exploited. We needed overtime laws, we needed unionization, we needed to figure out how to distribute the Industrial Revolution’s gains with equity, and we’re going through something similar with the technology revolution. What we need is the same type of organizing for equity of people who are working in the tech industry and the same kind of distribution of opportunity, so everyone can be digitally proficient. It doesn’t mean everyone needs to be a coder. That’s silly. But everyone does need to have access to basic tools of technology, to have basic industry to succeed in the communities where they live.
JN: It strikes me that the failure of the Democratic party to talk about this technology revolution in a nuanced, smart way is in part of why Donald Trump is president.
RK: I believe that to be the case. I think you have heard a lot of these communities say, “What happened to me?” Let me put it a little more historically. [You might hear someone say:] “You have all these new people coming in. They’re doing really well. Our families, we’ve been here for generations. Some of our grandparents or grand-uncles, we died for this country. We risked our lives for this country in World War II, and even going back to World War I. We served. We built the industry that propelled America, and now we feel that we don’t have opportunity. Where is our voice?” Someone told me this story in Pennsylvania: Donald Trump went and promised in one place that the coal mine was going to reopen, and everyone in that town knew that wasn’t going to happen. Everyone knew that there was some reason that the coal mine wasn’t coming back, whether it had to do with automation, or I don’t remember the details, but the whole town knew that that coal mine was never going to open, but they all voted for him, and I said, “Why would you vote for him if you knew it was a lie?” He said, “Because at least he said something. At least he offered some vision. We haven’t had people offer a vision.” We’ve got to offer a real vision for these communities of how they’re going to participate in the technology revolution, what place they’re going to have, how they’re going to have greater opportunity than before.
JN: You wanted to talk about all these issues, and so you decided, “Well, I better get myself elected to Congress.” Ten years after you ran against Tom Lantos, you come back in California and mount another campaign. You;ve got all this experience now. You’ve worked in the White House, you’ve thought about all this stuff, you’re really on top of things, and you lose again.
RK: I do. I probably deserved to lose that  race. The first one, I may have deserved to win—not that I was prepared to be in Congress, but I was right on the issues—so it would have been terrible for my career if I had gotten elected that early. [In 2014] Mike Honda, who I have tremendous respect and admiration for, was my opponent. After the first campaign, we had a conversation. He said, “I know I had you beat after you had your list of endorsers,” and I said, “How is that?” He said, “Because you were running with all these tech leaders backing you, and I said, ‘Okay, we’re going to run with the teachers, and the PTA leaders and the nurses, and there are a lot more of those in the district than there are tech leaders.’” It forced me to really reflect. [After losing by a 52-48 margin in 2014] I would have these small group meetings with 10 people, 15 people and just listen and hear their observations about technology, their concerns about housing, about cost of living, about why they felt they weren’t getting a fair shake in the economy. It made me a deeper thinker, and it made me realize academic vision is part of politics, but ultimately, it’s the humanity and understanding that comes from experience that really I think is necessary. For me, that campaign deepened—it didn’t change my values, I was always progressive—but it deepened them.
JN: It is one of the lessons that I think people don’t always learn. Sometimes losing can be good for you.
RK: Losing can be good in retrospect. Not at the moment, but it does [teach you things]. There’s a famous quote from Winston Churchill. Obviously, he had a terrible record on colonialism, so I’m not going to defend him there, but when he lost [the election] after World War II, his wife said “this is a blessing in disguise,” and Churchill retorted, “Well, right now it’s a very well disguised.” After [you lose a] campaign, it’s a public rejection. You don’t have a sense, you don’t know that maybe years later you’ll emerge out of it successful. The reason it’s important to say that is because at least in my case I had tremendous doubt at the time about, “Could I make a contribution in politics? Would I ever succeed at any level in doing that?” For young folks listening to the podcast, I want them to hear that because a lot of times you see people: they’ve succeeded, and you think, “Did they have those doubts? Did they go through those hesitations?” My guess is most of them had those extraordinarily vulnerable moments. You know, Bernie Sanders lost four times before he won anything. Losing forces you to reflect on your weaknesses and reflect about why a constituency may not have elected you, and I have such a great constituency with tremendous values that I thought, “Okay, if they don’t have the confidence in me, there must be some collective wisdom to that.”
JN: Or maybe “I should evolve a little.”
RK: Yes, exactly.
JN: In 2016, you ran against an incumbent again, and the interesting thing is you came back as this evolved candidate, and you won overwhelmingly.
RK: I did.
JN: A big victory.
RK: I ran from the outskirts. I mean, I always supported these things, but I ran on a platform now emphasizing a lot of the progressive positions. I ran explicitly endorsing Medicare for All. I ran on Robert Reich’s plan at the time for tuition-free college. I endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primary because of his stance on super delegates and his stance on foreign policy. Partly, it was also sort of “this is my last hurrah.” My wife and I had said, “Okay, if this doesn’t work out, we’ll do something else in our life,” so I ran with not quite the same boldness as 2004 but pretty close; where I said, “Let me just run on what I believe,” and, lo and behold, we won a 61-39 victory. [It was a victory for a campaign] where I still talked to education innovation and entrepreneurship and my passion for technology to make the world better, but it was balanced with this genuine progressive vision.
JN: Then you get out to DC, and you arrive with Donald Trump. Which is not really what most people expected.
RK: Or as my brother put it, “Twenty sixteen was the year anyone could get elected.”
JN: You and Donald Trump, but rather different guys. This is where it gets interesting, because you come in at a time of incredible turmoil, with Democrats trying to figure out who they are and what they are. You bring all of these issues you’re concerned about. Then you look around and you say, “Well, you know what, I’m going to end a war or try and end a war in Yemen.”
RK: For me, it was a few reasons. I had spent a lot of time thinking about issues for 10 years before I got to Congress, so I was ready to make an impact on foreign policy, and I had Yemeni constituents come to me and talk about this and about the potential famine in Yemen. Of course, it struck me partly because of my grandfather: I mean, the famine in West Bengal was one of the worst famines in human history. Three million people died because of Churchill and the British’s indifference, and part of me said, “Well, certainly, we have as a society evolved, and America can’t be indifferent if there’s going to be a famine of that kind of gigantic scope,” and then the peace groups came to me and said, “Look, Yemen, it’s critical that we have leadership. [The US has] been refueling Saudi planes. They’ve been bombing. We know you worked for the Obama administration. We respect President Obama, but this policy unfortunately started in the Obama administration, and a lot of people have been reluctant to speak out because of that. We need someone willing to lead.”
The only way as a freshman you get to lead usually is if no one else wants to. I was not their first choice to have a War Powers Resolution introduced, but I was willing to do it, and I then started to talk to former Obama administration officials who candidly regretted the decision. We finally then introduced this resolution. A lot of the peace groups got involved. Of course, The Nation and you were writing about this, but for the longest time we didn’t get anyone to cover it. Writing about Yemen was basically sacrificing your ratings. I mean, I’m not going to tell you the names of journalists who said to me, “Ro, we can’t write an article about this, or we can’t have you on TV to talk about this, but we’ll retweet what you’re doing because we care about what you’re doing. We’re tied. Our hands are tied.”
And then, of course, I went to Bernie Sanders after we made some progress in the House, and he took an incredible risk, he introduced the War Powers Resolution. He was the only senator willing to do it, and it gave it so much legitimacy because you need someone of his stature to capture the attention of the nation. Once he did, it did capture people’s attention, and then we fought together for two years reintroducing the resolution until we achieved a historic victory: first time in the history of the country that a War Powers Resolution has passed the House and the Senate. That’s not to be underestimated. This sets a precedent to standing up against unconstitutional wars, against interventionism abroad for the future.
JN: We were talking previously, and you said that, of all Bob Dylan’s songs, the one that struck you is “Masters of War.” One of the things that you were pointing out was that you liked it because it talked about—
RK: The defense contractors who are profiting from wars, and that was the most egregious in the case of Yemen, to tie it back. I mean, you have American arms being sold to the Saudis being used to bomb kids in Yemen, and these weapons actually the Saudis are giving to Al Qaeda in Yemen and being used against our troops. Dylan, as only he could, says, “Well, who’s making money off this?” Yeah, we got to blame the politicians, and we’ve got to blame some of the policy-makers, but what about those who are profiting off of this? That is sickening. We need to really think in this country about the overinflated defense budgets. We need to have a reallocation of those resources. I introduced an amendment in this Congress to freeze defense spending at Trump levels in 2018—that is about $120 billion more than Obama: $717 billion, to freeze it at that. In Trump’s latest budget, there was $150 billion for an overseas war contingency fund. There’s a fund to fight future wars. I lost that committee vote: 7 to 26. I couldn’t get the majority of Democrats on the budget committee to agree that we need to freeze defense level spending at Trump’s 2018 budget. I guess my question is: how can you be against pointless wars, endless wars, interventionism and vote to continue to fund it?
JN: Obviously, there needs to be a change I would argue at the presidential level, somebody other than Donald Trump, but it’s also a challenge to change the Democratic Party—to make the Democratic Party into something different. You’re backing Bernie Sanders for president this year.
RK: I am.
JN: It strikes me that a part of why you’re backing him has to do with [trying to change the party]. You also were the one sitting member of Congress who gave sympathy to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign for Congress back in 2018, so you clearly have in your head some idea for where the Democratic Party might go. Where is it?
RK: We need to have a clear moral vision for both our foreign policy, and economic policy and policy on racial justice. I think we take our inspiration from Dr. King’s standard against militarism, for economic justice, and for racial justice. What does that mean in each account? I would argue on foreign policy it means restraining our interventions overseas, understanding we don’t need combat troops in 17 countries. [We should be] reinvesting those resources in free public college, in technology, in artificial intelligence, in infrastructure that’s actually going to build the innovative capacity of this country.
On economic justice it means making sure everyone has basic economic dignity, and that if you’re in a small community, if you’re in a rural community, if you’re in a community of color, that you feel some equity or stake in the technology revolution. That you just aren’t satisfied being a consumer of technology. That you actually get to be part of the production of the new economy. Here is where I think sometimes our democratic thinking has not been enough. We are very, very thoughtful about once an economic system creates maldistribution of wealth, thinking about how we redistribute it, but we need to pay attention to why that system is excluding people to create that maldistribution in the first place. How do we create equity pre-distribution for people to have economic opportunity, wealth creation possibilities, regardless of geography, or race, or gender?
And then the final point is racial justice. We still have a long way to go. We have a long way to go when it comes to the accumulation of wealth. I mean, the statistics are staggering. I think I read somewhere in [Duke professor] Sandy Darity’s work that black households have about seven cents to the dollar of white households in wealth. Think about how many black households are going to benefit from the Uber IPO. Probably not that many. The tech economy and revolution is actually creating even a bigger racial wealth gap.
We need to think about police violence. I’m working with [Missouri Congressman] Lacy Clay on a bill on police violence that comes out of California and the Stephon Clark case. Every other major industrialized country says force has to be a last resort. We’re the only country that has a reasonableness standard that if you think that someone has [a weapon, even though it turns out to be] a cellphone and you had a reasonable conclusion that your life was at risk, you can shoot that person. In other countries you have to adapt to a standard that says force is the last resort. You have to exhaust every other option. Lacy Clay and I are introducing legislation to make that the standard in the United States.
How then to put it all together? I believe very deeply going back to where the conversation began and my grandfather’s vision and the founding vision in Philadelphia, that we are at a unique moment in American history. That for the first time you have a nation that has people from literally every corner of this planet. Think how extraordinary that is, John, when you think in 1911 the Immigration Commission of the United States said that people coming from India were the least desirable race to ever immigrate into the United States, and 100 years later because of the civil-rights movement, because of so many pioneering social movements, we are in a Congress that has four Indian Americans, that has people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar and people from so many different walks of life. We have the opportunity in this country to do something historic to become the first multicultural, multiracial, pluralistic democracy in the history of the world. The question is whether we’re going to rise to that moment. To achieve that, we need to have restraint in our foreign policy, we need to have economic equity for every community, and we need to work towards greater racial justice. The reward will be that this may be our contribution to not just American history but human history to become that model of what Lincoln prophesized, a nation literally not of blood but based on basic ideals that is working together towards a just and lasting peace.
JN: Ro Khanna, thank you so much for joining us.
RK: Thank you.