Ro Khanna Reminds Democrats: Americans Love Money

For a relatively green, relatively unheralded (but very ambitious) member of Congress, Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, has managed to position himself squarely at the intersection of competing, if not outright contradictory, interests and ideas that could shape his party’s future. The 47-year-old, whose district includes parts of Silicon Valley and who served in the Department of Commerce under President Barack Obama and later as a co-chairman of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, is trying to cast progressivism in a more economically focused light. He calls his approach “progressive capitalism” and “new economic patriotism,” and he believes it is the key to broadening the progressive coalition to include the struggling middle of the country and those who might otherwise associate progressivism with economic redistribution rather than growth. That shift in emphasis is also what he thinks is crucial to President Biden’s re-election chances. “We can’t just have a triumphant ‘Look at all the great things we’ve done’ message,” says Khanna, who is often mentioned as a possible 2028 presidential candidate. “Meet people where they are. They don’t think we’re in a great place.”

Where do you see the greatest tension between the two parts of a term like “progressive capitalism”? The core progressive animating idea has largely been redistribution: We’ve got to tax the wealthy. There are challenges that I would pose to that. I’m for taxing the rich more, but there has to be a focus on economic production — on how do we grow the pie? Not just redistribution, but giving more people the opportunity to create wealth. That has to be part of the progressive vision, and that has to involve the private sector. You can’t build new steel factories in this country in Ashtabula, Ohio, or Johnstown, Pa., if you don’t work with the private sector. So on challenging the progressive side: Have a focus on production, and be open to a partnership with the private sector. On the capitalism side: You have to care about place. You can’t just say let’s have all this macroeconomic growth and not focus on every district in America. Make sure that you understand that it is a bad thing for America that my district has $10 trillion of company value and other districts are totally in despair.

Do you think the majoritarian aspirations that you have are possible if the more fiery members of the progressive caucus remain its face? You have a way of asking very provocative questions in a very sober — like, “What did you eat for breakfast?” [Laughs.] I think you can’t have a majoritarian progressive coalition without the fire and without some of the extraordinary members of Congress who are reaching young people and mobilizing them. But it has to be broader than that.

Representative Ro Khanna with Senator Bernie Sanders at a rally in California in 2020 for Sanders’s presidential campaign.

Brittany Hosea-Small/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images

Is that just sophisticated triangulation? When you look at my record, it is deeply progressive, but I also believe that we have to understand the importance of the multiracial coalition that President Obama built and have humility as we are talking to Black and brown voters. Too often they have not been sufficiently part of the progressive coalition. There’s not going to be anyone who’s going to articulate the blueprint of a multiracial, multiethnic democracy better than Obama, but to get there maybe we start with the economics. Say we can build things together: immigrants and people who trace their heritage back to the Mayflower, people of color and people of the white working class. Americans love money. They love economic opportunity. Maybe economics is one way of starting to unify this country.

When people have asked you recently about the lack of a Democratic challenger to Biden, you’ve pointed to the power of incumbency and the fact that no challenger is going to have the name recognition that he has. I don’t hear you making arguments that have to do with enthusiasm for Biden’s ideas or achievements. Is that telling? The president has done a good job. It’s a challenge, because we have to say he has done a good job while acknowledging that people don’t feel good about the economy. That’s hard. But when you look at what he promised when he ran, he has delivered a lot of that. On foreign policy, I think he has restored the NATO alliance; he stood up to Putin. He has, in my view, gotten China policy pretty right. I would push a little heavier on reducing trade deficits, but he is standing up to China while not pushing us into a cold war. He has a lot of experience for the volatile times we’re in. I guess there’s no one in our party right now — in the absence of Barack Obama — who I would say, “Put that person in,” and they would do a better job to lead this nation.

Khanna with former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain at Web Summit 2019 in Lisbon.

Cody Glenn/Sportsfile, via Getty Images

How do you understand the aggrieved sense that seems to emanate from people like Musk or Andreessen? Society’s winners railing against how broken everything is. It seems profoundly blindered. It can be offensive to people in the working class who are actually struggling. I have no patience or tolerance for it, but I explain it by saying that a lot of these folks had a chip on their shoulder. They weren’t accepted by the San Francisco bankers and the lawyers and the standard finance companies. These folks were outsiders and underdogs in the ’80s and ’90s, and they took huge risks, and some of them don’t realize that they’ve won. The introspection that needs to happen is to say: “OK, now you’ve become the system. You’re no longer fighting the system. Look at the people who are really struggling in this country. It’s not you.”

The notion of you as someone willing and even eager to find compromises is notable. We’re in this political moment where compromising is seen as weakness. I mean, there are two different frames for me. The more positive frame is: I’m very consistent in my progressive values, but I want to build a majoritarian coalition for these progressive values, and I want to do so with a hopeful, unifying vision and the recognition that I don’t have a monopoly on the truth. We need this temperament to make progressivism not just 20 to 30 percent of the party but a majoritarian part. The negative spin would be: This is opportunistic or not pure enough. I may end up upsetting both the progressives and the moderates, or I may succeed. That remains to be seen.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.

David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. He recently interviewed Alok Vaid-Menon about transgender ordinariness, Joyce Carol Oates about immortality and Robert Downey Jr. about life after Marvel.

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