Will Freshman Congressman Ro Khanna Chart a New Course for Democrats?

Almost immediately after being elected with Silicon Valley support, Khanna attached himself to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Ro Khanna, Democratic candidate for U.S. Representative from California's 17th District, during a break in the California Democrats State Convention Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ro Khanna during a break in the California Democrats State Convention in San Jose, Calif., on Feb. 27, 2016. Photo: Ben Margot/AP

Freshman California Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna rode to an upset victory this past November over long-serving California Democrat Mike Honda on a wave of Silicon Valley support.

Among his prominent backers stood titans of the tech industry such as Yahoo executive Marissa Mayer and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg — as well as Peter Thiel, the billionaire Palantir co-founder who spoke in favor of Donald Trump’s candidacy at the Republican National Convention.

In an interview in published earlier this year, Khanna downplayed Thiel’s support, saying that he backed his campaign because “he wants robust, spirited debate” (an odd statement after Thiel’s successful crusade to shutter Gawker).

But almost immediately after being elected, Khanna attached himself to the more traditionally progressive wing of the Democratic Party. He most recently became the first member of Congress to join the Justice Democrats, a new organization that seeks to reduce corporate influence on the Democratic Party.

Khanna agreed to an interview with The Intercept to lay out his political vision.

Khanna notably stuck by a number of popular progressive positions, such as his support for a financial transactions tax and expanding the Medicare program to cover all Americans. He also embraced reforms to the party, such as banning corporate lobbyists from serving as DNC members and ending lobbyist contributions to the Democratic National Committee.

However, he declined to join Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in criticizing former president Barack Obama for his time on the Wall Street speech circuit. He also stuck to the familiar script on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, failing to embrace the rising demand among the Democratic Party’s base for a U.S. posture that enacts real accountability for Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

This is a departure from Justice Democrats’s own platform, which notes that “Israel received $38 billion in aid and promptly announced new settlements. The first step to peace is not enabling nations who regularly violate international law.”

Read the interview below:

ZAID JILANI: Why don’t you tell me about the Justice Democrats and why you decided to join on?

CONGRESSMAN RO KHANNA: It’s a bold, progressive vision that represents the future of the party. I like their call for Medicare for All, for free public college, for people in the middle class, their call for a financial transactions tax, of not taking PAC or lobbyist money and their desire to mobilize people across this country. They encourage young and new voices to enter politics, women to enter politics, minorities to enter politics, people of color to enter politics. It’s, I think, harnessing and mobilizing the energy of 2016 in a very positive way.

ZJ: So there’s often two sort of visions you hear from liberals, progressives, and left on the economy. One says that the main problem is that the poor have too little money and resources so the government needs to do more to help them with expanded welfare spending and things like that. The other vision you hear a lot about is that the big problem is inequality. The rich have very high incomes in America and a great deal of wealth, and you can’t really deliver justice for everyone else without reducing their economic power, through things like unionization, higher taxes, and breaking up big businesses with antitrust policy. So where do you stand and where do you think the Democrats should stand on that?

RK: I certainly think we need some antitrust policy. There’s no doubt that there’s a concentration of economic wealth. Whether it’s Wall Street, or whether its telecommunications, whether it’s airlines. … I also think there’s a loss of collective bargaining and a decline of unions and lots of stagnation and decline of wages. And we need to make sure that we’re supporting the labor movement and supporting treating people as employees and not independent contractors. We need to make sure that the rules of the economy are defined in a way that the benefits aren’t just going to shareholders, that they’re going to workers so people are earning what they deserve. It’s one of the reasons I proposed a trillion dollar expansion of the earned income tax credit, sort of a progressive alternative [to] Donald Trump’s tax cuts to the investor class. He’s saying, “okay, let’s give all these tax breaks to basically corporate shareholders.” My plan would say let’s give a 20 percent increase of wages to workers. Because they’re the ones who are working and aren’t getting the benefits of their work, given globalization, given the decline of unions, given the flow of the modern economy.

ZJ: So in your view why is it that the Democrats lost in 2016? What is it that they did that failed to connect with voters and how do they correct that?

RK: Well I think there’s complex reasons. And I certainly think anyone who professes to have an answer for why 60 million people voted the way they did is not being sufficiently humble. I don’t have a magic bullet. But what I can say is that the Democrats need to have a clear economic message at a time where we have automation, where we have globalization — how are we going to create new industries and jobs in areas that have felt left out, and how are we going to improve wages in these areas? And that has to be a very, very clear focused message. We also have to be true to our convictions to inspire people to believe that we are fighting for justice. And that means addressing the fact that one of every three African-Americans at some point will face incarceration and how are we going to have criminal justice reform? How are we going to deal with issues of police brutality? How are we going to make sure that we’re upholding a woman’s right to choose, because a woman’s right to choose is fundamental to gender equality. It means having a clear convictions-based equality and not shying away from that.

ZJ: Some people have been critical, I’m sure you’ve heard the news that President Obama has started to join the paid speech circuit. He’s speaking to a Wall Street group later this year. Do you have any thoughts on that? Do you think that says anything about his world view and sort of how Americans reflect on the relationship between the Democratic Party and Big Money?

RK: I’m much more focused on policies. I don’t think that, he’s now a private citizen and what matters to me is are you for a financial transactions tax, are you for stronger antitrust protections, are you for ending corporate tax deferrals so that companies can bring in and are paying taxes on overseas money and aren’t hiding money offshore? Are you for limiting stock buybacks and reinstating the rule that was repealed in 1982 that made it easier for companies to just engage in stock buybacks? Are you for helping break up banks based on antitrust regulations? Those are the issues that I think speak to people. And my view is people want to have a fair policy that’s going to improve their lives and make the country better and aren’t so caught up on the particulars of individuals.

ZJ: So let’s move to foreign policy. You were one of the few Democrats on the Hill who sort of opposed the strikes on Syria, against the Syrian government by President Trump. You opposed them on the substance, not just on the process arguments. But of course we know these conflicts, they didn’t start under President Trump, they are largely continuations of what happened under President Obama. Do you feel for instance that Obama’s drone program in Pakistan or the support, for instance, the Saudi war in Yemen have also helped terrorists recruit and have also harmed U.S. interests?

RK: I’m opposed to the policy in Yemen where we’re providing arms to Saudi Arabia, which is actually aligned with Al Qaeda in a proxy war against Iran with the Houthis. … Seventeen million Yemenis are facing famines and many of the Yemenis equate the Saudi bombs with U.S. bombs. It’s not helping create more peace. It’s creating more generations of hate. And the Saudis are aligned with Al Qaeda which has taken responsibility for the underwear bomber and for attacks on synagogues in Chicago. So our policy there is muddled and isn’t actually helping contain terrorism. I think that I’ve articulated a foreign policy that says the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, Libya was a mistake, the escalation in Afghanistan was a mistake, that we really need to have more restrain in our foreign policy, not do more harm and recognize John Quincy Adams. We shouldn’t go out to slay monsters. We should give people who are seeking freedom our prayers, our voice, but we don’t want to be engaged in interventions around the world which has actually led to the spread of terrorism and isn’t making us safer.

ZJ: With respect to what the Justice Democrats are talking about with building a new economy, I’m curious, you’ve talked a lot about antitrust policy and competition policy. Some people would say that would rub up against powerful industries. One of those in your own backyard is Silicon Valley. Should we be applying this antitrust policy to an industry some people are now calling the new Wall Street?

RK: We should be applying the antitrust policy. I don’t think Silicon Valley is Wall Street. But I do think that there needs to be antitrust enforcement, especially on the Internet Service Providers. Four Internet Service Providers — AT&T, Charter, Time Warner, Comcast — that are basically dividing up the map is one of the reasons that consumers are paying more for internet access. And I think there ought to be … an antitrust division with the FCC and they ought to enforce the law regardless of industry. Whether that’s airlines, or technology, or banking I don’t think anyone is exempt from antitrust enforcement.

ZJ: How would you rate the past few presidents on antitrust policy and which president do you think should be the model when it comes to antitrust enforcement?

RK: I think Harry Truman was very strong on antitrust, the Truman Commission looked after some of the monopolistic behavior, before Truman became president, of monopolistic practices applying to the Defense Department. Of course Theodore Roosevelt. … I think antitrust enforcement needs to be significantly strengthened. Matt Stoller has done excellent work on it, and it’s an area of a concentration of economic wealth that has not been addressed sufficiently in the past few administrations.

ZJ: Speaking about how the Justice Democrats seeks to transform the Democratic Party, we saw sort of a debate when there was the DNC chair race about the role of big donors in the Democrats. Do you believe, for instance, that the DNC should accept contributions from lobbyists? That was something that was a rule under Barack Obama — that it would not accept them but that rule was lifted under Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.

RK: I disagreed with the lifting of the rule. I believe that the DNC should not be accepting corporate PAC money or lobbyist money. And I spoke out very strongly when the rule was lifted saying that was a mistake.

ZJ: Another resolution that was debated at the DNC — and actually a similar resolution was debated at the RNC, and both of them failed — was basically to say that if you’re a corporate lobbyist, you should not be allowed to be a voting member of the DNC. Do you think that’s an appropriate rule?

RK: I think that’s a fair rule that we shouldn’t be having corporate lobbyists as part of DNC voting members.

ZJ: Also during the DNC race where we had a lot of progressives engaging to elect Keith Ellison as head of the DNC, we saw another issue pop up which is often creating tension between grassroots progressive Democrats and the establishment of the party and that was Israel-Palestine. A recent poll from the University of Maryland found that 56 percent of Democratic voters, for instance, believe that the U.S. should either use sanctions or tougher action to respond to Israel’s continued expansion of settlements. Yet it’s difficult to find a single member of Congress who will vote against, for instance, military aid to Israel under any circumstance. Why does that gap exist between what Democratic voters believe and what the Democratic Party actually stands for?

RK: My view on that, is I’m for a two-state solution. I’m opposed to new settlements. And I’m for negotiation that will help lead to peace. I think to get there is nuanced and you want to make sure that you’re not doing things that are going to undermine bringing all the stakeholders to the table to help have peace. I don’t think that Democrats don’t want an end to new settlements or a two-state solution or peace; I think there are different judgments about how you get all the stakeholders to the table to have that resolution.

ZJ: What’s the future of Justice Democrats, how do you plan to engage in the party to move it in the direction that you’re talking about?

RK: I’m hopeful that the party will adopt a lot of the platform positions of progressive Democrats, many of which came out of people’s engagement in the 2016 campaign. There will be a boldness when it comes to dealings with making the cost of college free, the cost of college for the middle class, making sure we’re providing Medicare for all, when it comes to having a financial transactions tax, when it comes to a massive expansion of the earned income tax credit so we have a wage increase for people who are working, when it comes to having a child allowance what Justin Trudeau had in Canada so we’re dealing with child poverty. And think about the sense of investment it’s going to require to create new jobs. Democrats can be the party of more jobs and better wages. I also hope that, the Justice Democrats, people will realize having new voices run it is helpful to the party. It makes people better candidates. It expands the number of people contributing, it expands people who are voting, it creates a marketplace of ideas. And in the long run, that’s good for the Democratic Party. It will help us actually win back the House, the Senate. … I think it’s a very narrow view to say that you should discourage people from entering the political arena or suppress competition to protect incumbency. That’s not ultimately what allows a party to evolve, grow.

Top photo: Ro Khanna during a break in the California Democrats State Convention in San Jose, Calif., on Feb. 27, 2016.

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