Ro Khanna wants progressives to embrace patriotism, aspiration, and experimentation

A conversation with the California congressman about Biden's agenda, how progressives can use states as a policy laboratory, and why American exceptionalism shouldn't be ceded to the right

Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, is one of the most committed progressives in Congress, but he often sounds different from other progressives. Coming from a district that includes parts of Silicon Valley as well as people living in the valley’s shadows, he has carved a path as someone who can speak equally to the imperatives of justice and of aspiration.

A former co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and one of the few members of Congress to refuse money from corporations or political action committees, he is a vigorous champion of a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, tuition-free public college, and other progressive notions. He is currently in his third term representing California’s 17th district.

And he is a member of Congress who thinks. The other day, we had a wide-ranging conversation about Joe Biden, American patriotism and exceptionalism, how progressives can grow their appeal, how the vaccine rollout should be used to make people believe in government again, and why Democrats should embrace the notion of trying out big policy ideas in the states before spreading them nationwide.

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“That will be our mark on human civilization”: a conversation with Representative Ro Khanna

ANAND: I'll start by asking, What is the state of the relationship between progressives and moderates in the Democratic Party right now?

RO: The progressive wing is ascendant in terms of the new members, in terms of grassroots energy, in terms of advocating policies that most Democrats support, that many people around the country support. 

But the progressive wing is not in the positions of power yet. The key decision-making, whether by the leadership or in terms of committee chairs, is much more tilted towards the non-progressives. 

ANAND: In the 2020 primary, people got a clear choice between some progressive options, and they went with one of the most centrist, conservative Democrats. But Joe Biden has surprised a lot of people since then. I wonder what you make of some of the choices he's made since the primary. Is he surprising you?

RO: Yes, in some ways, in a good way. The proposal I was most appreciative of and blown away by was the $300-a-month child allowance, which would be $3,600 a year for families. Columbia has done a study showing that this would actually cut child poverty in this country by half. I've read that President Biden wants this to be permanent. That would be a major change.

It was also encouraging to see a $15 minimum wage right out of the gate. It's encouraging to see paid family leave and an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit. I think he is recognizing where the pulse of the party is.

One thing you can say about Joe Biden and how you succeed in a 40-year-plus career is that you must always have this sense of where the Democratic Party is, and where the median of the party is at a given moment. He understands that there is a lot of genuine support for progressive policies.

ANAND: I’m curious about how you understand your more moderate Democratic colleagues, including Joe Biden. In your estimation, are those Democrats people who fundamentally want the same things you want but have a different theory about the feasibility of getting there? Or do you fundamentally think of them as wanting something different from what you want?

RO: That's a great question. With my House colleagues, I think there's a difference. There is a sense among progressives that the markets have had huge failures, and that education and healthcare are fundamental rights to be able to pursue a dignified life. It's not just a matter of tweaking things; we need to make a fundamental change, particularly a commitment to giving everyone healthcare with Medicare for All, giving everyone education from preschool all the way up through vocational school or college.

I think that that's a real difference. If you ask House members who are more moderate, I think they would say, “No, I think that's going too far, I think we have to still care about deficits.” I definitely think that there is a difference; it's not just tactical. 

ANAND: What about Biden?

RO: I actually think Biden is more progressive — the Biden who is president, which is all that matters — he’s probably more progressive than where the Democratic House is. At least on labor issues, working-class issues, unions, a $15 minimum wage, proper classification of employees — on those, I think he's very progressive.

On healthcare and on education, Biden is not where the progressive wing is, but if we got what he wants to do through — if we got free public college for incomes lower than $125,000, if we got the $10,000 student loan forgiveness, if we got a public option, if we got Medicare eligibility at 60, those would be significant steps so that when we do have a progressive president, they can build on it.

ANAND: I wanted to ask you about what I think of as two different kinds of incrementalism. When we normally use the word “incrementalism,” let's say on something like Medicare for All, the incrementalist's position is some lesser, more threadbare form of coverage — or something like Medicare for All Who Want It. And it usually is about making sure not to offend powerful business interests.

But I’ve been wondering about a different notion of incremental, which is more like stepping stones. Do progressives need a better strategy for easier-to-achieve victories that would whet the public appetite for going further in a given direction?

Are there way stations to Medicare for All, for example, that are not incrementalist sellouts but truly appetizers for the main dish — so that you marshal ever stronger public support over time?

RO: I definitely think having substantive achievements towards an end goal that don’t dilute the entire project itself is very important. I actually think Medicare expansion would qualify. As you remember, former Senator Joe Lieberman basically vetoed Medicare expansion single-handedly. We would have had Medicare eligibility starting at 55 years old if it weren't for Joe Lieberman with the Affordable Care Act. It would have been a big deal if we had gotten that, because people between 55 and 65 over this last decade would have seen that they really liked Medicare, and it would have made it easier for us to continue to expand.

Another thing is experimenting at the state level. Saskatchewan in Canada did single-payer system that was a success, and it allowed Canadians to see the value of that and grow it nationwide. We tried it in Vermont, but the reason it didn't work in Vermont is we didn't give them waivers. We're saying go set up a single-payer system that covers everyone, but you can't use your Medicare or Medicaid money to do it. You're setting up a state for failure. So let's give the waivers to the states, where, if they show that they can get to 95 percent coverage, they can use the money to get a single-payer system. Then if you have a state that succeeds, that also is a step toward Medicare for All.

I'm fine with those kinds of proposals. What I don't think we should do is compromise and have certain forms of premiums and compromise on the comprehensive coverage. Let's get progress toward the ultimate goal.

ANAND: The states idea is so interesting. I have a friend in China who is a close observer of American politics, and he says one big policy difference between the two countries is that when China wants to do something as big as, say, Medicare for All, it will often try the idea in a few different provinces that are chosen for their variety of conditions. Obviously, they have a very different system that allows them to do this. But they try it in three provinces, they see how it goes, then they do it everywhere if it's good. Do you think progressives are on board with what you just said, advocating a plan of experimenting Medicare for All in a few states?

RO: It's my bill, actually. Bill H.R. 5010 does this, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal is supporting it and the Progressive Caucus is supporting it. I actually think there's a chance you could get the Biden administration to support it. This could be a way of them saying, Look, we're OK with laboratory experiments and having states try this. It was Pramila's bill in a previous Congress, and she had me lead it afterward, since she had the main Medicare bill. It's definitely part of the progressive strategy.

ANAND: I wanted to ask you about the vaccine rollout. It's complicated, the websites are a nightmare, and people are having all kinds of difficulty. I'm sure your constituents are. It's also a historic opportunity to communicate to Americans about the government and the public sector not being evil.

RO: I've been using your line with many of my colleagues, that we not only have to get a shot in every American's arm, but we have to have President Biden talk about it and tell the story of how the federal government mobilized to protect Americans in a way that no private institution or non-profit could have done. That this was a task that shows the importance of the federal government in caring for people's lives.

We need people writing poetry, we need people giving speeches, we need people talking about it.

What Biden can do is start restoring people's faith in the competence of government. I don't know when that started to crack. There was a time where we really looked to the government to do big things, and somehow we have to get that sense again.

ANAND: Listening to you, I'm thinking about how the Republicans, if they were in this position, would brand the vaccine with some patriotic name, and everybody would say that they got the Eagle Vaccine or whatever. Do you think Democrats need to do more of that kind of stuff? Or is that tacky and beneath you as a party?

RO: I do think we need to do more of it, and I think we have to invoke patriotism. Obviously, the Democrats deeply love this country, believe in this country, believe in the role of government. You don't run for the United States Congress if you don't have some real belief in the possibility of doing good with government for the nation.

I think that we shouldn't shy away from but rather embrace the narrative of patriotism. Great leaders, when you look in our country at Dr. King and John Lewis or in other countries at Gandhi and Mandela, they grounded their calls in a deeply held patriotism and in religious conviction. I don't understand why we cede that to the Republicans.

We're so concerned about a thoughtless jingoism, a sense of unreflective patriotism, that we hesitate to put out our own version of patriotism that should be much more reflective. Partly I think Biden does that, just his persona. He invokes it just by who he is, and it's probably one of the reasons he won.

ANAND: One of my life theories is that people often protect the wrong flank. People often protect the flank where they're actually strongest because, in a way, that's the area that's most salient to them. I think there's a lot of that with Democrats and the flank of seriousness. Democrats are already the more serious party in this moment and yet there's this anxiety about not seeming serious when in fact the vulnerability is on the other flank.

RO: You're absolutely right about that, and we shouldn't be afraid of simplicity and emotions that all of us had growing up and rooting for country, just like we would root for a sports team at home. We shouldn't be reluctant to do that. I think what has happened and is understandable given that we just saw an ugly form of nationalism is that there's a real concern about doing that.

ANAND: I want to ask you about the first 100 days and this notion that there's the immediate crisis, and then there are a bunch of other, more chronic crises. Some folks are saying the best way to deal with those deeper, longer-term, more chronic issues is almost to smuggle them into the pandemic response for which there's more hunger and less controversy. How do you think about that balance of focusing, head down, on the immediate crisis versus trying not to let it go to waste and seizing this opportunity to do bigger things, too?

RO: I saw some comment by Senator Susan Collins saying that a $15 minimum wage is not a COVID issue. I'm thinking to myself, Have you ordered an Amazon package? Have you gone to the grocery store? Are you aware that there are a lot of essential workers who aren't making $15 while many of us are able to sit in the comfort of our home? Yes, there's the immediacy of how do we get people vaccinated, how do we get people tested, how do we make sure that 3,000 or 4,000 Americans aren't dying every day. President Biden is absolutely right — that has to be the first and last thing he thinks about. Probably 80 percent of his attention has to be on stopping the crisis.

But we also have to think about what this crisis has exposed. People who don't have healthcare, people who have not been able to be paid fairly while taking huge risks. People who have lost their house or their apartment, who have fallen into poverty. How do we address those glaring inequalities that are more obvious to people after the pandemic? That all has to be part of our response to this crisis.

ANAND: Bernie's former campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, whom you know well, has this line that I love: "A movement that wins is a movement that grows." What do you think progressives need to do to get that next 10 or 20 percent of the national vote that is required to win a presidential election?

RO: There are several things, but one of them is we have a big challenge in outreach to the Black South. Bernie Sanders was able to do a lot of effective outreach with the Latino community and was able to overcome certain deficiencies from 2016. It was very intentional; it was coalition-building. That effort has not taken place in the same way among the African-American community, particularly in the South.

ANAND: Why do you think the message falls short in that community?

RO: One, the invocation of FDR over and over again, which I've been guilty of as well. FDR is seen as extraordinarily racially exclusive, where the Social Security Act didn't cover domestic workers or agriculture workers, and the housing loans didn't lend to Black communities, the G.I. Bill had its own problems. When I was talking about FDR down South once for Bernie, someone pulled me aside and said, "You know, it was really Johnson who changed things, and Kennedy and King. You may not want to keep invoking FDR."

I also think progressives need an understanding of the aspiration for wealth generation and wealth creation. These communities have huge concerns about racial justice and criminal justice and healthcare, but you talk to young people, and they have dreams, too. They want to go make money, they want to go start businesses, they want to have economic opportunity. They have aspirations to overcome the racial wealth gap through creating things and building things. It’s one of the reasons I think Donald Trump did well with younger Black men in particular. He sold them a bunch of lies about becoming rich.

Obviously, I'm not advocating that we sell people lies, but we do have to speak to that aspiration as well. I don't have all the answers, obviously, but I think it requires sitting down in listening mode and understanding where our blind spots are more than saying, Well, we have policies that you're for and why aren't you supporting us?

ANAND: I had a similar conversation on that point with Nina Turner, the former Ohio state senator and Bernie champion who's running to join you in Congress. She made the case that progressives could do a better job of balancing the language of redistribution and a safety net with the language of dreams and aspirations and wanting to make it. Wanting to go from having one store to three stores or ten clients to 20 clients. Do you think progressives right now fall short of speaking in a language of entrepreneurship and aspiration for regular people?

RO: I do. I think it's a place we could do better. I think the aspiration to start a business in your garage is a quintessentially American aspiration, and there's something to be celebrated about it.

People don't just want a $15 minimum wage and healthcare and education. They want a shot at doing amazing, big things, and we have to speak to that.

I don't think that the problem in the country is wealth generation. That's a great thing that we have the wealth. The problem is that we have the wealth but we're unwilling to have the taxes to invest in giving everyone a decent life. It's one of our moral failings. Unlike developing countries, where you actually have this huge tradeoff between economic growth and justice, in our country we actually have unprecedented wealth where that tradeoff is far less. So what we ought to do is encourage the wealth generation but then be able to tax and invest it.

ANAND: You and I were talking the other day about this notion of taking American exceptionalism away from the right. 

About progressives and Democrats being more willing to tell a story about the extraordinary project that America is currently engaged in. The project that is causing all this disturbance, causing all this resentment, but in so many ways is the fundamental story. The backlash isn't the fundamental story; what the backlash is to is the fundamental story. Can you talk about how you see a progressive case for American exceptionalism in this moment?

RO: We have been so afraid and skeptical of a story of America that whitewashes our problems and our sins and our injustices that sometimes we go to the other extreme and don't spend enough time thinking about the things that are good and hopeful about America, and the extraordinary role America has played in the world and in our founding. It's a complex story.

A nation needs to be honest with itself, but honesty doesn't mean that it can't be aspirational. Honesty doesn't mean that it has to be just self-flagellation. Honesty means an account that understands the deeply problematic nature of slavery, the deeply problematic nature of the oppression and extermination of Native Americans, and more.

In Frederick Douglass’ 1869 speech “The Composite Nation,” he defends Chinese immigrants and says that he believes we're going to become a multiracial, multiethnic democracy one day. For a former slave to be saying that is what makes America unique, and is equally part of America's story. 

It's personal for me. My grandfather spent years in jail in India during Gandhi's independence movement, and it was FDR who was actually the champion of decolonization, at least in the Indian context with the British. There are a lot of things that America has done — including winning World War II and standing up for freedom — that are good, and there are a lot of fundamental aspirations that are good. The exciting thing now is being a country that has people from literally every part of the world.

If we can deal with our racial history, which is the most problematic aspect of our history — being Indian-American is very different from being Black American in this country, and I acknowledge that readily — but if we can deal with that, and if we can find some way of fashioning a common culture based on philosophical principles of equality, with people from every part of the world, that will be our greatest accomplishment. That will be our mark on human civilization. Our contribution to the world.

Congressman Ro Khanna has been serving as the U.S. Representative from California's 17th congressional district since 2017. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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