Is This Man the Future of the California Democratic Party?

Fremont freshman Congressman Ro Khanna is not about to let tech illiteracy on Capitol Hill get in his way.

When Ro Khanna mounted his 2014 primary challenge against seven-term incumbent Mike Honda, there was a palpable anxiety that the reliable liberal stalwart in California’s 17th District might lose to a Democrat with techno-libertarian leanings. Honda fended Khanna off by four points, but Khanna returned in 2016, winning a 39 percent plurality in a six-way primary under California’s new system. Facing Honda in the general that November, the attorney and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce prevailed by a surprisingly wide, 22-point margin.

Although he hasn’t even served a full term yet, the 42-year-old Fremont resident has already become one of the most outspoken progressives on Capitol Hill. One of only six members in the entire House of Representatives to forgo money from PACs, Khanna was a vociferous proponent of re-evaluating the U.S.-Saudi alliance long before Jamal Khashoggi’s murder — which spurred The Intercept to call him “increasingly impressive.” It was also he who drafted the “Internet Bill of Rights” after Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

On Tuesday, Khanna faces token opposition in Ron Cohen, the Tea Party-style Republican whom he beat in June by 40 points and whose website looks like a nonviolent version of the rear windows of Cesar Sayoc’s van. Cohen is spectacularly ill-suited to represent the district, which is 25 points more Democratic-leaning than the national average.

“What, just because he believes that Trump should be on Mt. Rushmore?” Khanna says by phone. “What’s concerning to me is that he’s a CPA. He’s not a crazy person, but he has gotten swept up in the propaganda — and he apologized for it at the debate — but the idea that ordinary people who are accountants and reasonable in other ways are getting swept up in this kind of polarizing rhetoric is concerning.”

Still, having an opponent fated to lose has allowed Khanna to avail himself to other Democrats around the country. After his poorly received “co-endorsement” of New York’s Joe Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, and his now-famous challenger, democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Khanna appeared a little chastened. He offers a list of challengers, some more quixotic than others, whom he’s since campaigned for: Katie Porter and Harley Rouda in California, Chris Pappas in New Hampshire, Richard Ojeda in West Virginia — an unorthodox Democrat who’s making a real race out of an extremely pro-Trump district — and of course, Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso congressman gunning to topple Sen. Ted Cruz.

“Personally, I’ve been most with Beto,” Khanna says. “We started the No PAC Caucus together, and Beto is one of the most thoughtful members of Congress. Early on, when he became a sensation, I hosted a phone bank for him in my district.”

As that district covers parts of Sunnyvale, Cupertino, and Santa Clara, he’s in the curious position of representing Silicon Valley even as he’s one of its leading critics. Pressed on this point, he answers in a politician’s standard way, prefacing the substance of his remarks with a three-minute disquisition on the wonders of Facetime and how technology has changed the world around us. Name-checking the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, he gets to the point.

“I’m a technology optimist, but what I’ve said is that technology itself is an amoral entity,” he says. “We need to deal with the geographical inequality. Certain places that are knowledge centers near research universities are thriving, and other places that have been left out, whether through deindustrialization and the loss of manufacturing. … We need to think about issues of deliberative democracy. Are these tools empowering, or are they encouraging false information and propaganda? How do we determine how we protect free expression and yet have some sense of fact-checking and have some sense of conversation within acceptable rules of debate? How do we make sure that people are not inciting violence but we’re not suppressing dissent?”

Recode’s Kara Swisher has called for tech firms to create a position of Chief Ethics Officer, an idea that Khanna co-signed, essentially injecting the humanities into a world increasingly controlled by remote algorithms. It’s also a call for humility in lieu of hubris.

“I would argue that the brilliance of the technologists building this new paradise requires counterparts who are equally brilliant and who’ve studied philosophy and literature,” he says, “so that those tools of technology aren’t abused but are used to better our body politic and to better human existence.”

But it’s not just Apple and Amazon growing uncontrollably dominant; technological illiteracy is endemic in Washington. Remember former Senator Ted Stevens’ 2006 “an internet was sent by my staff” oration about how the web is also “not a big truck.” (Stevens was the chair of the committee grappling with net neutrality, which of course he opposed.)

“It’s embarrassing,” Khanna says of the current climate. “When Zuckerberg testified, the entire country felt he needed to be held to account. They were upset with Cambridge Analytica and then they heard the hearing with senators asking him ‘How does Facebook make money?’ and mispronouncing his name. … It’s not just the [members of] Congress, but the staff that doesn’t have basic technology proficiency.”

In the wake of the Khashoggi incident in the Saudi embassy in Ankara, Khanna believes the time has come for a reappraisal of the longstanding American relationship with the kingdom. But he’s been calling for such a reset since at least last fall, in light of Saudi Arabia’s punitive war against Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East. Right now, more than 12 million food-insecure people are at risk of famine.

“The Saudis have been complicit in war crimes and are more to blame than the Houthis — although the Houthis aren’t blameless,” he says, referring to the Yemeni rebels. “But we should understand that famine is always a political problem. It’s not a problem of a lack of food, it’s a lack of political function. I think the humanitarian crisis is so dire that we can move people in Congress.”

In the lame-duck session, he adds, he’s hoping to get 20 to 30 Republicans to sign onto his bill limiting the Executive Branch’s powers regarding aid and arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

”We’ll not only be saving tremendous numbers of lives in Yemen, but we also would be casting a decisive victory for Congress’ role in management of war and peace and greater restraint in our foreign policy,” he says.

Such a bipartisan coalition would also come in handy for the gravest crisis of our times: halting climate change. If, after the 2020 election, the U.S. had a Democratic president, a commanding Democratic majority in the House, and 60 Democratic senators, what should be the first action taken toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

“We need to have a carbon tax,” he says. “It needs to be coupled with massive investments in a Green New Deal, in the sense that the people who are losing jobs because [of lost] fossil fuel projects should be transitioned into many different types of clean technology jobs.

“I called on Governor Brown to stop all fossil-fuel projects here,” he adds. “We can be a  laboratory for that, and Brown hasn’t done this. There is no way you hit the 2040 goals of 100-percent clean energy if you don’t stop new projects — and those new projects are devastating to communities of color and low-income communities. That would be what I would start with, but we will need more than one or two pieces of legislation.”

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