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Ro Khanna and the tensions of Silicon Valley liberalism

Khanna wants to save Silicon Valley from itself. But can he find middle ground between Bernie and Zuck?

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Ro Khanna first ran for Congress in 2004. It was the apex of post-9/11 politics, and Khanna, then a 27-year-old idealistic intellectual property lawyer, was furious that Tom Lantos, the long-serving Democrat from California, had supported not just the Iraq War but the Patriot Act. “For the South Asian diaspora, that was a symbol,” he says. “It was about standing up for the ‘other.’”

Khanna got crushed. But Lantos saw potential in his young challenger, and he called Nancy Pelosi, then the minority leader of the House Democrats, to tell her about the kid who’d tried, and failed, to defeat him. “Pelosi saw that the only Indian face in politics at the time was Bobby Jindal,” Khanna says. “She saw there was a huge South Asian community. And so she told me, get involved, and after redistricting, there’ll be an opening.”

So Khanna got involved. He went to work for the Obama administration. He wrote a book on bringing manufacturing innovation back to America. And then, with Pelosi’s blessing, he opened an exploratory committee to run in 2012 for the House seat Rep. Pete Stark was expected to retire from.

But redistricting didn’t bring Khanna the district he’d hoped for. Fremont, California, where he intended to run, was merged into Rep. Mike Honda’s territory, and Honda had no intention of stepping down. Still, the new district was heavily South Asian, and it included tech giants like Apple and Yahoo and Intel; Khanna thought he had a chance. So he decided to challenge another incumbent Democrat, and asked Pelosi to stay neutral in the race.

“Pelosi invited me to her house,” Khanna recalls. “And when I asked her not to make an endorsement, she said, ‘Absolutely not. I stand for my incumbents.’ So I get very discouraged, and Pelosi could see that. As I’m leaving the room, she said, ‘Ro, let me tell you something. If I had waited around, I’d have never been speaker of the House. Power is never given. It’s always taken.’”

Democratic challenger Ro Khanna, 37, chats with resident Karen Terrell while canvasing while running against incumbent Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) for the 17th congressional district on April 18, 2014 in Sunnyvale, California.
Democratic challenger Ro Khanna, 37, chats with resident Karen Terrell while canvassing during a run against incumbent Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) for the 17th Congressional District on April 18, 2014, in Sunnyvale, California.
Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

That was the permission Khanna needed. He challenged Honda in 2014, running a big ideas campaign backed by a who’s who of Silicon Valley luminaries. He had endorsements from Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, Vinod Khosla, and John Doerr. But Honda had the local PTA organizations, the teachers, the community leaders. Khanna lost again.

“That loss was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Khanna told me over lunch at Vik’s Chaat House in Berkeley, California. “It forced me to reflect. I had this optimism about technology and America, but who were the people I was leaving out?” In 2016, Khanna ran a third time, and, finally, he won.

The origin story is almost too perfect. There are politicians who run to be the establishment and politicians who run to topple the establishment. Khanna, unusually, is both. He got his start in politics repeatedly challenging Democratic incumbents. But instead of going to war with the Democratic Party, he managed to get groomed by it: promoted by Tom Lantos, mentored by Nancy Pelosi. He has a talent for confronting the powerful in a way that impresses rather than angers them.

That talent is being tested. Khanna stands at the center of uncomfortable crosscurrents in American politics. He was an early backer of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, and he’s a co-chair of Sanders’s 2020 effort, but in addition to being one of Congress’s richest members, he represents many of the “millionaires and billionaires” that Sanders blames for breaking American politics.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) makes his way backstage at a rally for Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, on March 24, 2019.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) makes his way backstage at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on March 24, 2019.
Nick Otto for the Washington Post/Getty Images

Similarly, Khanna aggressively branded himself “the congressman from Silicon Valley” after he won his seat, but that was back when the tagline sounded like an honorific rather than an epithet. Today, he finds himself trying to regulate the companies he represents.

“Khanna is balancing trying to be a national figure in an environment unfriendly to tech and literally being the representative of Silicon Valley,” says Greg Ferenstein, a researcher who has studied the political ideology of the technology industry. “And he’s moved in directions that are certainly making people out here uncomfortable.”

While reporting out this story, I spoke to Hill leftists who worried Khanna was a phony and Silicon Valley financiers who found his endorsements of Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez troubling. Khanna is walking a delicate path between two sides that are not, in the long term, natural allies. His is a politics of collaboration trying to bridge constituencies that drive toward confrontation.

“Most of the really powerful people in the Valley check all the boxes of the good liberal positions,” says Anand Giridharadas, author of the book Winners Take All. “They’re all for immigration, gay rights, many of them vote for the higher-tax candidate every four years, for the candidate expanding health care. And yet for all those liberal positions, they’re amassing a level of concentrated power, and protecting that concentrated power through aggressive lobbying, that frankly dwarfs any of their sweet-lipped liberal positions.”

This, then, is the question Khanna raises: Is there a viable liberalism that unites Bernie Sanders and Tim Cook? Or do you have to choose a side?

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) speaks with Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders just before a Sanders rally in San Francisco, Calif., on March 24, 2019.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) speaks with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders just before a Sanders rally in San Francisco on March 24, 2019.
Nick Otto for the Washington Post/Getty Images

From Atari Democrats to democratic socialism

In 1982, Chris Matthews, then a staffer for Tip O’Neill, coined the term “Atari Democrats.” These were a group of young, tech-savvy Democrats trying to fashion a forward-looking agenda for a party that seemed stuck in the 1930s.

“The Atari Democrats,” the Washington Post reported, “advocate a shift in resources away from declining industries into growth sectors of high technology and service industries, along with educational, research and development programs designed to train workers and provide seed money for innovation.” The New York Times wrote that “their commitments to free markets and investment won them much criticism from older liberals, who considered their neo-liberalism as warmed-over Reaganism.”

The Democrats wrapping themselves in Silicon Valley glamour have traditionally been moderate, pro-business types trying to cut a brand distinct from the party’s labor-liberal roots. Al Gore was an Atari Democrat. So was New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, and Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, and Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas. By the time Bill Clinton won the presidency, the label had changed to “New Democrats,” but it was the same wine.

The Atari Democrats were building an agenda to attract tech titans to the Democratic Party. Khanna is building an agenda meant to keep the country from burning the tech industry to the ground.

Since coming to Washington, he has sought to prove himself as an ideas man for the party’s surging left. He’s the lead House sponsor of the GAIN Act, a $1.4 trillion expansion of the earned income tax credit (EITC); the Job Opportunities for All Act, a not-quite-jobs guarantee in which the federal government would subsidize employment for anyone who’s been out of work for more than 90 days or whose job leaves them under the poverty line; the Corporate Responsibility and Taxpayer Protection Act, which penalizes employers whose workers end up using federal benefits, and which later became Bernie Sanders’s Stop BEZOS Act; the Internet Bill of Rights, which insists on a right to web access, net neutrality, and control over personal data; and the Prescription Drug Relief Act, which revokes patent protection on drugs if manufacturers sell them at higher prices in America than elsewhere.

Khanna also co-sponsored the House’s Medicare-for-all bill, supported the Green New Deal, and, working with Ocasio-Cortez, launched an unexpected attack on Pelosi’s announcement that House Democrats would abide by PAYGO rules, wherein all new legislation would have to be offset by tax increases or spending cuts.

“We have to make sure every American has a stake in the success of Silicon Valley, and that Silicon Valley doesn’t become an island unto itself,” he says. “Or we’re going to see a rebellion against some of the forces that I think are good for society.”

Khanna fits in a long tradition of reformers trying to save capitalism from the capitalists. It’s a profile that has won the second-term Congress member powerful fans in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) participates in a bill enrollment ceremony for legislation ending US involvement in Yemen, on April 9, 2019. Rep. Ro Khanna (second from left) is present alongside House progressive caucus co-chairs Rep. Pramila Jayapal
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi participates in a bill enrollment ceremony for legislation ending US involvement in Yemen on April 9, 2019. Rep. Ro Khanna (second from left) is present alongside House progressive caucus co-chairs Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA, second from right) and Mark Pocan (D-WI, far right).
Alex Edelman/Getty Images

On a crisp morning in January, I met Khanna on campus at UC Berkeley, where he was meeting with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s office. In recent years, Reich has developed a huge following for his Facebook videos decrying inequality, promoting Bernie Sanders, and articulating a progressive economic vision. Reich was interviewing Khanna for the series, and his introduction was glowing. “You have become — and I’m very proud of you for this — one of the leaders in the Progressive Caucus,” he said.

But Khanna is trying to reach beyond the left, too. Since taking office, he has been holding town halls in rural districts around the country. It’s an odd move for a young congressman. Every town hall Khanna holds in Kentucky or West Virginia is a town hall he’s not holding in Fremont or Milpitas. But to him, it’s all part of the same project. “The thing I can do for Silicon Valley,” he says, “is make sure they’re seen as American.”

Unlike most members of Congress, who represent districts that rarely get attention, Khanna’s district suffers from excess visibility. As such, he often acts less like a parochial legislator grabbing for a piece of the pie and more like a seasoned diplomat managing the foreign policy of Silicon Valley.

Most politicians, for instance, make a big deal of their efforts to create jobs in their district. Khanna makes a big deal of his efforts to create jobs outside his district. In a New York Times op-ed, he argued that “the choice facing small towns should not be binary — it should not be ‘adopt the Silicon moniker or miss out on the tech future,’” and advocated for an $80 billion investment in nationwide broadband and a rule pushing federal software contracts toward firms where at least 10 percent of the workforce was rural.

Khanna seems to see a bargain taking shape. Silicon Valley has money, power, and jobs. If it uses that money and power to support a Sanders-like social safety net, if it spends that money on the taxes that could support wage subsidies and Medicare-for-all, if it spreads those jobs across the country, then maybe Silicon Valley can be a good guy again. And then maybe the country won’t turn on it.

Maybe.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) near his home in Fremont, California on March 24, 2019.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) near his home in Fremont, California, on March 24, 2019.
Nick Otto for the Washington Post/Getty Images

Silicon Valley’s great wealth suck

Late in the afternoon, Khanna entered the sleek building of the financial transactions startup Square to attend a Tech for America roundtable on how Silicon Valley could do more to spread jobs and opportunity in the rest of America. In the room were representatives from Uber, Postmates, Facebook, and more. It was a conversation that was, by turns, interesting, public-spirited, and obtuse.

Khanna kicked off with a swipe at Congress’s cluelessness on tech, poking at “the congressional hearings in which members of Congress asked [Google CEO] Sundar Pichai why he didn’t have a better iPhone design.” The room chuckled, but Khanna followed with a more cutting observation. “I don’t think anyone could have made Mark Zuckerberg look sympathetic other than the United States Congress,” he said, a bit ruefully.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before the US Senate on April 10, 2018.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before the US Senate on April 10, 2018.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

As Khanna got into the meat of his remarks, he framed the reality of Silicon Valley as a betrayal of its original promise. “The irony is that technology has concentrated economic opportunity instead of dispersing it,” he said. “People can communicate remotely. They send information without being co-located. And yet somehow we’ve seen a co-location take place in this economy.”

The question, he said, was “what can Silicon Valley do, and what can policymakers do, to create more economic opportunities?”

The assembled speakers dutifully piped up. Square said that 80 percent of its transactions take place outside the top 25 metro areas. Postmates talked up the deliveries it was enabling, and jobs it was creating, in communities far beyond the Silicon Valley bubble. Rocket Lawyer talked about employing attorneys in small towns across the country.

But the answers contained the problem. Imagine if these companies succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Imagine if every paid ride were hailed through Uber or Lyft, if every delivery were conducted by Postmates or Caviar, if every transaction took place on Square, if all legal documentation were routed through Rocket Lawyer. That might be a world where Silicon Valley is creating a lot of jobs, and some of them would even be good jobs. But it’d be a world where Silicon Valley is taking all the wealth and all the power. It’d be spreading the labor but hoarding the capital.

It used to be that the owner of the small-town law firm or local taxi company was a pillar of the community. They were well-off, and if they got really rich, both their spending and their philanthropy often stayed local. Driving around San Francisco now, you see modern versions of that: Zuckerberg General Hospital, Benioff Children’s Hospital. Communities don’t just need income; they also need investment, and models of upward mobility.

A world in which a greater share of the country is employed on tech platforms and a greater share of the wealth is flowing to Bay Area firms is not, I suspect, a world in which the tech industry will be more popular.

Nor are the jobs Silicon Valley is spreading always the most desirable. Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park boasts soaring ceilings, rooftop gardens, and cool graffiti. The median Facebook employee makes almost $250,000 once you add up salary, bonuses, and options. But as Casey Newton reported at The Verge, the work lives of Facebook’s content moderators in Arizona are borderline hellish, with low wages, panopticon-style work surveillance, and the constant trauma of staring into the platform’s seedy underbelly.

Protesters with the group “Raging Grannies” hold a demonstration outside of Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California,  on April 5, 2018.
Protesters with the group “Raging Grannies” hold a demonstration outside of Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California, on April 5, 2018.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The conversation Silicon Valley is comfortable having — to some degree the conversation Khanna is comfortable having — is about redistribution rather than distribution. It’s about whether Silicon Valley can share a bit of its wealth rather than whether it should have so much wealth; about how it can better target its largesse rather than whether it should be so damn large in the first place.

These concentrations exist for a reason, of course. Where there’s lots of one type of company, there’s lots of one type of worker. Silicon Valley offers unmatched access to computer science talent, to people who know how to scale platform businesses, to people with experience building slick UIs. The advantages of being in these talent agglomerations are so great that companies and workers fight through the high cost of living, the pricey commercial real estate, the traffic-clogged commutes.

Enrico Moretti, an economist at UC Berkeley who studies the geography of employment, has found that concentration in “the high-end part of the high-tech job market” has shot up in recent decades, such that 70 percent of computer scientists are in the top 10 metro areas. Clustering like that really does boost innovation: Moretti estimates that if inventors were distributed evenly across the nation, the overall number of patents in American would fall by 9.6 percent.

But clustering like that also boosts inequality and, arguably, destabilizes our politics. “The less-than-500 counties that Hillary Clinton carried nationwide encompassed a massive 64 percent of America’s economic activity as measured by total output in 2015,” Brookings economists Mark Muro and Sifan Liu found in their analysis of the 2016 election results. “By contrast, the more-than-2,600 counties that Donald Trump won generated just 36 percent of the country’s output.” The political backlash this kind of inequality generates isn’t measured in the economic models used to justify it.

When Khanna and I left the roundtable, night was falling, and people were looking up at the adjacent Twitter building. Someone had aimed a projector at it. In huge letters, it said, “TECH WORKERS: #RESIST.”

The limits of billionaire liberalism

The number of billionaires in the San Francisco Bay Area has shot ahead of Moscow and London, and now trails only (the much more populous) New York and Hong Kong. Is this a triumph of American capitalism? Or is it a threat to American democracy?

Bernie Sanders sees billionaires as the enemy of democratic politics, not allies in expanding the EITC; tech titans may want a more humane society, and they may be willing to pay higher taxes to fund it, but they don’t want to see the rules changed in a game they’re winning. Actually, it’s worse than that: They won’t allow the rules to be changed in a game they’re funding. Just look at Howard Schultz, who’s threatening to spend his fortune on a spoiler candidacy if the Democrats nominate a candidate too far left for his tastes.

“The limits of their liberalism are when you ask them, ‘Do you believe the world would be better if you were made less powerful?’” says Giridharadas. “That’s the question where it breaks down.”

For many on the left, the only way to rightsize both the American economy and American democracy is to break up the concentrations of wealth and power that you see in Silicon Valley. Elizabeth Warren launched her presidential campaign with a proposal for breaking up Amazon and Apple; Dan Riffle, who serves as policy director to Ocasio-Cortez, goes by the Twitter handle “Every Billionaire Is a Policy Failure.”

Khanna disagrees. “I do not believe they are policy failures or immoral,” he says. “I have no problem if Steve Jobs or Elon Musk make billions in the pursuit of extraordinary innovation that moves humanity forward.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) does a live interview on Fox News in Sunnyvale, Calif., on March 24, 2019.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) does a live interview on Fox News in Sunnyvale, California, on March 24, 2019.
Nick Otto for the Washington PostThe Washington Post/Getty Images

Khanna has tried to walk a middle path. He’s called for stronger antitrust enforcement, and criticized past decisions like Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram, but he’s stopped short of calling to dismantle existing tech giants. “I am trying to articulate a philosophy of progressive capitalism,” he says. “My concern is how do we give folks equity and dignity in a technology age and make sure that the prosperity reaches people and places left behind.”

As the left flank of the Democratic Party grows more fundamentally skeptical of capitalism, one way of viewing Khanna’s approach is that it’s an update on what the New Democrats tried a generation earlier. The Clinton administration believed the proper role of government was to let the market drive growth and then let the government redistribute the gains so society was fair, decent, and stable. The Clintonites didn’t propose job guarantees or Medicare-for-all, but there was more shared growth then, and less inequality.

But another way to look at it — the way the Sanders wing of the party looks at it — is that the theory itself contained a fatal contradiction: You can’t spread the wealth and the opportunity until you break the concentrations of economic power. As Pelosi said, power is never given. It’s always taken.

Khanna’s supporters in the tech industry see him as an advocate, their man on the inside. They believe he can be the member of Sanders’s team arguing for the value of innovation, of Silicon Valley, even of billionaires. Khanna’s allies — and skeptics — on the left see him as proof of their ascendancy; if even the Congress member from Silicon Valley is backing Medicare-for-all and the democratic socialist revolution, that’s a powerful sign to others to get on the bus or get run over.

What’s most interesting about Khanna is the prospect that both camps are right about him, and that he is right about them. Small movements can dismiss the tensions and compromises that large movements demand. Niche industries can avoid the judgments and scrutiny of national politics. But the Sanders movement is no longer a curiosity. Silicon Valley long ago burst beyond the niche. Khanna’s politics are an attempt at a synthesis, and while it may not exactly be working, it’s remarkable that, so far, it’s not failing, either.

Rep. Ro Khanna, (D-CA), walks up the House steps for a vote in the Capitol on November 9, 2017.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) walks up the House steps for a vote in the Capitol on November 9, 2017.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. For more about Khanna’s tech policies, including the Internet Bill of Rights, check out this podcast conversation with Kara Swisher from October, which originally aired on her podcast, Recode Decode. You can listen to the show in your podcast app of choice, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts.

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