Ro Khanna is a progressive congressman representing California’s 17th District—the wealthiest congressional district in America. He’s Silicon Valley’s congressman, so his constituents are the coastal elites of the elites.
But if you didn't know any of that, you might think Ro Khanna was a congressman from a place like Indiana.
Khanna consistently sounds the alarm on the unintended consequences of globalization and the digital revolution; on the gap between those creating automation and A.I. and the people whose jobs are being turned over to that new technology; and on the growing divide between the laptop class and those who still head to work before the sun comes up.
In fact, sometimes when you listen to Khanna—he says we need to “make more stuff here,” and “buy American”—he kind of sounds like . . . Donald Trump.
Which sort of tells you everything you need to know about our current political moment. About how the old rules—about what is left and what is right, about which party represents the working class and which party represents the elites—no longer apply.
Maybe most unusual of all, Khanna’s policies on Big Tech are not exactly the ones you’d imagine coming from the congressman whose neighbors are the creators of the next Googles and Facebooks. Not only does he think Big Tech needs to be broken up, he was also one of the only Democrats to diverge from his party’s censorious impulses when he reached out directly to Twitter in October 2020 to criticize its decision to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story in the runup to the election, as we reported in the Twitter Files story.
In an era where the Democratic Party and Big Tech often seem to march in lockstep, Khanna says: Maybe we should be skeptical of this kind of corporate power. And, by the way, isn’t that the core of what the Democratic Party is supposed to be about? And if not, when did that change and why?
We talk about all of that and more in today’s episode of Honestly.
I highly recommend listening to the entire conversation, but below, edited for length and clarity, are some of the key points.
On why he reached out to Twitter in October 2020 about Twitter’s decision to censor the Hunter Biden laptop story:
I was candidly concerned that they were censoring a newspaper. I just couldn't believe that they were actually telling the New York Post that they couldn't print an article. Now, I’m no partisan for the New York Post. The New York Post has never written a positive article about me. But I just couldn’t fathom this idea that we wouldn't want journalism like The Post to be read. And I thought that the backlash to censoring that would be far worse than anything that they had written.
On Twitter’s response to Khanna:
I think they were very surprised that I was standing up for these First Amendment principles because they had seen me on television making the case for President Biden. It’s still my view that Hunter Biden is a private citizen, but just because something is my view doesn't mean I get to decide what the American people get to read.
On the importance of the Twitter Files:
Here’s why I think the “nothingburger” argument is compounding the problem. Let’s stipulate that 60% of the country may not care about the Twitter Files. But if 40% of the country thinks they don’t have a fair shake on a modern platform, don’t you think you should listen?
It’s like you're doubly censoring. You’re censoring in the first place. And then you're censoring the emotion of being upset about being censored. I think until we start to have a conversation where we're understanding where each other are coming from there's no hope for stitching the country together.
Someone who wasn't following the Twitter Files story said to me, “Well, I think Biden is favored to beat Trump in 2024 because of the midterms. But now I need to factor in that, with Elon at Twitter, Twitter is going to become more Republican, so that may be a point for Donald Trump.” It really has become a ball that's going to bounce from one side to the other side. That's the exact wrong vision of democracy.
Both sides have a stake in this conversation because what happened to The New York Post in 2020 could happen to a liberal or progressive outlet in 2024 or 2028.
On the media blackout on the Twitter Files story:
I think it’s a mistake. But I think there is this fear in the media to say, well, are we buying into a conservative story? Instead, the question should be: what is the role of free expression and free speech on a social media platform? You could actually have a very interesting conversation with someone like Elizabeth Warren, who is concerned about the concentration of economic power making these decisions, and someone concerned about Twitter censoring or shadow-banning conservative points of view. It's a missed opportunity to have that conversation. A missed opportunity in terms of how much the digital world matters and understanding how big a story this is among a significant part of the American public. What we need in this country is to just start listening to other people while suspending judgment. We've somehow lost that ability.
On Twitter banning Donald Trump:
To be honest, I really struggled with this. World leaders need to be treated consistently. You can’t just ban Donald Trump, but not ban other autocratic leaders who have threatened violence or led to hate against targeted groups. What concerns me in the Twitter Files is whether the pattern of tweets inciting violence was documented in a consistent way, as opposed to someone just saying, ‘Well, let's suspend Donald Trump because he's conservative and he's been impeached twice.’ I would think that there would be evidence that he had incited violence enough to have warranted a suspension. But that doesn't seem to be the way Twitter made this decision.
On Twitter’s right to moderate content as a private company:
I think it's a lazy response to say that Twitter’s a private company. That may get you a good grade in high school, but everyone who's taken a constitutional law class knows that. The point is, of course, they're a private entity. The question then becomes, What is the responsibility of private entities to democracy and the public sphere?
On whether anyone should have the power over Twitter or similar platforms:
This is a place where the right and left could agree. You don't want any group of individuals to have the power to make these decisions. There should be some guiding principles. The reason I look to First Amendment principles is because there are a lot of really brilliant people who've been thinking about this issue for a lot of years, and they've thought about almost every case. Taking this enormous power out of the hands of just a few, having transparency, and having some independent place where these things can be adjudicated is important.
People say real life is not Twitter. Well, Twitter still drives news stories. Twitter still drives media coverage. The idea that the digital conversation isn't going to become more and more dominant to American democracy is just denying reality. So we can't just wish it away, we have to think about what the appropriate solution is.
On solutions to the problem of Big Tech:
We need to give people the right to their own data. That would diminish the power of these companies to use your data to continue to grow, to continue to have as much monopoly power, and it would allow new platforms to emerge. We also need to reform Section 230, so that at least conduct that a court finds illegal should not be allowed on Twitter. Right now, the fastest thing you can do to remove something on these social media platforms is to have a copyright violation.
On how the Democratic party lost its working-class roots:
RK: We have to start by saying there were huge mistakes made. These mistakes came at the expense of the working class and middle class in this country. But then we should not demagogue things. In a 2016 debate, Senator Marco Rubio said, ‘America needs more plumbers. We need less philosophers.’ And I was thinking to myself, James Madison was a philosopher. Our founders were philosophers. It was pretty good that we had thinking philosophers in America. And, yes, we need more plumbers, but you don't have to denigrate college-degreed individuals to appeal to the working class. Americans are smarter than that. The working class doesn’t have a grudge against college education. They just want to make sure that they have a shot at the American dream, that they have dignity of work, and that they have the economic opportunities to succeed. That’s what the Democratic Party needs to offer: a real vision of how we're going to build this country.
On a “new economic patriotism”:
New economic patriotism means we made a colossal mistake in America. We took away people's ability to make a living. We watched the decimation of factory towns. We watched the decimation of rural America. We watched the decimation of industry in black and brown communities. And what did we do? We gave them trade adjustment assistance. We gave them a check for a couple of months from a government program. We told them to move, and we lost production in America. We used to make the world’s steel. We used to make aluminum, we used to make textiles, and we used to make paper. It all went to the south of the border to Mexico and to China. That really hurt the working class. It allowed the wealth to continue to pile up in places like Silicon Valley and New York, but hollowed out the heartland, and a lot of the South. That has left us divided as a country and weaker as a country.
A new economic patriotism says we have to bring those new factories back. We've got to bring the new production back. We need an economic renaissance in America of production. We can do that partly because of new technology, which gives us a productivity advantage in new manufacturing processes.
You had said, it sounds like Donald Trump. It may embrace the sense of people who voted for Trump because they have legitimate grievances against unchecked globalization. But in its prescription, it’s very different. It’s much more Hamilton or FDR because you can’t just give a corporate tax cut. I know these CEOs, they'll take the money and then put the factory in Malaysia. What we need is investing in America, in American companies.
On unchecked free market capitalism:
RK: There’s value in a Steve Jobs. There’s value in a local dry cleaner having the independence to create his own business. But there's also value to community. People don't just care about making the most money. They want to live next to their parents or grandparents, or friends. What we did in this country was just prioritize the corporate bottom line. We lost a sense of community, and ultimately, we lost a sense of national purpose.
On his own presidential ambitions:
RK: I’ll be behind President Biden in 2024. I’ve only been in Congress six years, and I still have things to learn and things to build in my role. I don’t deny that there could be a future ambition if the moment comes. But right now, I’m very happy making a contribution from Silicon Valley.