Congressman Ro Khanna is an American politician, lawyer, and academic. He is currently serving as U.S. Representative for California's 17th district, including much of Silicon Valley.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Ro Khanna discuss how we can protect free speech and civic agency in the age of the internet; what it would mean to have a cultural patriotism that celebrates both the tradition and the dynamism of American life; and where he stands on the debates concerning misinformation and censorship.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You call yourself a “progressive capitalist.” What does that mean?
Ro Khanna: I believe in free enterprise and free markets, and not just because that leads to innovation and economic growth, but because it’s about valuing human freedom. When we want to transact with another individual, we shouldn't have to get the collective body to approve such a transaction. Amartya Sen makes the case for this most eloquently in Development as Freedom—why the market is, in some sense, supporting freedom. But, of course, this presupposes that people can participate in the market. And so “progressive” means we need to give people the healthcare, education, and nutrition to be able to participate in the market. How do we define markets that still value communities, so you don’t have unfettered movement of capital and goods in ways that leave communities behind?
You can go back to Alexander Hamilton, who I would argue was a progressive capitalist. I would describe FDR as a progressive capitalist. It was only in the last 40-50 years that we have this view of unfettered capitalism that I think actually was a deviation from what built America. But there would be a few aspects to it. I think progressive capitalism would mean that we would have healthcare for everyone. We would have universal preschool, childcare, and free public college or vocational school. And progressive capitalism also would mean that the state would collaborate with business and educational institutions to revitalize communities and ensure that we have place-based economic development.
Mounk: There's a set of policies, which are actually simultaneously pro-growth and help to make sure that the economic growth we have brings benefits to a lot of people. One of those areas is maybe the recent efforts to limit non-compete clauses. That's something that helps employees get more money, and it's something that actually is good for economic growth. Another area seems to me to be “YIMBY” policies, or making sure that we can actually build housing in areas of economic opportunity.
Is that the sort of area you would focus on? Tell us a little more about what kind of public policies could make the market inclusive, but also make sure that there's a bigger pie to share.
Khanna: I support both of the policies. We have to build more housing and not have restrictive zoning. That housing needs to be affordable in places where people have been priced out of either buying a home or renting. And we shouldn't have these non-competes that artificially restrict labor and depress wages. Similarly, we need stronger antitrust protections to make sure that the new entrants, new businesses, can emerge and that we don't just have a few corporations controlling the market. But more broadly, we need what Dr. King called a “people-oriented society,” and not just a “thing-oriented society.” And that means a belief in developing people's capabilities. And I believe that is “Medicare For All” and free public college and a livable wage and policies and childcare that reduce costs. Someone said to me, “Americans can't afford America.” There's a sense of that in the country today.
Senator Todd Young of Indiana and I are going to be convening a roundtable of the top business school deans in six months to discuss these issues. What is the obligation of American business schools to have business leaders who are patriots, who care about the country, social goals, and community? I think that that's important. You want business leaders to be vested in the success of the community and the success of the nation. You need that collaboration. We had that collaboration when we emerged in the Hamilton era. We had that collaboration when we won World War II.
But I don't think we can simply rely on the ethics and values of corporate CEOs to do things like have Intel build factories in Ohio. I mean, I love [Intel CEO] Pat Gelsinger. He’s passionate about creating those jobs. But if it weren't for the CHIPS Act that provided him with concrete financing to do that, he wouldn't be making those investments. If it weren't for tax policies that prohibit or make it less attractive to offshore factories, companies wouldn’t be doing that. There has to be a policy framework that says, “If you invest in America, we will invest in you. If you build in communities, we will support you.” We also need the CEOs to have the ethical sense to flourish within that framework.
Mounk: You have an interest in antitrust law going a long way back. What is the problem with the traditional framework of antitrust legislation? And how do we need to update that in order to deal with the challenge posed by tech companies and other big corporations in the United States now?
Khanna: Today, antitrust law, because of Robert Bork, only looks at the actors as consumers, not as citizens. In other words, the only consideration when concentration emerges is, “Are consumers going to be better off?” But there are many other factors to antitrust. Do we want a multiplicity of perspectives in a society? Do we want jobs in our society? Do we want new entrants in different geographical regions in a society? The biggest thing that I think antitrust law needs to change is to go back to the original Sherman Act, and that is to look at all of the multiplicity of factors in considering antitrust. The original acts were saying that you don't want big corporations to have too much power in a democracy. It wasn't just about consumer welfare.
We can look at, let's say, a social media platform, Facebook or Twitter, which is largely free, and people are often happy with that. But then the question becomes, Do you want just two or three people controlling the digital public sphere? Or would it be better if other forums emerged? Would it be better if all those forms and architects weren’t just in Silicon Valley? Is there a value to democracy in having a multiplicity of entrants in a particular industry? Email is probably a tougher case. Maybe there is. Maybe we don’t need multiple people doing email. On the other hand, a lot of that data that is collected, the metadata, allows a company like Google to build in YouTube and other areas. Maybe we would like a multiplicity of people in that space. “Is having more entrants a good thing?” Current antitrust law wouldn't even allow you to consider the question unless you show that it's improving consumer welfare.
There is a trade-off in having many discursive spaces, which is, in my view, healthy for democracy, and in finding places for people who may disagree or have different backgrounds to have conversations with one another. And these two things are often in tension. I would err on the side of having many discursive spaces and then creating spaces that facilitate exchange among people from different regions, backgrounds, and ideologies. I don't think the answer is that we should all listen to Walter Cronkite. That suppresses perspective and voice. But at the same time, I don't think it's a good world if everyone has their own itemized way of consuming information and isn't exchanging ideas in a more townhall-like setting. We need both.
The greatest deliberative democracy thinkers, like [Jürgen] Habermas, acknowledge the messiness of the world, and would say that the ideal speech conditions are missing in most democracies, and nor would you want to construct a democracy, realistically, with just ideal speech conditions. There is a time for anger, protests, and yelling. But they want to orient the society to at least aspire to have forums of reasonable exchange that can inform decision-making—like the Supreme Court, ironically. [John] Rawls used to point to that as emblematic of deliberation. What I would say is: have many discursive spaces but then be intentional about thinking of how we can encourage deliberation that actually has an impact. Audrey Tang had this thing in Taiwan where people actually ranked legislation and offered ideas on legislation and that informed the Taiwanese parliament. The challenge for us is how we construct those kinds of spaces.
Mounk: Let’s talk about this idea of patriotism for a moment, particularly in the context of trying to build a multiracial democracy. First of all, why do you think that people on the left should embrace a form of patriotism at the moment when parts of the left have become quite nervous about any form, not only of nationalism, but also of patriotism. What do you say to critics like that to get them to embrace patriotism as a value that the left should embrace?
Khanna: Patriotism, in my view, just means that you love a community, that you come from something that is rooted. That, to me, is a part of human identity. We are born in a family, and there's nothing wrong with loving your family more deeply than you love a stranger. Love of the nation doesn't mean that you can't be critical of the nation. There was a famous saying, “My country right or wrong—when right, keep it. When wrong, fix it.” That can animate your patriotism, but there should be a patriotism. And of course, I believe that America is an extraordinary nation with the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and that the ideals and the character are there for this nation to become a multiracial democracy. That doesn't mean we have a nationalism; it doesn't mean that we don't disregard the dignity of people outside the United States, or that we engage in a form of xenophobia. It just means that we should care about communities in America.
Mounk: We 100% agree on that, and I've made the case for patriotism in my two last books. We both think that civic patriotism has to be part of this love of country. But part of what makes both of us proud Americans is that we have that attachment to the Declaration of Independence, to the Constitution, and to the fundamental political values which our country has often failed to live up to but which has allowed us to make and build a more perfect union. We also both seem to agree that civic patriotism in itself isn't enough and there should be an additional element that we should build on.
It sounds like you're making a similar move in saying, “I believe in civic patriotism, but also we need this economic element to our patriotism.” Tell me what the economic element of that patriotism is. Are you thinking of it as one of the bases of patriotism, or one of its goals? How does it fit into that picture?
Khanna: I agree with you. In fact, in Chapter 10 of my book Dignity in a Digital Age I argue for a “democratic patriotism” based on Frederick Douglass' speech, “Composite Nation.” Douglass is defending Chinese immigration as someone who was enslaved just a few years earlier. He writes that he doesn't worry about Chinese culture coming to the United States (at the time there was a lot of xenophobia and concern about Chinese culture), because in the free air of America the best ideas of different traditions will emerge, and we will become a ‘composite nation,’ taking the best of all different ways of life from different people in different parts of the world and melding it into something beautiful here. I think that is the vision of the ideal.
I don't think nations are philosophical postulates. The nation is far more than just an allegiance to the Declaration of Independence or Constitution; a nation is composed of events, things that happen to us, memories and emotions, and battles and scars. That is all part of building the culture of a nation just like we build the culture of a family through my grandfather's story. He fought in Gandhi's independence movement. That’s part of our family folklore. But what I call for is a democratic patriotism—[W.E.B.] Du Bois has this beautiful line that we need to be “coworkers in the kingdom of culture.” How do we shape culture in a way where everyone, ideally, has an equal voice in shaping that culture? This is a big challenge, because the view of a procedural liberalism is that any time you start to shape culture, it is inherently going to be unequal for people who may not share that sense of the commons. That's why they default to the lowest form or a sense that we can't really have a common good. I think that that's too thin a conception for a nation. The balance is how we can have this common culture while making room for equality of participation in creating that culture—a balance between the past and newcomers. That is a large part of the American struggle right now, because we're trying to figure out what that common American culture looks like. Economic patriotism is sort of the low-hanging fruit in building this broader patriotism.
Mounk: There is a criticism that Democrats have perhaps been too unwilling to talk about economic patriotism, especially when it comes to the effects of free trade on certain communities and the kind of disruption that brings. It's interesting to me that, the way you’re framing it, those two things are really part of the same patriotic failure: the failure of one part of the left to say, “We should be proud of America, and we have a common culture to build and to defend, one that's evolving, one that's diverse, but one that actually we share with each other,” and the failure to say, when a lot of jobs are leaving steel towns in Michigan, “It's our job as economic patriots to make sure that these people are made whole and have opportunity.” Those two things are actually part of the same story, challenging, on one side, the far left parts of the Democratic Party and, on the other side, the more moderate parts of the Democratic Party.
Khanna: I would agree with that. I think that the Democratic left sometimes too easily just defaults to “Patriotism means believing in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” But patriotism is deeper than that, right? It's cultural.
When I was growing up, and we were moving into Amsterdam Avenue, there was chatter on the street that the Khannas were moving into town, and my father figured out what it was: there was a concern about Christmas Eve. Everyone put out candlelights, and would there be an empty space because we were of Hindu faith? And then my parents said, “Well, we grew up celebrating Christmas,” which they did in India, “and we'll put out the candlelights.” Now, I don't say that every family should make that decision. But the point is, there was a real decision. My parents would have been devastated if I said, “Well, I'm going to become Christian to run for Congress.” That would have been seen as dishonoring their own family tradition. This is the debate in the United States: where do we accommodate deep traditions? Where do we bring in the new? Can we celebrate Diwali but also recognize Christmas as something that has had a hold on American culture? By just saying, “Well, let's just all believe in the Constitution” and not considering culture, we are not paying sufficient attention to people's lived experience and their concerns.
At the same time, with the economics, you had town after town lose their sense of pride and dignity. They saw jobs shipped offshore and the sense of their well-being threatened. They didn't ask for much. They just wanted a house, maybe to watch Friday night football, to have their kids do well. And then they said, “Well, this is all going. Immigrants are coming. In Silicon Valley they're making trillions of dollars. We fought the wars in this country. What about us?” And this kind of response, “Well, the markets will take care of itself. There's people who are poor in China who are getting opportunities,” and that there shouldn't be a concern for these towns that were decimated. This has been one of the reasons we have such social discord in this country. We just offered people an unemployment check. Fend for yourself. We didn't even try to have economic revitalization.
Mounk: Let me ask you a little bit about a theme we were touching on earlier, which is the role of social media and tech in the United States today. When the whole strange kerfuffle about the so-called Twitter Files came out in the last few months, one of the things that came to light, interestingly, was an email from you in which you were expressing your concern with executives at Twitter over the fact that they had effectively told The New York Post that if they continued to post about Hunter Biden, they would block or suspend its Twitter account. Even though you're no fan of The New York Post, and this wasn't a judgment you were making on the substance or content of the story, you were saying “Hang on a second here. You may be going too far in terms of how you're shaping the public sphere.”
Do you think, for example, as David French has suggested, that social media companies should effectively bind themselves to some form of the First Amendment, saying “Here are very strict rules that we're not legally obligated to adopt, but that we will, because we think that's the right thing to do.” If they don't, should legislators consider telling social media companies that if they censor content on political or ideological grounds, then they effectively are publishers and should not be protected by Section 230, just as The New York Post is not protected by Section 230. What's the most substantive solution here?
Khanna: Now this gets back to our earlier conversation. It's better to have more social media forums. It's better to give individuals more control over their own social media, which Twitter was trying to do under Jack Dorsey but then got interrupted. It's important for people to have control over their own data so that it's not being taken from them and then used to trigger them or get them to join groups or take actions. The biggest thing on a short-term basis is just to have separation of control. As I've said directly to Elon Musk, the last job anyone would want to have is to run Twitter. Who wants to call balls and strikes? It seems like the most boring waste of time. And Bezos, for example, owns The Washington Post. I know people criticize that. But you would be hard-pressed to say that The Washington Post is sitting there deciding whether to publish an Op-Ed or a story based on what Jeff Bezos is thinking. So, as an immediate step, social media companies should have a strict wall of separation between ownership and those making largely journalistic decisions, which is what running a public square is. Bloomberg News or The Washington Post are examples. It's not perfect, but it's better than what it is today.
I would agree with you that social media companies should look to First Amendment principles. That's what I wrote in my email to Twitter, privately, that leaked. First Amendment principles have been thought through for 200 years and are very robust and thoughtful. How do you get a culture where social media companies are inclined to do that? I would argue newspapers do that. They want to have an opposing point of view. They will publish dissenting opinions. They will try to get multiple sources to verify things. And they don't do that just because of a fear of liability. They do that because there are trade journalistic ethics that emerged from the era of muckraking newspapers and which they see as being part of fulfilling their responsibilities to democracy. Social media companies would be well served to do that. Certainly, the government can't mandate that. Whether they can remove certain Section 230 protections, I think, would depend on how much direct interference these companies were having. Obviously, if there was a site that said they were only going to publish conservative posts, then it's hard to argue that they're just publishing anything and Section 230 shouldn't apply. But if there are different types of content moderation strategies, which is where the gray area is, what seems as speech to some seems as incitement to violence to others; what seems as a viewpoint to some seems as suppressing or oppressing marginalized groups to others. I don't think you want the government in the business of telling these companies what those content moderation guidelines exactly should look like. I think that has to emerge from these companies, but the government could maybe require transparency on what it looks like.
Mounk: On misinformation, I have to admit to feeling very torn. I do worry about deliberate efforts by state actors, dictatorships most often, to shape the information landscape. I worry of course about the amount of false information and straightforward lies that are spread on social media. But I also worry further that the definition of misinformation is so broad and unspecific that it has actually led to many misfires, one being the suspension of The New York Post. Another is the debate about the origins of COVID-19, which was really limited on a number of social media platforms because of various forms of quite explicit censorship. Where do you fall on this debate? How do you feel about whether and how we should talk about misinformation?
Khanna: Americans are more educated today than they ever have been in American history. And I fundamentally believe that Americans are capable of critical thinking. And what we ought to be doing is what Finland did when confronted with misinformation online, a rigorous education in all our ages of schooling and adult education to be able to identify the threats of misinformation or propaganda online. And that, to me, is the most important thing. The second thing is that the government shouldn’t be an arbiter of the truth. That's not the role of the government, and I don't think tech companies should be assuming that role. Now, in certain limited cases, where something poses a public health risk, I think it is legitimate to, in the short term, for a public health risk or a security risk, engage in stopping certain types of information. You would stop someone shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. You would stop someone from promoting misleading information about a drug. I think it was appropriate at the height of the coronavirus, where we wanted science to be prevailing in dealing with a public health crisis, to have some reasonable restrictions. Society, in moments of crisis, does need to take actions where there are competing values of the health and safety of its citizens.
I certainly think you shouldn't be suppressing a critique of masks, either for or against, or even critiques of the vaccines’ effectiveness or about potential side effects. But I think that where there were efforts to suppress blatant propaganda, where sites with large reaches were saying “the football player had a cardiac arrest because he took vaccines,” where things are so blatantly false and are reaching people in a way that would inform their public health decision-making, I do think there are lines there where it's appropriate in a moment of crisis for government to act. The details matter and this is a traditional dilemma which governments face in times of war or public health crises where it's appropriate to have some restriction on either propaganda or speech that can undermine safety. I tend to err on the side of more speech and dissent. But I don't discount that in crises, sometimes, you don't want propaganda and conspiracy theories that are blatantly false at a given moment.
Mounk: Let me close on a question I've been wondering about during this conversation. You represent a Bay Area District which covers a lot of the places where some of the most influential tech companies in the world are headquartered, and where their employees and leaders live. What are some of the things that you think the culture of Silicon Valley gets right, and where do you really worry about the culture of Silicon Valley? I’m not talking about employee relations at Google, but the broader set of cultural assumptions and political views that you find in this enclave of, not exclusively, but many very highly educated Americans from some of the best universities with prestigious, well-paying jobs, who may think that they're remaking the world.
What are some of the things that you think we should learn from them, and what are some of the things where you become a little bit concerned about where that part of America's elite culture may be going?
Khanna: Silicon Valley defies stereotypes. They were the first to be comfortable with the fact that you didn't have to be a white male with a square jaw and broad shoulders to lead companies. They took chances on people who had funny-sounding names, not looking the part of a charismatic CEO or backslapper. They bet on that when San Francisco traditional firms didn’t. They bet on iconoclasts. They bet on risk and they celebrated, genuinely, failure. Now, they have blind spots. They have not reached out as much to women, the black community, or the Latino community. It's not that they're perfect, but for the people who managed to get there, there was a sense that the traditional mode of being a Harvard MBA or working at McKinsey wasn’t necessary; that you could make it if you were creative, innovative, willing to take risk, and we would celebrate that. And I think that that is healthy to the extent that it broke through the norms. It's ironic, people ask me why these people who are worth more money than anyone in the world see themselves as underdogs. And I said, because 20 or 30 years ago, they were the underdogs. They were the misfits in society. They weren't the people who were going to run Goldman Sachs or the fancy law firms.
The biggest problem is an over-optimism about technology. I tend to believe technology is important to solve problems. But I was having a conversation on the House floor with Jonathan Jackson, a new congressman from Chicago and the son of Jesse Jackson, the reverend and civil rights leader. We were talking about Martin Luther King Day, and I was telling him about my grandfather who spent years in jail with Gandhi in the 1940s, and he said, “Well, Henry David Thoreau influenced Gandhi.” I said, “Yeah, I knew that.” Then he said, “Did you realize that Henry David Thoreau was influenced by the [Bhagavad] Gita?” And I said, “No, I didn't know that, actually.” And he said, “Yeah, I’m teaching you about your own religious book, but Thoreau looked to the Gita, and that's where he got a lot of the inspiration to come up with civil disobedience.”
That evening, I was with someone at Google, and I was curious about ChatGPT. And so I asked, “Let's type in, ‘How were Henry David Thoreau’s teachings about civil disobedience, which influenced Gandhi, influenced by the Gita?’” And out came this perfect essay: Henry David Thoreau read the Gita and was influenced by it. Gandhi read the Gita and was influenced by it”—with no depth of thinking, no depth of analysis. As I put it, “ChatGPT could write my mundane speeches on the Oversight Committee, but it’s not going to write Barack Obama's 2004 keynote speech.” Sometimes, there is such a sense that technology is the North Star as opposed to an instrument that can improve ends. There is a forgetting of Dr. King's exhortation that the world has had a scientific revolution but what we really need is a revolution of values. You could never put technology above humanity, and I think that Silicon Valley could use more humanistic thinkers and humanistic values.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.
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