Politics and the 2020 Elections: An Interview with Congressman Ro Khanna

California Congressman Ro Khanna (D-17) has been busy lately. In addition to staking out extremely progressive stances on everything from reparations for African American communities, to cannabis legalization, to US intervention in Venezuela or Yemen, Congressman Khanna has made a name for himself as an outspoken but empirically driven intellect in the growing left wing of the Democratic Party. Most recently, Khanna became one of four national co-chairs of the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign. We caught up with him after introducing Senator Sanders at rallies in Los Angeles and San Francisco to discuss the campaign and some of his own policy ideas.


William Armaline: Hello Congressman — thank you for spending some time to speak to our membership at The North Star. I’d like to get started by asking about the connections between popular movements and the campaign itself. Ro Khanna: Sounds great. It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

When running for office, President Obama made promises to close Guantanamo Bay, end our wars in the Middle East, reform our criminal justice system, and so forth. In the eyes of many on the left, he was unable or unwilling to make good on his early progressive platform. As the Sanders campaign returns in a run for the presidency in 2020, and flexes a very powerful grassroots fundraising and a support model, how will a President Sanders be accountable to the people who put him there?

I think when we have a President Sanders, he’s going to have people from within the labor movement, the environmental justice movement, the human rights movement, and the movement for racial equity and justice within his administration. They’re going to be the deputy assistant secretaries, assistant secretaries, and under secretaries of the administration. They’re going to be in the White House West Wing, and often we forget how important that is.

One of the challenges with President Obama, who I deeply admire and I think did a lot more good than not, is the team that he had. I think that if he had Robert Reich running the Treasury Department as opposed to Tim Geithner, it would have been a very different outcome. So with Senator Sanders, you can expect the people in the movement will be brought to the table when he wins.

Second, he’s going to continue to mobilize people around the country, even after he wins. He loves being out there. He loves these rallies. He feeds off that energy, and I think that’s something that is going to continue. So he’s hearing from people, and there’s not a disconnect between the people who got him there and his presidency. What is the plan to capitalize on a growing, more aggressive, effective labor movement that we see in, for example, statewide teacher strikes? Are there any specific ways that a Sanders presidency can continue to stimulate that movement rather than stifling it, or acting as a sign that people can “relax” or be less vigilant with a President Sanders at the helm?

I think that Senator Sanders understands that so much change is driven not just at the national level but at the local level. An example you gave of the teachers’ strike is a change that is needed at the state level. Yes, we at the federal level should have a $50 billion or $150 billion package to increase teacher wages, but you still need school districts all across the country paying and treating teachers fairly. So with Sanders in the White House, you still need to continue the mobilization of people for equality. The difference with Sanders’s supporters is that they are more dedicated to the cause than to the person. And I think that is something that Senator Sanders welcomes. Their allegiance isn’t as much to get Bernie Sanders in the White House — their allegiance is to seeing transformational change when it comes to foreign policy, when it comes to racial justice, when it comes to the environmental movement, and when it comes to the issue of economic equity.

This is one of the reasons Senator Sanders rarely speaks about himself. I mean, he gets criticized and people say, “Why don’t you share more about your story?” I don’t think Senator Sanders believes, ultimately, that the campaign is about him. He believes that the campaign is about a platform of ideas and policies that can improve peoples’ lives.

Why should a Black voter support the Sanders economic platform? Noting that you’re a non-Black member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) who consistently backs reparations for African Americans in the US, what would you say to a working Black family who wants the answer to that question with no B.S.? Well, first I would say that you’re going to get health care. You’re no longer going to have $5 to $6,000 in premiums. You’re going to have much lower co-pays.

Second, if you’re making below $15 an hour, you’re going to make at least $15 an hour. And if you’re above that, making $20 or $25 an hour, your salary is going to go up because we’re going to expand the earned income tax credit, and the increased minimum wage is going to create an upward pressure on all wages. Further, with the increased unionization that we support, your wages will go up and your working conditions will improve.

Third, your kids are going to be able to go to college without you going into debt. Next, you’re going to get affordable housing. In places where people can’t afford to rent or buy a place to live, we’re going to make sure that you have many more affordable opportunities.

And finally, there is an aspect of this that should be directed particularly to historically Black colleges and communities of color that have been left out of economic success. We need much more significant investment in communities that faced redlining, Jim Crow, and discrimination to give people an equal shot at the American dream. Senator Sanders is committed to having resources targeted for communities of color in ways that will benefit them.

I’m happy that you brought this up. As the left now grapples with how to create a new broad-based labor and anti-racist movement, many are discussing the white racial frame that characterized the New Deal. African Americans and other populations of color were not the beneficiaries of the many New Deal policies, and programs that would set the stage for a robust white middle class at the height of American power following WWII. How can we approach economic reform without reproducing structural racism?

When we talk about the fulfillment of FDR’s vision, we have to understand historically that the New Deal excluded African Americans. The GI Bill wasn’t available to African American soldiers coming home; a lot of the New Deal programs were not available to the African American community. And it wasn’t, frankly, until at least the Lyndon Johnson administration that the promise of the New Deal in some ways was extended to communities of color. And even after the Johnson administration, you see this exclusion continue through practices like redlining and excluding the community from program benefits.

So anyone who has studied American history knows that race is a major factor in determining a person’s opportunity to achieve the American Dream. And because of that, we have to take steps toward restorative justice — which is not simply paying people for the harm that was done. That’s immeasurable; the country can never truly compensate the injustices done to Native Americans under conquest or African Americans under slavery or Jim Crow. It’s a harm beyond words, beyond monetary value.

But what I take restorative justice to mean is that we redeem these communities so that people are able to have the same equity in American wealth and the same stake in American citizenship. We won’t get to that starting point of equal opportunity without restorative justice, or without a focus on the racial wealth gap, or what that means in terms of targeted programs in communities of color. That is a necessity for creating a truly “equal opportunity” society.

I know you’ve been working on a policing bill and wondered if you have a position on policies like California AB 392, which would change the legal standard for police use of deadly force. Specifically, AB 392 would suggest that deadly force could only be justified if deemed absolutely “necessary” (versus subjectively “reasonable”), and if all other non-fatal options were attempted or logically eliminated to preserve the lives of the accused, law enforcement officers, and public bystanders.

We have to start by acknowledging that there is a huge problem in this country with unarmed Black men and women facing aggressive action by police officers that have led to their death or their incarceration in ways that are unjustified — without due process. One can respect law enforcement as I do, and still understand that we have a problem. Black, white, Latinx, and Asian Americans look at law enforcement differently because of their lived experiences. When you have 20-some rounds fired into his body, that’s going to color the perception of African American families toward law enforcement. How do we help the law enforcement community understand and tackle this disparity so we don’t have more cases like Stephon Clark?

There are several things we need to do. One is that, of course, we need greater diversity and sensitivity training and greater integration of community voices in the running of police departments. Number two is tracking the killings and understanding the data, and simply understanding what the data is. If you don’t measure something, you’ll never be able to understand it. Third, we’re looking with many groups to look at the standard of police use of force. We need to move toward asking “is it necessary to use force?” so that force becomes a last resort. I want to make sure that we’re taking into account all of the groups working on this — but that is the effort. We would like to have a standard that is much more clear, and that makes clear how police will be held accountable for keeping to that standard.

You, Senator Sanders, and a handful of congressional colleagues recently led the effort to pass the first resolution to invoke the War Powers Act to end an unauthorized ongoing civil war and humanitarian disaster in Yemen. How would you describe where we are in ending the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, and how can folks get involved in that effort? It’s the largest humanitarian crisis in the world; 14 million people face famine if we don’t act within the next 6 months. The cause is very simple. It’s violence and bombing in Yemen, perpetrated largely by the Saudis and the UAE. And it’s the Saudi blockade of Yemen — not allowing food and medicine to get in there. Now we were complicit, unfortunately, in this bombing. We were refueling the Saudi planes who were bombing mothers and their kids in Yemen.

I started working on this two years ago to stop this war, or to at least stop our involvement. I joined forces with Bernie Sanders. We kept introducing these resolutions sort of into the wilderness, and finally, we started to break through after [Washington Post reporter Jamal] Khoshoggi’s brutal murder. The [Trump] Administration, in direct response to the work we were doing in the House and Senate, agreed to cease our refueling of Saudi planes. So we stopped our involvement in that aspect of the war. But we still need to pass the War Powers Resolution, because that will place more pressure on the Saudis when the US formally disapproves of what they’re doing, to come to the peace table.

I was just with Martin Griffiths, who’s the special envoy trying to negotiate a peace, and he says the biggest thing the US can do is send an unambiguous, clear message to the Saudis of disapproval of this war. They can lift the blockade, and they need to. If they lift the blockade, food and medicine can get in there and we can prevent the world’s greatest famine in human history. The numbers will make the West Bengal famine — which was 10 million people look small. That’s the scale we’re talking about.

So the efforts for those who care about this need to be focused on getting those in Congress and in the Administration to speak out very clearly against the Saudi action, to register our disapproval, and to really pressure the Saudi coalition to lift the blockade. And then we need aid — we need about $4.5 billion of aid and we’ve only had about $2.5 pledged. So we need to do much more.


About the Author

William Armaline is the founding director of the Human Rights Program and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at San José State University. As an interdisciplinary scholar and public intellectual, Armaline’s interests, applied work, and scholarly publications address social problems as they relate to political economy, environmental sustainability, racism and anti-racist action, critical pedagogy and transformative education, inequality and youth, mass incarceration, and drug policy reform.