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“People Are Right to Be Upset”: Ro Khanna on “Economic Patriotism”

The California Democratic congressman talks about the new House leadership, the railroad strike—and his vision for reconnecting his party to the working class.

Illustration by The New Republic

Shortly after the election, I met Representative Ro Khanna of California and his press aide for a coffee on Capitol Hill. It was the very day, November 14, that he had the second of two op-eds in The Boston Globe laying out his economic vision for his party. It was interesting enough that I wanted to have this conversation about it.

Economic patriotism, to Khanna, means repatriating manufacturing to the United States on a major scale, reversing the lamentable trend of the last half-century that left the U.S. importing all the stuff it used to make. “We can build industry in every part of America,” he told me.

Khanna is part of the new breed of Democrats who say: Working- and middle-class economics comes first. Yes, much else is important, but it’s all connected to the party’s approach to economic questions, and convincing—no, showing—working- and middle-class Americans that the Democratic Party has changed and is on their side. “People are right to be upset at the governing classes,” he said. “We need to say, ‘Look, we have an actual agenda to fix this.’”

Of course, at the moment, establishing that the Democrats are the party of the working class is made rather complicated by President Biden’s posture on the possible railroad strike. We talked about that too, as well as the new leadership in the House, about which his enthusiasm is somewhat more potential than actual; he says Hakeem Jeffries has good instincts, and he believes the new generation of House leadership shows that members “want new thinking and new ideas.”

We talked a lot about what the Democrats can do in these next two years, when big legislative victories won’t be possible. Khanna has clearly been thinking about this and has interesting takes on it. They’re all very current—and in a way, they all go back to the 1930s and the New Deal. Roosevelt’s politics, he said, worked for decades. Today’s Democrats should take note.