Is Ro Khanna the Next Big Thing in valley politics? The author of Entrepreneurial Nation: Why Manufacturing is Still Key to America’s Future, Khanna believes Silicon Valley’s representatives need to be active on critical like reclaiming manufacturing. He uses phrases like “disruptive innovation” that don’t usually fall out of a political candidate’s mouth.
From 2009 to 2011, Khanna served as a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce, focusing on the president’s “Innovation Agenda.”
After his two-year stint at Commerce, Khanna returned to Silicon Valley, where he’s lived since 2001, and raised $1.2 million for a run a run against Rep. Fortney “Pete” Stark. He decided not to challenge the 80-year-old congressman, however. Dublin city councilman Eric Swalwell, Jr., 31, subsequently defeated Stark and now represents the East Bay in Congress.
The 36-year-old Yale-educated Wilson Sonsini lawyer now sits on one of the Bay Area’s largest political war chests. Khanna won’t say definitively whether he’ll run for Mike Honda’s congressional seat — only that he’s “considering where I can best serve and make an impact.” He doesn’t discourage speculation either and keeps a busy schedule meeting with people who could help him with a run. The 17th Congressional District encompasses Sunnyvale, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Fremont, Milpitas, North San Jose and San Jose’s Berryessa District.
Khanna admits his interest in Honda’s seat is “not a secret,” and that his decision won’t come down to risk calculation or polling. He says he’s not afraid of losing. “A lot of change agents lost a lot of elections, but they stood on principle.”
Khanna, a Democrat, thinks that the U.S. government can create a prosperity dividend for the Bay Area with policies that allow stateside manufacturers to compete with overseas competition.
“Ayn Rand’s objectivist worldview may be nice in theory,“ he writes in Entrepreneurial Nation, “but … China’s government isn’t sitting on the sidelines. Neither is India’s, nor Brazil’s, nor Japan’s, nor Germany’s, nor South Korea’s. In some cases, foreign governments are providing their manufacturers with rent, land, worker training funds, capital infusions and on-site consultants.”
“I think China … is too deeply involved in subsidizing losing industries,” Khanna says. “On the flipside, I don’t think the answer is a complete laissez-faire government indifference to technology.”
Khanna puts forth a number of directions he thinks can help the country maintain economic vitality. That includes improving transportation infrastructure, investing in vocational education, fighting product dumping and exchange rate manipulation by foreign nations, cracking down on piracy and leveling the playing field for access to raw materials.
Khanna believes a country must make things, not just design, code, market and provide services. His positive message emphasizes maxims like “dream big again.” He thinks that a technology-friendly government can use modern tools to improve itself and function at a higher level. Washington needs legislators who “understand the role that tech can play in transforming government, not just transforming the private sector,” Khanna says. “Technology can make government better.”
“We need people who are going to go to Washington that are independent—people who are accountable only to their constituents, not to any interest groups. People who are going to put country ahead of party, who are going to be willing to think outside the box and propose ideas that have not been tried before,” he says.
“I think a congressperson should respond to constituents’ emails themselves, within reason. I think they should be very, very visible and accessible. This is a generational change. It’s no longer sufficient to show up to a few banquets and events.”
“The Internet makes it possible for people to have their voices heard and bypass traditional structures. The more that happens, a real democratic competition of ideas will emerge and be ultimately healthier.”
“Ultimately, the power of ideas is all that matters. It’s the biggest currency in politics. Ideas shape the world and are what excites me about politics.”
During an interview at a noisy pho restaurant in a Milpitas strip mall, Khanna shared his thoughts on a range of topics. Some excerpts:
Tesla: I’m excited about Tesla, and it was great that some advanced manufacturing is happening after NUMMI was closed. I’m a cheerleader for the company.”
Small-scale manufacturing: “I think there’s a resurgence in respect for how difficult it is to make things, how difficult it is to engage in manufacturing. People can start their own manufacturing shops almost anywhere in the country, and I think people are taking pride in making things. I’m very optimistic in the “maker” movement and the opportunity for us to increase the amount of customized and niche products.”
“3-D printing is extraordinarily exciting and it’s one of the things that gives me hope that manufacturing may come back to the U.S. The argument in my book is that customizing products is what gives us an advantage. Everyone wants their own unique item.”
China: “Wages are already rising there. My hope is we’ll eventually see increased human rights and democratization and, as the country develops, the hope is that labor and environmental standards will improve as well. Some manufacturing is coming back here from China.”
Washington, D.C.: “There’s intense polarization. There’s a sense that we’re not putting the country first. I think that there’s no doubt that there’s dysfunction in Washington. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of good people with honorable intent there, but the system in many ways is broken.”
Hayley Benham-Archdeacon assisted with this article.