The following is the first in a series of interviews with politicians about the books and ideas that shaped their approach to policy and public life.
Congressman Ro Khanna (D) represents California’s 17th District. A member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Medicare for All Caucus, he serves on the Armed Services Committee; with Senator Bernie Sanders he cosponsored the Yemen War Powers Resolution to end U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war, which was vetoed by President Trump after passing both Houses of Congress with bipartisan support. In 2019 Khanna joined Senator Sanders’s presidential campaign as a national co-chair. War and democracy have been intertwined in Khanna’s activity from the very beginning. His first published piece of writing, written while he was a high school student, was a letter to the editor of his local Bucks County, Pennsylvania newspaper arguing against U.S. involvement in the first Gulf War. Later, after studying at the University of Chicago and Yale Law School and a career in intellectual property law in Silicon Valley, Khanna decided to run as a primary challenger against Democratic congressman Tom Lantos—in part because of the latter’s votes in favor of the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. (Khanna was successfully elected to Congress on his third run, in 2016.) Khanna’s interest in the moral dimension of foreign policy was kindled by his maternal grandfather, Amarnath Vidyalankar, an Indian member of parliament who spent four years in jail during Gandhi’s independence movement. But his thinking about these and other major themes was also significantly shaped by his time as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the 1990s. In April, I and Point editor Jon Baskin talked to Khanna over Zoom about his intellectual formation, the role of philosophical thinking in political life and his new book, Dignity in a Digital Age.
Paul Franz: You’ve spoken frequently about the importance of liberal education for your formation as a politician and as an intellectual. How did your liberal arts education change you? Are there any specific moments that stick in your mind as you look back?
Ro Khanna: I thought, coming into University of Chicago, I was incredibly smart. And I left University of Chicago realizing how much I didn’t know and what truly great thinkers were. I remember one of my early classes with [professor of political philosophy] Nathan Tarcov, where I had the audacity to be arguing about Plato, and I made some comment saying, “Well, Foucault said, it’s all about power.” And I think Nathan gently laughed and said, “Well, you may want to at least read some of the philosophy before critiquing it.” By the end of the class, I started to realize maybe I don’t have to argue with everything I read and try to prove that they were wrong, but instead try to learn what people have thought before me. So actually the biggest thing I got out of that education was an intellectual humility. And that matters today, I think, because when there’s such certitude, when people in the world and the country are so convinced that they have exactly the right perspective, it seems to me if there’s anything that philosophical training or reading can do it is to make us a little less sure that we are 100 percent correct in our views.
Jon Baskin: You went to the University of Chicago, and as you’ve mentioned, Bernie Sanders also went there. And yet the school tends to have a more conservative reputation. I’m curious if you could say something about how you reacted to the ideas you found in the Core curriculum, whether for or against them.
RK: I’m a big supporter of the Core, I thought it was so important. It’s important partly to understand our own country and political system, and the ideas that helped shape it. You can’t understand the extraordinary achievement that America is, if you don’t understand why liberalism emerged, and how there were wars and disagreement over thicker conceptions of the good and there was a sense that, well, maybe we shouldn’t argue about the deepest questions; we can have a country where we agree that there’s security and liberty and the right for people to pursue their life as they see it. It gives you a better understanding of the American project. And so I never understood this idea that this is biased towards the West. I also had interactions with people like Martha Nussbaum, and many other people who wrote and thought brilliantly about other traditions. But it seems to me not a bad thing to learn first about the tradition you’re living in, under which government you’re living. That doesn’t mean that you reflexively embrace everything about it. But you should learn about it. And so that was something I got out of Chicago.
PF: In 1997, when you were still an undergraduate, you delivered a paper at a conference alongside numerous luminaries on Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. What can you tell us about that occasion? What did Bloom’s book mean to you then? Has it had any continued influence on how you think about politics?
RK: I don’t remember candidly exactly what I said. But I do remember that I quoted this song that Churchill learned in his primary school about how somehow people think that there were giants of the past, and there’s this romanticization of heroism as something that’s unattainable, but then every generation can meet its moment and come up to the giants of the past. And I still do believe that about America, I believe our greatest achievement is going to be truly becoming a multiracial, multiethnic democracy, the first ever in the history of the world. And that our generation has the opportunity to help shape that and to make our mark on history.
The Closing of the American Mind: it’s been a long time since I’ve read it; obviously, I wouldn’t agree with every conclusion, but I was struck by how much it integrated philosophy into an understanding of the contemporary American experience. I guess I would just say that I’m a big believer in speech and in reasoned exchange and having a multiplicity of viewpoints in conversation, and I don’t think that we should be excluding viewpoints from a university, whether they’re conservative viewpoints, or whether they’re viewpoints challenging the core curriculum as what’s best to be taught. I think that ultimately having vigorous debate from multiple viewpoints is good.
PF: Why is it important, in your view, for a politician to have a philosophical framework?
RK: First, it provides an understanding of what a country stands for, and a basis for reflecting about the aspirations one seeks. If you don’t have any philosophical basis, that’s not the end of the world. I mean, you could have received wisdom, and there’s a lot of collective wisdom in the United States. And you could take that as given and in some cases not do terribly, because a lot of other people have thought about things. But I think having your own basis for understanding why the country stands for certain things, what you stand for, is helpful. And then having an understanding that makes you question whether you have everything perfectly correct, is also helpful. That would be my case for the philosophical disposition, for reasoning; it may actually help lower some of the temperature of the conversations we’re having in modern politics. Martha Nussbaum has a book, The Monarchy of Fear, where she basically makes the case that philosophical reasoning and temperament can help us understand other perspectives, and not just judge other perspectives. So that would be one argument for why we need philosophy.
JB: In your book you mention corresponding with Charles Taylor. Are there other philosophers that you feel have had a shaping influence on the way you think about politics?
RK: Well, I was certainly influenced by my time at Chicago and as I understood philosophy back then, after having read these great thinkers and seeing how you had this thick conception of the good that people wanted back in ancient thinking and why there was a move in the enlightenment to say, look, those may be too difficult goals for a state—and why those goals may have been lowered, but the process of lowering them made space for pluralism. In some sense that tension is still the tension of modern American society. I don’t believe America is just a nation of adherence to an idea. I think that’s too simplistic. Yes, we care about the Constitution and philosophical principles, but there’s a history, a culture to America, a sense of what America’s vision of the good is beyond adherence to these principles. And if that vision becomes too thick, that may be too exclusive for new perspectives and for pluralism. On the other hand, if that vision doesn’t exist, then that gives people concern about the changing nature of America and what it means to be American. So I guess there is a sense that the challenges today of what it means to be a multiracial, multiethnic America actually are rooted in some of the deepest philosophical debates about the challenge of unity in a country versus pluralism, the challenge of how thickly you can define the good for a state. I’m sure that some of that thinking informs how I look at the American project.
JB: You mentioned the common good. On the right, today, there’s a group of intellectuals who are trying to bring back the common good as a kind of robust concept in American political life. Do you feel that that’s happening on the left, too? Do progressives have a language for talking about the common good that satisfies those criteria in terms of not being too thick, but having some sense of what binds us together?
RK: I don’t think the common good has ever left American framing. When you talk about Medicare for All, that’s the common good. Why is it that we should care about the health of other Americans? There’s some sense in which we’re all in it together. Or when you talk about increased wages for working-class folks, that’s about the common good. I think the question that is in front of us is: What does the common good of America mean? Before my parents immigrated to the United States, 90 percent of immigration was European. And today, that’s 15 percent. And I think a lot of the challenge is not “Is there or should there be a common good?” but “What should that common good be?” And how can that common good be continually redefined and changed in response to the citizenry? But also, what points of that common good should be fixed, because they are either universal principles or rooted in our Constitution and are a critical part of our history? I believe our politics are so polarized today because that’s the question we’re struggling to figure out.
PF: In your new book, you call Rawls and Habermas the two modern-day political philosophers who have most influenced your thinking. I can’t help thinking there is something generationally specific about this. Many young leftists today seem to exhibit a fatigue with such thinkers, considering them too committed to ahistorical notions of the universal human subject that mask real relations of power and impede transformative social change. What would you say to young activists whose intellectual horizons are shaped by, say, Marx and Fanon, rather than the thinkers you name? What does it mean when the philosophical formation of the American left or of progressives is no longer liberal?
RK: I would say that they should at least study what people are reacting to. And I think of what we started with: my nineteen-year-old self, saying, Well, Foucault had it all figured out. You may want to at least study what people like Foucault are reacting to and understand why some of these questions have been debated, that people since the time of Plato have been saying, Well, is it all about power? Or can you have certain universal truths? These aren’t new debates. I guess I come down on the view that there is such a thing still as the possibility of having universal truths and universal aspirations. And then the question becomes, well, what can we see as universal? Rawls’s theory that it’s post-metaphysical—meaning that he’s talking about things that don’t require a thick understanding of the good, a thick understanding of human beings—still rests on a metaphysical conception. He has a conception that every human being should have certain rights and that there should be a certain sense of justice, and that there’s a certain commonality based on reason that we have as human beings. Now, it’s a much thinner conception, perhaps, than others would want. But it is a conception that says, everyone has some sense of what it means to be a human being and what it means to be dignified. So I don’t think he literally means that there is no metaphysical conception; he probably just means that it’s a thin metaphysical conception, and then human beings should have the freedom to be what they want.
Habermas may have a thicker conception of what emerges out of discourse, but there still is a conception of universality. I believe that we should have some conception of universal principles and universal human rights. And so I guess folks who reject that, I would just say don’t reject that without a lot of thought and a lot of inquiry into people who put forth the view of universal aspirations. And that the alternative may not be something that leads to the values they care about. It’s not like the rejection of universalism always leads to the empowerment of those who have been left out or marginalized. It could lead to brute force and power in ways that are very unhealthy.
PF: You’re recommending a certain philosophical openness; are there any thinkers or ideas that you find yourself substantively persuaded of and respect but can’t incorporate into your politics?
RK: I’m sure there are many. But I view them as critiques of what I stand for and what I believe. Without mentioning a specific thinker, one of the things that I think is so important, where I may have, not a disagreement with Rawls—you know, I hesitate to say disagreement with these thinkers. But my view is that people want to make a contribution, they want to be productive, they want to have the dignity of making things or producing things or producing value. And the left can’t just have a message of redistribution post-production; justice is not just about making sure that you have access to certain goods, it’s about making sure that you have the opportunity to contribute and add value. I think the right has been effective at taking this narrative of growth and production and opportunity, and we need to do that on the left and say, yes, we care about taxing the billionaires and making sure everyone has certain benefits; but we also want to make the possibility of your creating value.
PF: I’d like to shift to foreign policy. In a few recent interviews, I’ve heard you describe the ongoing Ukrainian resistance against Russian aggression as a “just war.” What shaped your thinking about the concept of just war? Are there specific thinkers who influenced you?
RK: I’m sure during my time at Chicago or even at law school afterwards, I read a fair amount about what a just war is, and what type of war is just matters. But, you know, one of the great speeches I read that inspired me was a Mandela speech, when he is sentenced to jail, and it ends with “I am prepared to die for my country.” People in the Indian independence movement were prepared to die ultimately for what they believed in, and in the United States, of course, people were willing to die and did die to fight Nazism, to stand up for our security and our independence in the Revolutionary War, to stand up against slavery in the Civil War. So these all strike me as examples of just battles, just wars.
JB: On the left and at places like the Quincy Institute, in recent years there’s been a real turn against intervention, some of it spurred especially by the second Iraq War, and including a criticism of drone warfare and sanctions and other kinds of less direct violence, where the boundaries of what constitutes war are fuzzy. I wonder if you could say something about that. But also if you think progressives have developed or need to develop adequate criteria for what constitutes an intervention that really is worth undertaking.
RK: John Quincy Adams is brilliant. He was very philosophically trained. He has a great point: he says, Look, it’s not that the view of restraint is one of relativism, it could be that what people are fighting for in different parts of the world is just, and America should cheer them on with our benedictions, our prayers, our support, in some ways as we’re doing in Ukraine, where we’re not just giving our prayers and benedictions, but also our material support and arms. But we should be wary of getting directly involved, partly because of being ineffective, not being able to actually bring about the desired result, but partly also because—obviously, in the case of Ukraine, it is pretty easy to say who’s in the right and the wrong—but in other parts in the Middle East, often there’s so many actors that Quincy Adams would say, well we’re not sure, the folks who may seem like the liberators may end up not fully being the liberators. And this is a very hard practical judgment to make. So I think the case for restraint isn’t on first principles. It’s not saying that no one is right or wrong, it’s saying that it’s hard for the United States often to be effective at making those judgments, and effective at carrying out what we want.
And I think that over the last twenty years, that certainly has proven true in a lot of cases. I mean, we had one Taliban government replaced with another Taliban government twenty years later in Afghanistan. Now, I was for the initial invasion and killing al-Qaeda. But it’s not clear to me that the twenty years ended up producing what anyone would have wanted. I guess I would argue that the United States has to be in the leadership around the world and we can’t disengage, and maybe there are places for intervention. If China went after Taiwan, that would, in my view, be a direct threat to American national security and economic prosperity. And we should use every option—including the military option, as it would be on the table—it took to prevent that. So I think we want to be thinking about national security as more than just a direct attack on our homeland. And then, in cases of great humanitarian crisis, where there’s some case of extraordinary evil, the challenge, I think, would be for the United States to rally the world, so that the intervention would be truly multilateral and borne by a lot of people. You can look at Bosnia as a case where that was done. I mean, it was quite a broad intervention, and it arguably did save lives. But I would be reluctant, unless it was really a huge humanitarian crisis and we could really rally a large part of the world.
PF: One traditional but also controversial element of some just-war theories holds that the justice of a war is in part dependent on its prospects for success. What are the criteria for success in our current involvement in Ukraine? How does your assessment of those prospects affect your judgment of the justice of our involvement?
RK: I’m not sure I would define a just war that way. I don’t think Mandela knew when he was saying “I’m prepared to die for this country” that he would succeed. Even though that’s not a traditional war, one can say it was armed resistance. Of course, he became nonviolent. I wouldn’t say that the prospect of success determines whether that was just or not. There are cases, I think, where you resist or you go to war on just principle. But in terms of the pragmatic end to this, I think it’s a ceasefire that ends in some compromise and in peace, and it’s for Zelenskiy to figure out for his people what that is. And history will assess whether Zelenskiy was prudent in that determination. How much can he resist? How much is he going to have to compromise? Is he going to have to cede anything to Putin? And what is that going to be? But that’s not for the United States to do. Our job is to aid him, but it is for Ukraine, and for a great leader there to not just resist, but to figure out, How do I bring this to a close?
PF: Let’s turn to your new book, Dignity in a Digital Age. You’ve written that “life online can quickly become an unexamined life.” Is there any way to make discourse in the digital age more like your college experience?
RK: I think we need more construction of digital institutions that encourage deliberation and exchange. You know, after the printing press, it took one hundred years for institutions of liberal democracy to emerge. The printing press was the cause of a lot of wars and misguided pamphleteering. So what can we do? Facebook or Twitter or other forums could at least have town halls which they facilitate, and where you can have reasonable time and place and manner restrictions under the First Amendment. You could create groups where you’re exposed to people who are different from you and have conversation; you could be exposed to your own friends’ networks and conflicting ideas there; thoughtful exchanges can be amplified, as opposed to just the sensational soundbite. There’s so much research being done on this in political science—I would just say, can you adopt some of those practices, either in these private platforms or in constructing digital platforms that allow for more exchange and more thought? I think these tech companies are working on that slowly. I mean, it’s got to be a lot more. But there’s been a wake-up call with some of the disinformation and misinformation and the negativity. I think the government also should play a role—and that doesn’t have to be just the federal government, it can be state, local government and the civic sector—in looking at what type of digital architecture could be constructed to facilitate these kinds of exchanges.
JB: You use the word dignity in the title of your book. And I was curious why you use that word. You’ve mentioned it several times already in this interview. What do you think the concept of dignity offers, especially to progressives?
RK: Dignity means that an individual can contribute and has pride and has the ability to live up to their potential. And so I invoke it because there’s a sense of a loss of agency in a digital age. This means, first, a loss of agency as a citizen—people feel you can’t just go to a town hall and speak up or go see your member of Congress and have an impact. You’re lost in the cyber world and you don’t have a sense of how to have an impact and your data has been taken from you. How do we restore the sense of empowerment so you can have an impact beyond just retweeting something or sharing something on Facebook? And then, of course, as an economic actor it involves more than just getting a check, it means you’re getting to work in a way that you find supports your family, or supports your aspiration, or something that you’re proud of. That’s why I invoked this concept of dignity and juxtaposed it with “in a digital age,” where people probably feel that that’s missing.
JB: Some people on the left, as I’m sure you’re aware, think that a society that’s still organized around capitalism is just inhospitable to this idea of dignity. Do you think we can live in a capitalist society that respects people’s desire to contribute in the ways you’ve described?
RK: The basis for a free-enterprise system, for a capitalist system, is that individuals should have the ability to trade and transact freely, that it shouldn’t be up to a collective will whether I can start a business or make a painting or a product that I want. Now, even the market has a discipline because you have to get paid. And that means that you have to find people who like your work; even a philosopher, I suppose, has to find someone who would hire them or pay them enough to feed them. So there’s not true freedom from all external constraints. But you don’t want to have people all the time needing a collective to approve of what they want to do.
Now, the question then becomes, if you believe that there is a role for free enterprise, then what is the role for the state? And I argue that the role for the state is to invest in people’s education and health care and that the state needs to make sure that they’re working to create good jobs. Of course, none of this is original; Amartya Sen and a lot of economists and other people have written about this. But I think that before people reject capitalism, they should understand not just the practical importance of free markets, but also the philosophical justification for it.
PF: At the close of your book, you call for a “democratic patriotism,” and turn to Frederick Douglass to articulate a concept of a “composite nation” of many races, nationalities and creeds. Why does the left need patriotism? How does Douglass’s thinking help you get there?
RK: Well, I argue that democratic patriotism sort of transcends left and right, that it is an appropriate aspiration for a society because a nation and a people are not just based on ideas, they have history, they have shared experience, they have lived experience, and that there’s nothing wrong in having an attachment to that. I mean, we have an attachment to our families, we have an attachment to our streets, where we grow up, we have an attachment to our hometowns, we have an attachment in sports to our cities, and it’s perfectly appropriate to have an attachment to our country, and to all of the stories in our country. Then the question is, well, who gets to tell what that country is. In most places around the world, that country’s definition is not subject to democratic accountability, it is just a generational accumulation. In America, the idea is that of an immigrant nation, that we the people get to define what it means to be American. And that’s Douglass’s great idea, that it’s a composite nation, that after everything is subject to the free air of America, the best of everything, the best of past traditions, will prevail, or something new will emerge. And I argue that that is the guide by which people should celebrate American patriotism; it’s a patriotism that must be open to being shaped by every person in that country, the citizens of that country, with equality of opportunity.
The reality, of course, is that my love of the country is not a theoretical one, it’s rooted in my own life story and my parents’ life story, they as immigrants, me as the son of immigrants. The country has given me extraordinary opportunities. And it is rooted in my sense that this is a decent country at its core, and an exceptional country at its core. But then I try to justify what is my own intuition in the book through Douglass, who in my view provides a philosophical defense of patriotism.
JB: Your experience of reading Douglass reminds me of something you said earlier about the liberal arts, education and humility, and how you saw that as a needful thing in our politics and culture right now. I’m curious, beyond trying to get more people to do the Core curriculum, where else you see the possibility of encouraging that kind of humility across the political spectrum in our culture, so that people can see that they can have convictions, but still take seriously other ideas in politics.
RK: I think it starts with a great civic education about America. I mean, I’m not sure every American needs to read Plato’s Republic, but I do think every American should read Lincoln’s First Inaugural and Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address and the Federalist Papers and George Washington’s Farewell Address and Frederick Douglass’s July 4th speech and Composite Nation speech and Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. I think if you just put together twenty essential readings of America, you would get that humility, and you would get the sense of plurality that the country embraces and a sense of us ultimately being a philosophic nation. You know, one of the things that struck me as incorrect, even though I have a very good relationship with Senator Rubio, is when he said, America needs more plumbers and less philosophers. I’m sure we need more plumbers, but we also need philosophers. Look at Madison, look at Jefferson, look at Hamilton. These were people studied in philosophy. In fact, I can’t think of a nation that’s more explicitly philosophically constructed than the United States. And so that means to me that if we just study our own history, our own great documents and speeches, it will develop in us, I think, a greater humility, a willingness to engage with ideas different from our own: a reflective patriotism. And then of course, practically, visiting places that are different from the ones we’re living in, in my case, visiting different districts, having conversations with people in those communities, I think is so helpful.