In “The Political Education of Silicon Valley,” which appears in the August issue of WIRED, Steven Johnson looks at the changing political worldview of the tech sector, a shift from the libertarianism of the 1990s to a more progressive, pro-government outlook today. One of the exemplars of that transformation is Ro Khanna, who was elected in 2016 to represent California’s 17th congressional district in the heart of Silicon Valley. In early May, Johnson sat down with Rep. Khanna at his office in Washington to discuss the tech sector’s political evolution. The following is a condensed and edited transcript of that conversation.
Steven Johnson: One of the things that got me interested in this story is hearing so many people on the East Coast and in Europe talking dismissively about “libertarian” Silicon Valley. But it seems obvious to me that that stereotype no longer fits.
Ro Khanna: Nothing drives people in Silicon Valley more crazy or gets their blood boiling more than that stereotype. In fact, I had put out a tweet saying that libertarianism is totally dead in Silicon Valley and I got feedback from friends of mine, upset that the very rejection of the myth was an acknowledgment and perpetuation of that myth. It definitely strikes a nerve.
SJ: If you look the political values of Silicon Valley elites as reported in the survey by Greg Ferenstein and David Broockman and Neil Malhotra of Stanford, everybody looks super progressive, except on regulation and unions. Nobody wants their industry regulated, right? But the union question is interesting, because everybody is aware that inequality is a problem. Tech elites understand that middle-class, working-class wages have been stagnant for a really long time. Is there a reinvented model for the union in the 21st century? Is that an archaic concept?
RK: I’ve never understood that opposition [to unions]. Partly I think it’s a lack of exposure, right? A lot of the people who are in the Valley tend to be middle-class, upper-middle-class kids of engineers, teachers, doctors. They’re not the kids from multigazillionaires. But they tend to be people who go to very good public schools. And I don’t know how many of them come from union households. I don’t know how many of them have friends who were in unions. I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and across the street there was an electrician and there was a plumber and there were engineers. Secondly, I don’t think the understanding was there until more recently on income inequality. I think they were so tunnel-focused on [tech] being the underdog themselves.
SJ: Santa Clara County went decisively for Reagan in the ’80s. There was still an old California Republican tradition that was there. Between ’90 and probably 2010 or so, there was a real change in the in the overall political demographics, and I think part of it was the actual demographics. There was an influx of talent from the world that that led to more tolerant beliefs in general, a belief in a global, open society.
RK: That’s a good point. The challenge for America is: Can we become a multicultural, multiracial democracy? It would be historic. It would be America’s greatest contribution to human civilization. And on that issue, Silicon Valley is so firmly on the side of pluralism that for the progressives to not recognize that would be a mistake.
SJ: The left has been playing defense for a long time on the accusation that they’re just a bunch of wealth redistributors soaking the rich to give to the poor. Is the time right to embrace that stereotype? To say, yes, that is exactly what we’re saying?
RK: When Trump speaks, he speaks very plainly: “Here’s what I’m gonna do for you.” We’ve got to talk not just about our ideals, but also “Here’s what this is going to mean for you.” If it’s Trump’s tax law, the Republican tax credit, you get $1,000 back. If it was our plan, you’d get $10,000.
We believe that when ordinary people do well, the economy does well. So we’re going to give $9,000 back, $10,000 back to you. We’re going to make sure that you have health care. We’re going to make sure your kids get a decent education, whether it’s a two-year or four-year college. We’re going to make sure they get the right skills in that investment. And by the way, that’s going to create 5 percent GDP growth. We don’t make the economic growth argument. We don’t make the economic aspirational argument. We don’t say “This is what’s going to beat China.” We make it all about “This is fairness.” No, we’ve got to make this about greatness.