Congressman Ro Khanna, who represents the most economically muscular district in the nation’s history in Silicon Valley, wants to see the wealth generated in his corner of California — and its $10 trillion in market capitalization — river out to other parts of the nation, including the rural and de-industrialized Midwest.
Yes, this means tech careers. But that’s not just computer software development jobs of the variety Khanna worked to bring to rural Jefferson in central Iowa’s Greene County.
Khanna played a central role in the CHIPS and Science Act, which will pump $53 billion in funding for US manufacturing of semiconductor chips.
“The whole Democratic Party platform should be we’re going to make stuff in America,” Khanna said in a meeting with a room of union workers in Burlington on Saturday afternoon.
Khanna calls his urgent effort to modernize production and spread tech wealth The New American Patriotism.
“We can’t have 100 things be our priority,” Khanna said.
And he earned head nods from a range of Iowans Saturday in making the case to the business leadership and entrepreneurial class in Dubuque and then with United Auto Workers and other union members who talked with the California Democrat for more than an hour at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall in Burlington.
“A lot of people are ready to hear that message and I think it will resonate,” said Tom Courtney, a former Democratic state senator who is retired from Case New Holland. “I think we are at the point in this country where maybe some folks are going to listen to this.”
Courtney said it makes sense for President Biden and the Democratic Party to go all in on the economy, infrastructure, job creation, and bringing foreign production back to the United States.
“That’s the only approach we can do right now,” Courtney said.
Khanna said the party has to be aggressive and connected with a digestible message on the economy in large part because of what he sees looming on the political horizon.
“I fully expect Donald Trump to be the nominee of the Republican Party,” Khanna told the Burlington workers.
And “he could win again,” Khanna said.
Most people, Khanna observed, don’t talk in slogan-speak, describe what they are doing as, say, “Build Back Better,” the name of a massive economic stimulus package that formed the basis for a landmark climate and climate and economic plan.
“We haven’t prioritized the stuff that built this country, and it is infuriating,” Khanna said. “I think there is an anger. My view is we should have a new economic patriotism and start talking about re-industrializing America with good union jobs, and I actually think that could start bringing this country together, parts of it. We have to make stuff in America again.”
Tracy Chew, a committee member with UAW 807 in Burlington, agreed.
“Some Republican has had a union member who has lost their job,” she said.
What perplexes Khanna, he said in the meeting with Dubuque leaders, is the United States knew what to do during World War II—defeat enemy countries not just with a strong-and-brave military but production at home.
“Everything that China is doing or Europe is doing now, they’re just copying things that we did to make America an economic superpower—while we’ve stopped doing some of those things,” Khanna said. “Let’s look at the basics, what built America. Let’s do it in a more inclusive way.”
Much of that is geographic, Khanna said. He’s urging tech companies to invest in more remote regions of the nation with branches and jobs and startups and partnerships with land-grant universities and community colleges.
What’s more, he said it is not healthy for so much of the brainpower and venture capital to flow to entertainment and media-oriented smartphone apps.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily great that we have venture capitalists in my district who are all smart people putting all their money into the next app for social media,” Khanna said. “Do we really need the fifth version of Instagram? Maybe we do. Or wouldn’t we rather make masks and antibiotics.”
Over several days in the last week, Khanna met with a range of people, from labor to small business to entrepreneurs to community and political leaders. Robin Johnson, a professor of politics and government at Monmouth College in Illinois, organized Khanna’s visits. Besides the Iowa stops, Khanna visited Anderson, New Castle, and Richmond in Indiana, and Janesville, Wisconsin. Khanna, on another tour in early June, visited parts of southern Virginia to discuss rural-to-tech development.
“The message of economic patriotism is spot on,” Johnson said. “I joked earlier, I don’t know what’s more to be surprised about, either the fact that Ro Khanna, this congressman from Silicon Valley, is here, or that I am with him, because I view very skeptically a lot of Democrats from the coasts who I don’t think really understand the issues out here.
I just don’t think they get the challenges we face out here, and it’s part of the reason they continue to lose elections. This guy gets it.”
The multi-state tour, which Khanna is using as a fact-finding mission to learn how to translate on-the-ground economic needs into policy, legislation that works, does prompt speculation about his future as Iowa is prominent in the schedule in spite of doubts about the state’s future in the presidential nominating process.
“After you listen to him for an hour or for however long we were here, you have to wonder why more people like that are not in bigger positions of leadership in this country,” said Chris Steinbach, the former editor of the Muscatine Journal who now works at Loras College in Dubuque. “I mean he should be running for president. He’s clearly very smart and he seems like the kind of person who wants to work with everyone.”
By Douglas Burns
Special To Iowa Starting Line
Iowa Starting Line is part of an independent news network and focuses on how state and national decisions impact Iowans’ daily lives. We rely on your financial support to keep our stories free for all to read. You can contribute to us here. Also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.