Ro Khanna and Barbara Lee could defy “the madness of militarism” as co-chairs of the Democratic Convention’s biggest delegation

Such destructive patterns can’t be effectively challenged while deferring to hidebound party leaders.


One of the few encouraging surprises in the lead-up to the 2020 Democratic National Convention is that co-chairs of California’s huge delegation will include Representatives Ro Khanna and Barbara Lee. Progressive activism made it possible — winning caucus races to elect strong Bernie Sanders delegates in early June and then organizing a grassroots campaign for Khanna to become chair of the state’s entire delegation.

Now, for Khanna and Lee — two of the most eloquent and effective members of Congress on matters of war and peace — the upcoming convention offers an opportunity to directly challenge the Democratic Party’s default embrace of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the madness of militarism.”

Mainline media outlets have recognized the symbolism, if not the potential, of what just occurred. Reporting has explained that progressive clout prevented Gov. Gavin Newsom from becoming the chair of the delegation, with the result that co-chair positions went to Khanna, Lee, and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.

“For the past two weeks,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “Sanders supporters have argued that his March 3 primary win in California meant a progressive like Khanna — an early endorser of the Vermont senator and a national co-chair of his presidential campaign — should be the face of the state’s delegation.”

The newspaper added: “The agreement is a definite win for California progressives, who got Khanna and Lee. While Lee backed California Sen. Kamala Harris in the primary, she’s an icon on the left for her history as an antiwar activist and her support for most of Sanders’ platform. . . . Progressives managed to block Newsom, who endorsed Biden in May, from a leading role. While Democratic governors typically lead their state’s delegation to their party’s convention, Newsom is persona non grata for California progressives.”

On Monday, Politico summed up: “Bernie Sanders may not be the Democratic nominee, but his followers are flexing their muscle in California.”

Politico pointed out that “the grassroots decision to sidestep Newsom was a clear departure from tradition — and a signal that progressives who backed Sanders don’t intend to be sidelined.” Along the way, “the vote underscored Khanna’s rise as a progressive wing leader to watch — and cements his role as the captain of the Bernie movement in California. . . . He has galvanized progressive support with his active legislative record to curb the president’s war powers and end U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, among other issues.”

Now, Khanna and Lee have a tremendous — indeed, historic — opportunity. Their full-throated voices for peace and justice should be widely heard in the context of the upcoming national convention.

This is a heavy burden of expectation to place on two members of Congress who are not in top “leadership” positions. Meanwhile, the burden should also be swiftly taken up by activists throughout the country.

Much is possible in a short time. As one of more than a hundred Sanders delegates elected in California a few weeks ago, I was inspired to see what we could achieve by working together to replace traditional power brokerage with genuine progressive leadership.

Warped budget priorities that have bloated the Pentagon’s spending are thefts from desperately needed funds for health care and a huge array of social programs — just as militarized police forces and bloated law-enforcement costs are continuing to drain the funds of local governments. In the midst of the pandemic, the need is vast and urgent for a massive redirection of funding, away from militarism and toward long-term measures to save lives.

Humanistic values insist that corporate Democrats must accommodate to progressive agendas, not the other way around. This certainly means disentangling the party from the military-industrial complex and multibillion-dollar health care profiteers.

While Dr. King condemned militarism’s madness, he also denounced the cruelty of inequities in funding that undermine health. “Of all the forms of inequality,” he said, “injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.”

Moral positions on these profound issues are in sync with public opinion. Over the last decade, one poll after another after another after another has reflected substantial support for reductions in military spending. Exit polls during this year’s primary elections consistently showed overwhelming support for Medicare for All.

Understood broadly and deeply, the madness of militarism is not only the normalized frenzy of preparing for war and waging it. The madness extends to ongoing financial, social and psychological investments in routine institutionalized violence — from militarizing police to glorifying suppression of civil unrest to devoting humongous resources to further military endeavors at the expense of vital social programs — methodically taking lives instead of saving them.

Such destructive patterns can’t be effectively challenged while deferring to hidebound party leaders. As co-chairs of the Democratic National Convention’s largest delegation, Ro Khanna and Barbara Lee will only have a chance to change history for the better if they’re willing to clearly and forcefully speak essential truths that powerful Democrats don’t want the public to hear.


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