Dear Democrats: you need to connect more with Steubenville, Ohio than SXSW.
SXSW, the annual conference and festival, kicked off last week, bringing together a dizzying array of hip corps d'elite. Located in Austin, Texas, you can dive into any number of interesting and thought-provoking sessions on music, technology, film, and music.
And plenty of politics. NJ Senator Corey Booker kicked off the conference, and you could have heard from Joe Biden, Cecil Richards, Van Jones, and Wendy Davis. After looking at the list of speakers, it was hard to spot many well-known personalities from the right. Despite this reality, Booker observed that "It's becoming even more convenient to have confirmation bias . . . Not seeing each other creates a very dangerous reality."
In addition to well-known politicos, there are any number of thoughtful sessions on the intersection of technology, politics, and innovation.
If you chose the Intelligent Future track of the conference, you might have come across speaker Parag Khana’s talk on "How to Fix America and Stop Screwing up the World." The description of this session is fascinating:
“American society will not automatically renew itself into a new progressive era. We have to willfully bootstrap and build it. Drawing on his recent books Connectography and Technocracy in America, Parag Khanna presents a new map of a connected and productive the United States and a new org chart for Washington. He makes radical calls for restructuring government in ways that benefit society and ensure smarter decision-making in foreign policy as well.”
I wonder how such a session, a call to “willfully bootstrap” the nation into a progressive future, might appeal to the patrons and workers at Froehlich’s, a local restaurant in Steubenville, Ohio.
Before perusing the schedule of SXSW, I read Love and Hate in Ohio by journalist Salena Zito. She did something many of the thought leaders at SXSW have probably not done: traveled extensively through those areas of the country that voted for Donald Trump. Her latest dispatch was from Steubenville. Last year, Zito picked up on something that many of us missed or ignored in the lead-up to last November’s election, the movement toward Trump in areas that had previously supported Barack Obama.
Electoral results in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin proved her prescient.
If Democrats prefer SXSW to Steubenville, then they’ve learned little since November. They should be content to settle into their minority status, raging against a President and his policies with little power to stop him.
Democrats don’t need to ignore events like SXSW to appreciate that good ideas about the future of the country don’t only come from those who run a “boutique geostrategic advisory firm.” They come from people who labor in trades and gather at places like Froehlich’s.
There’s a historical model for Democrats. Fifty years ago this month, Senator Robert F. Kennedy listened to congressional testimony about hunger in America. A month later he was in Jackson, Mississippi learning and listening. Larry Tye recounts the story in his latest book, Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Lion. Tye writes:
"'I want to see it,' Bobby said. The following day, while other senators on the Poverty Subcommittee flew home to the comforts of Washington, he and Chairman Joe Clark ventured into the region that once was the dominion of King Cotton."
What Kennedy saw spurred him to action. Tye continues, "That trip to the Delta is often cited as Bobby's epiphany regarding the depth of poverty in America, and proof of his ability to focus a laserlike spotlight on a hidden issue like starvation. It was both."
RFK could have engaged anyone on the issue of poverty. He chose to first listen to those experiencing it where they lived. The impact was transformative on RFK the man, on our nation's policies, and on his political trajectory.
Democrats continue to claim RFK as their hero, but few seem willing to adopt his style, manifest his drive, or listen and learn as he did.
It's a 20-hour drive from SXSW to Steubenville. The people there seem willing to talk.
Or, Democrats can continue to stoke their rage at next year’s interactive conference.