Politics and Brisket: Moving the Political Dialogue at SXSW


As the developers and technologists -- and techie reporters -- head out of Austin as SXSW Interactive comes to an end, it’s important in the afterglow to focus on what drove conversation during the event itself. This year, a lot of focus has fallen on the lack of a major “hype” event -- no new Twitter, or even Highlight emerged as a social media victor -- but instead of riding a wave of hype, those of us in attendance got to experience people actually making, doing, and talking about interesting things. 

In the same vein, the conversation around politics was also markedly more advanced. Last year you couldn’t go more than a block down 6th Street without someone wanting to talk about SOPA and PIPA. This year the intersecting communities of technology and policy, and our friends, new and old, in government, were at SXSW talking about a broader range of issues -- including immigration reform and broadband access.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), now a SXSW veteran, started many of those conversations during his opening panel on Friday at the Austin Convention Center. With the assistance of Techcrunch’s Greg Ferenstein, Moran centered much of his energy around recruiting founders and entrepreneurs to support Startup Act 3.0, but he also talked patents, privacy, data, broadband policy and the general economic impact of tech startups.

And he reinforced his message by asking questions of his own. He wanted to learn more from the startups in attendance and he implored them to reach out to his colleagues in Congress to help carry their message of “what tech needs” into new offices.

It was a message he carried to a private meeting which we and our friends at Austin Technology Council convened on Saturday morning. This meeting featured a more tactical discussion of ways for founders, in Austin and around the country, to get more involved in issues that matter to them. And Senator Moran didn’t stop there. Later, on a panel with Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) convened by Austin tech impresario Erika Sumner, the two Senators sounded a bipartisan note in support of Startup Act 3.0, and continued to build support for the measure as we grow closer to a national immigration debate.

Sen. Warner stuck around to debate more internet issues with Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX), Jeremy Robbins, who chairs Partnership for a New American Economy, and me. We covered a number of issues, from breaking down immigration proposals like Startup Visa, to tax credits, to opening up Congress and making federal data more accessible to constituents.

Elsewhere, despite being “snowquestered” in Colorado, Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) joined a panel with Politihacks’ Craig Montuori and Gina Cooper, our friend Alexis Ohanian called his Congresswoman, Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), from the podium to implore others in the audience to connect, and former Vice President Al Gore talked about the importance of climate change in the political debate. And these are just a few of the many public meetings and panels and speakers on political issues, not to mention the chance encounters, private strategy sessions and coordination that SXSW promotes so well.

And through it all, one fact rang true: whether we were talking immigration or patent or broadband expansion, or any other issue, the political consciousness of the entrepreneurial community has been raised significantly in the last year. Many of these discussions were built from those that occurred at CES earlier this year. As the 113th Congress gets rolling, and our issues come to the fore, it will be imperative that startups and entrepreneurs continue to raise their game as part of that debate. This year at SXSW, the hype may not have been high, but I’m hopeful that what we’ll get out of our time together is a deep and lasting impact in areas of policy that can help our businesses grow and thrive.

Photo courtesy of Alex de Carvalho.