Cory Booker kickoff underscores SXSW’s political ambitions

Cory Booker at SXSW on Friday
Cory Booker at SXSW on Friday Star-Telegram

Politics and social issues have long been part of the daily diet at the 10-day-long South by Southwest, the massive global confab about music, film and technology that turns downtown Austin into gridlock every March.

President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama appeared last year, and Republican Sen. Rand Paul courted the audience in 2015 just as he was launching his ill-fated presidential campaign. Julian Assange and Edward Snowden both appeared via video in 2014.

But politics seems more in the spotlight at this year’s event, with panels in the lineup that range from “The War at Home: Trump and the Mainstream Media” and “Unprecedented: The Election That Changed Everything” to “Head Fakes and Pivots: Trump Punks Silicon Valley.”

That theme also was evident in the choice of the first keynote speaker at the opening session of SXSW Interactive Friday morning: Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who delivered a rousing speech about confronting hate with love in front of a friendly crowd in a ballroom at the Austin Convention Center before sitting down for a Q&A with Google’s public policy and government relations senior counsel for civil and human rights, Malika Saada Saar.

During the appearance, Booker seemed to soften his stance on a presidential bid. At the Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21, he said, “I am not open to being president. I don’t even want to have the discussion right now.”

But when asked about any 2020 plans Friday, he didn’t flatly rule it out, saying his snarky answer is that right now he’s “running from the president,” before turning serious and saying, “I don’t know what the future holds, but at this time in my life, I want to be a fierce truth teller. Let’s not focus on 2020; let’s work on the injustices that exist now.”

That “now” includes encouraging those who share his values to engage in activism but also to reach out to those on the other side. He said he likes to go home and “get revved up” watching liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, but “I try to turn over to Fox to hear what my fellow Americans are thinking.”

‘A dangerous reality’

He lamented that technology makes it “more convenient to have confirmation bias. Not seeing each other creates a dangerous reality.”

In terms of policy issues, he specifically mentioned his opposition to Attorney General Jeff Sessions — who he said is “an outlier in the Senate and the Republican Party” — for his positions on police accountability, private prisons, and the criminal justice system in general.

He also came out against what he considers needless government regulations that hamper technological development. He said that many of the advances in drone technology are coming out of Europe. “This country is being left behind,” he said, a sentiment that went over well with the tech-happy crowd.

Booker gave one piece of advice that could apply to anyone, no matter his or her politics. “Look at your last [social media] post, your last 10 posts,” he urged. “Do they represent your highest self?”

Other politically themed speakers and panelists slated to appear at SXSW in the coming days are: Gen. Paul Selva, the 10th vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former Vice President Joe Biden, CNN’s Jake Tapper, FBI General Counsel James Baker (substituting for FBI Director James Comey, who was originally scheduled), and New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet. On Sunday, Dallas billionaire Mark Cuban will appear on a panel called “Is Government Disrupting Disruption?” that will focus on the often contentious relationship between government and such new-generation companies as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb.

Most of these fall under SXSW’s government track, which — along with sports, comedy, style/fashion and food — are sub-themes in a festival that long ago decided to embrace all culture as pop culture.

South by Southwest continues through March 19 at venues throughout Austin.