Austin, Progressive Incubator?

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Beto O'Rourke ignites thousands, helping Texas to flip.

It is known that DC, the swamp, is an American political hotbed. But to hear exciting and intelligent talk about politics I had to fly across America, to a distant conservative state, Texas, which is known more for guns than liberal discourse.

Austin, of course, isn’t mainstream Texas. And the Texas Tribune Festival is put on by the eponymous Texas Tribune, a thriving non-profit member-supported newsroom in the state capitol.

Both the future of journalism and the future of American politics were well represented. The festival gave the impression of a post-Trump American incubator.

To fly from Washington D.C. to Austin, Texas, you first need to drive 30 miles distance to Dulles International Airport. After the 45 minute ride, we were squeezed into a narrow, hard seat plane for three and a half hours. The alternative is to fly 1,318 miles, or 2,121 kilometers, to the distant Texas capital from much-closer Ronald Reagan National Airport, just three miles from the White House. But there are no non-stop flights from Reagan (near the White House)to Austin, which seems to underline the disconnect. Flights between the two can reach up to 17 hours, depending on where your stopover, because America is vast.

It’s not only America that is big; as a state, Texas is huge too.“Look how big and open the sky is,” the passenger next to me said when we landed in Austin stiff and dehydrated because American companies on domestic flights have practically abolished in-flight service altogether. But I was hopeful that I was in for some interesting politics in Austin since none other than John Brennan was on the flight too. It felt great to exit that narrow flying tube, in exchange for a weird taxi-van with a lot of space and only two seats. But this is Texas.

Inaugurating The Texas Tribune Festival, Former Secretary of State John Kerry called on the audience to patch up its ailing democracy, particularly in the 2018 midterm elections, which Kerry sees as leverage to defeat the forward march of a Republican-dominated federal government.

That day, when the entire country was in shock following the dramatic testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who’d made sex assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the 74-year-old Kerry focused on the near future: “No one should be talking about 2020. Everyone should be talking about 2018,” he said, referring to the November 8 midterm, when Democrats are hoping to win a majority in the House and then initiate the process for the impeachment of Donald Trump. The former Secretary of State distanced himself from his former boss, President Barack Obama since he does not rule out running for president against Trump in 2020.

At first, almost stood up and left. I did not want to listen to mainstream politics; I was coming from the swamp, where much of the similar can be heard every day. And as it looked from the beginning, that the Tribune Festival had attracted many politicians who were looking for a bit of limelight. At the opening reception, there was Michael Avenatti, the attorney for Stormy Daniels, who claims that in 2006 she had an affair with Trump and received hush money to keep it quiet. Her story, which went public earlier this year, has created severe problems for the president and ultimately led to the guilty plea of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, on charges of violating campaign finance laws. Avenatti, who also represents the second Kavanaugh accuser, has also claimed 2020 presidential ambitions. I saw Nancy Pelosi and briefly talk to Amy Klobuchar whom I like and respect. And it’s not only because we both are of Slovenian origin.

Among the 300 speakers at the Festival, there were many politicians, but almost none of them was from the governing party. Hopefully, not all of the Democrats swirling about the streets of Austin have presidential ambitions. It would be sad and hopeless to think that the old, unreformed Democrats could convince Americans to vote for them in two years, entrusting them with a country gliding towards the precipice they helped to create.

There were quite a few debates organized by the Texas Tribune, an independent and increasingly important news organization, that touched on the question of how to create a genuine political renaissance, in a country where DC politics is drama and theatre. The most inspiring, and also worrisome, was the panel debating whether social media is good for democracy, or not. According to Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, and author of a recent book, “Antisocial Media,” Facebook is a perfect platform for authoritarian regimes. “We are not the consumers we are a flock,” said Siva, underscoring that one-third of the globe’s population is in Facebook’s claws.

There are good sides but many more bad sides of Facebook, said Roger McNamee, a businessman, investor, venture capitalist, and musician. Just a few years ago, nobody could guess that Mcnamee would be devoting himself to stopping Facebook from destroying our democracy. Still a large shareholder in Facebook, he had every reason to keep to the bright side. Until he simply couldn’t. McNamee’s book, “Zucked: The Education of an Unlikely Activist,” will be published in February.

According to an early review of the book, McNamee woke up upon the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent stream of news showing the Facebook platform had contributed to that outcome:

To Roger’s shock, Facebook’s leaders still duck and dissemble, viewing the matter as a public relations problem. Now thoroughly alienated, Roger digs into the issue, and fortuitously meets up with some fellow travelers who share his concern, and help him sharpen its focus. Soon he and a dream team of Silicon Valley technologists are charging into the fray, to raise consciousness about the existential threat of Facebook, and the persuasion architecture of the attention economy more broadly — to our public health and to our political order.

McNamee was furious. As a venture capitalist, he was explaining the defense circle created by Facebook to prevent any other company from competing with it. They merely purchase companies to kill them, so that they can keep the monopoly in advertising. As writes: “Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, Roger McNamee happened to be in the right place to witness a crime, and it took him some time to make sense of what he was seeing and what we ought to do about it. The result of that effort is a thoughtful, hard-hitting, and urgently necessary account that crystallizes the issue definitively for the rest of us.”

On stage, McNamee explains why we, as the consumers, do not count for much. The only way to effect change is to behave like citizens, within the parameters provided. We can organize, we can vote, even if it may take years to change the legislation that is the only tool to regulate savagely unequal corporate dominion. In the meantime, McNamee urges, turn off Alexa, cut off Google, get computers out of the classrooms, and go face to face.

Nobody in the packed room seemed depressed. After the panel, for which recordings are unavailable, many people stayed on the floor to discuss their start-up projects, trying to connect and get organized. As I said previously, the Texas Tribune Festival, as well as the city of Austin, are incubators of American potential. There was a general awareness that the time has come to create change.

Things are getting quite radical in this land.

During another the panel “Mulling Mueller,” the Special Counsel investigating the seated president’s involvement with Russia, the moderator Virginia Heffernan, editor of Trumpcast, raised the question of whether the American president is a Russian agent.

Evan McMullin, former CIA Officer and co-founder of Stand Up Republic, answered without embarrassment: “I do believe, it is painfully obvious, that the President is under heavy Russian influence. I think that is clear. He defends Putin and Russia every time; he carries their message all the way and all the time. This is one of the few things he is consistent on,” he said. (You can watch here.)

As for the question of Trump being a Russian agent or not, McMullin said, “we have to understand him as the central piece in the Russian attack against our democracy.”

He explained with details:

“The way this works is that Russian will go to the country, take the advantage of the grievances, of the differences that nations like our have. Like the racism. They will exploit it and create the constituency that after a while becomes attractive to the world be leaders like Donald Trump who watch these constituencies developing. Ultimately these self absorbed opportunists evil leaders decides that they will capitalized those emerging destructive constituencies and seize them, developing the message further. Trump was integral and focal point of Russian attack against the country not just someone who benefited from it.

One would think that after this somber analysis, someone would get up to knock on the White House door and interrogate the President. Not one of more than a thousand people in the crowded Paramount Theatre seemed to disagree with what McMullin just said. Heads started to spin, however, when Adam Schiff, a U.S. Representative (D-California) said, “I think in the big picture, as Evan said, this was the most major Russian covert operation ever. But what they did to undermine our democracy is nothing compared to what this president is doing to undermine our democracy.” Schiff mentioned the president’s attack on the press and the dwindling independence of the Department of Justice, among other federal institutions. Someone on stage compared the Russia/Trump election to 9/11, saying it was worse.

You can hear these kinds of opinions in everyday conversations in every corner of the country (at least where I live). It is different, though, when senior officials are saying them on the record, in front of to an audience of thousands, and on camera to boot. These are things Trump’s employees and government officials do not dare to say in public, but they do consider privately, as reporters who work in the White House regularly reveal, and explained again in one of the panel discussions.

Ashley Parker of the Washington Post revealed that Sarah Sanders, the White House Press Secretary and a notorious liar on behalf of the president, becomes more human and reasonable when she meets journalists in private and off-camera, when her boss, the 45th President of the United States, cannot watch her. There is no doubt that America is living in fear and that many functions of its democracy have faltered in the wake of the present leadership. But at least it isn’t silent.

We have no idea if this underground fervor of anger–and the little sense of civic duty that remains in this country–can translate into a turnaround midterm vote one month from now.

The possibility that the old gerontocracy — right or left — will run this country for another two, or perhaps even six, years makes me worry. Thursday’s decision by the old white men of the Republican party, led by Mitch McConnell, to deny the mounting evidence against Kavanaugh while defending the weak FBI investigation, reminds me of 1989. That June, a similar gerontocracy appeared on international screens after the army massacred people fighting for democracy on Tiananmen Square. They represented the once-again-unified Communist party, Deng Xiaoping said. No bloodshed here, but the same stubbornness against progress, at the price of democracy’s death, also known as the dictator’s wealth.

But — thank you Texas Tribune — the Festival left me hopeful, closing as it did on a  positive note: a lengthy interview with Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, challenging Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. In the hall and later on on the lawn in front of the Art Center with the modern Austin skyline as the backdrop, Beto ignited thousands of young and old, women and men. If the elections would be only in Austin, Texas’ second Senate seat would no doubt flip on the Democrats side.

You have to feel that change is coming when you hear Beto O’Rourke. He’s born in El Paso, loves the  British punk band Clash and is a hell of a good speaker, capable of sparking energy surrounding fundamental unresolved issues in this country: immigration and racism that has been hushed by the current administration will have to be dealt and resolved soon. He’d be a good follow up act to Barack Obama.

We’ll see what happens in November. Texas has a very young population and leaving behind its reputation as a conservative swamp may have to wait a few more years.

But therein Texas, in a bar with cowboy hats and where guns are legal, there was a sign for Beto Beer. And on the street, my wife bought me a shirt I hadn’t even seen before in liberal New York or DC: “It’s Mueller Time!”

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