Conservatives neglect tech at CPAC at their own peril

Erik Telford President, Franklin Center
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This week, thousands of conservatives and over 100 right-of-center organizations will gather in Washington D.C. for CPAC, a venerable yearly event with a long history of building connections between activists and leading figures on the right. But most CPAC attendees will be largely unaware of another convention occurring at the same time, over 1,000 miles away–and the ideas discussed at this gathering may be even more important to the future of American conservatism.

South By Southwest (SXSW) is a yearly festival of interactive media, music, and film in Austin that draws over 100,000 attendees from every walk of life. While not a political event, SXSW is a crucible of the innovations that drive modern politics–technologies that President Obama has used to twice win the White House and open up a growing digital divide between the American left and right. To close this divide, conservatives need to pay more attention to events like SXSW and the digital entrepreneurs that bring the conference to life.

As conference veterans know, SXSW is three events in one–a film festival, a music festival, and one of the largest technology exhibitions on the American calendar. This latter event, SXSW Interactive, should be front and center on every political operative’s must-see list. For five days, over 30,000 bright technology and interactive media minds mingle with innovators at the top of their field, including executives from traditional players like Samsung and AT&T and social media titans Facebook and Twitter. The conference is also an incubator for apps, social media platforms, gaming systems, and other innovations–for example, the popular check-in app Foursquare debuted at SXSW five years ago.

As much fun as SXSW sounds, it’s also a critical political opportunity. Campaigns, think tanks, and issue advocacy organizations grow increasingly reliant on technology with each passing year–from John McCain’s then-novel idea to fundraise on the Internet in 2000 to Barack Obama’s “big data” voter microtargeting in 2012–and the people that will build the technology both parties will use in 2016 are the same people who will be filling the streets of Austin next week.

But when these bright young minds seek out political events at SXSW, they’ll only find one side courting their favor. Progressives dominate SXSW’s political panels, which cover such topics as “How Elizabeth Warren Built Her Grassroots Army,” “Obama & Beyond: Political Tech in Business,” and “Disrupting the Gun Lobby.” Speakers will include the Obama campaign’s Chief Scientist and the social media gurus behind Wendy Davis’ famous filibuster. And while a scattering of conservatives–including Rep. Darrell Issa–will appear at the conference and the Heritage Foundation will host a session on cybersecurity, there are no panels dedicated to cultivating conservative digital talent, and most national right-leaning groups have barely given SXSW a whiff of attention.

As a nonpartisan conference with no stated political agenda, SXSW cannot be blamed for this disparity. Rather, progressives will outnumber conservatives at the event because progressives have made outreach to the tech community a greater priority, which is apparent not only here but in the relative digital strengths of the Obama and Romney campaigns, and the number of Silicon Valley executives and whiz kids who now work for the White House, the DNC, Democratic tech startups, and other left-leaning groups.

The right’s failure to embrace SXSW is both a symptom and a cause of its digital deficiencies. Conservative leadership can say all the right things about reinvesting in technology and being on even footing with the other side by 2016, but until party and movement leaders are willing to be on the ground, mingling with, learning from, and recruiting technologists, the right will be perpetually locked in a game of catch-up. The center-right needs not only technology but the people who bring technology to life, and would find both in droves in Austin next week.

When Foursquare debuted at SXSW in 2009, it didn’t do so as the ordained “next big thing,” but as the brainchild of two young attendees, and one of hundreds of new apps made available for conferees to play with. Foursquare emerged from SXSW as the hottest new app because the people at the conference know what works and what appeals to the masses. You can bet that the Obama campaign veterans appearing in Austin will spend their week with their ears to the ground, soaking up this knowledge like sponges and using it to make their party better. That center-right leaders won’t be doing so tells you all know need to know about where the parties stand entering the next election cycle.

Erik Telford is Senior Vice President at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and the founder of RightOnline.