An unconventional summit on the future of the Right.
July 17, 2015, National Journal
On a Friday in late June in the Texas Hill Country, about an hour outside Austin, some 30 shoeless, mostly libertarian, mostly moderate, mostly Republican guests gathered at the 720-acre, Eastern-inspired ranch of Whole Foods cofounder and co-CEO John Mackey, for a conference on the future of the GOP. It was 9:30 a.m., and another of their hosts, Rich Tafel, founder of the gay conservative group Log Cabin Republicans, had just given the introduction to the first full day of the event, which would run until Sunday midday. During a break, attendees checked their phones and encountered some version of this headline: “5-4 Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage a Right Nationwide.” “Here we were in this group, trying to imagine the future Right,” businessman Ted Buerger tells me later, “and a doorway opened in the middle of those meetings and said, ‘What you are trying to create is what is going to be created.’ “
The conference, officially called the Conclave on the Future of the Right, was sponsored by the Institute for Cultural Evolution, which, since 2013, has been focused on “depolarizing” American politics. Mackey and Tafel, both senior fellows there, issued invitations to Republican and Republican-leaning independent “thought leaders”—including former Republican National Committee head Michael Steele, Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida , and book publisher and Charles Koch scion Elizabeth Koch—who they believed would be receptive to their vision of a GOP that focuses less on divisive social issues. After decades of subordination to a Republican “base” composed of social conservatives, it seems, libertarians and others who have felt alienated from the party see an opportunity to seize the reins. The aim of this meeting was to engage some of them in a conversation about what their dream party might look like.
Rather than an attempt to talk strategy or tactics (“This is not about Republicans learning to speak Spanish,” Tafel joked), the conference was meant to be a summit of ideas, a first step toward achieving a consensus of the like-minded. The weekend was broken down into 11 sessions, each with a broad theme such as “Social/Value Issues,” or “The Role of the Media in the Future of the Right.” (For those interested, the agenda also included hiking and a dip in a swimming hole on the grounds.) Brief “conversation starters” led to facilitated discussions of 30 minutes to two hours, in a setting that itself was a stretch for some of those present. “It was rustic—more Wild West or rugged West,” but with “pictures of yogis and Eastern mystics,” says Nick Gillespie, editor of libertarian touchstone Reason.com. The group dined on vegan dishes that included a “chocolate pudding” made of avocado and dates, which, for those who didn’t normally adhere to the diet “kind of encapsulated part of what we were trying to do, which was to try and do things, or see things, differently,” Gillespie says.
To be sure, even among a group preselected for its open-mindedness and shared values, tensions arose. At the start of one session, David Blankenhorn, the founder and president of the Institute for American Values, made the case for marriage and the two-parent family structure—whether the couple is straight, gay, or otherwise. Some of the more emphatic libertarians erupted at the mere introduction of the topic. (At one point after the gay-marriage decision came down, some participants began to debate why marriage laws were needed at all, but that conversation was quickly quashed.) “There are people who are very much in favor of lifestyle experimentation” and who wouldn’t want a party that simply “upheld traditional values,” says Michael Strong, a libertarian and cofounder of the nonprofit Radical Social Entrepreneurs.
The tension between order and liberty—and the question of how to maintain the uneasy alliance between social conservatives and libertarians—is hardly new. But the tenor of the conversations suggested that the attendees saw a future in which they and their values formed the GOP’s base, and social issues and their champions were no longer center stage. Their rethought, renewed party would be inclusive and proactive, and would stand for personal freedom, smaller government, and entrepreneurial capitalism.
That wouldn’t mean abandoning social conservatives, strategist Patrick Ruffini and others are quick to note. “I came at this through the political arena,” Ruffini says. “I don’t believe that marginalizing social conservatives within the Republican Party is necessarily a good strategy for moving forward. There still does need to be a coalition between all sides, and there needs to be mutual understanding and respect.” The question, says Tafel, is “how can we bring people forward with their values? Because a lot of those values are quite beautiful. Their faith, their family. They don’t need to abandon them,” he says. But “that fear-based stuff that has often been stuck with the traditional culture”—that has to go. Or, as Abner Mason, the CEO of ConsejoSano, an online health care company for Spanish speakers, put it, “We’ve got to leave the hate behind.”
So how to form an alliance with those they hope to supplant? One suggested outreach strategy was to step forward to defend social conservatives against the kind of cultural backlash many attendees predicted was nigh. “Now that social liberals have won on gay marriage, there’s the possibility that they’ll want to really force religious communities to adhere to a whole range of socially liberal positions,” for instance by attempting to revoke tax-exempt status for churches, says Strong. However, it is hard to know how far such a gesture would go with conservatives, Blankenhorn notes wryly, because there were none at the conference. “It’s not good to engage with someone in absentia,” he says. “Especially if you’re going to try and execute them.”
On Sunday, everyone had a chance to offer one or two words summing up his or her experience; common choices, according to the 12 participants I interviewed, were “refreshed,” “renewed,” and “optimistic.” Tafel says he will write a summary of the conversations, which he’ll send to participants to edit. If enough people are comfortable with the idea, he’ll publish it as a signed manifesto. The reception that document gets could dictate what happens next. But he’s confident that they’re on the right track, and that something will happen. Just like the idea of gay marriage 20 years ago, the concept of the future Right “sounds so far-fetched,” Tafel says. “But I have no doubt that what we’re doing is going to actually transform it. You have to have ideas first. And you have to stand alone first for a while.”