Future Right Summit

An unconventional summit on the future of the Right.

Rebecca Nelson
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Rebecca Nelson
July 17, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

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.

“We’ve got to leave the hate be­hind,” one at­tendee 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.”

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