As a fifth-generation Rockefeller, I was raised on the practical standards of what used to be known as Rockefeller Republicanism and later, Reagan Republicanism. One of the guiding principles of this political philosophy was to reach across the aisle to make progress on issues that would best serve the American people. We were above all a problem-solving party that was fiscally disciplined, fully accountable, less inflexible on social issues, and willing to compromise in order to get things done. I’m sad to say that the commonsensical “party of the people,” of which I was once proud to be a member, no longer exists.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t exist again. Indeed, ironically enough, Donald Trump’s rapacious presidential campaign has done so much to destroy the soul of the Republican Party that he might be just the thing that allows us to reinvent it altogether, and along lines that will appeal to millennials and beyond.
True, for now, the rise of this very un-Republican, doomsday-is-here candidate has driven many of us who remained in the party—what I like to think of as the reasonable, forward-thinking Republicans—away. Some used to call us moderates; I prefer the term pragmatists. Now, we’ve either drank the Trump Kool-Aid, are hiding in embarrassment, are just sitting this one out or have reluctantly joined the other side. Our best hope of avoiding extinction is Trump’s resounding defeat, a definitive sign that the Republican Party must evolve and change.
But we should look on the positive side of this disaster. Trump is like an amateurish hacker who’s implanted a virus that has exposed the party’s outdated operating system—its too-narrow ideology. Now we can start from the ground up again, and to install this critical update, we need the startup attitude and energy of our digital generation. My hope is that some Rockefeller Republican code will be a part of this transformation, rebooting a legacy of pragmatism and public service.
At least that is what I’m working on now. Millennials now number 83.1 million, the largest demographic in the United States and equal in voting power to baby boomers. So, instead of directing my own philanthropy into the wasteland of campaign finance, I’m seeking to get young Americans working on solutions. That’s why I’ve supported a national college program that brings together diverse groups of socially minded Republicans, Democrats and independents, to converse, brainstorm and resolve problems based on issues, rather than affiliations.
The raw material is plainly there, among the younger generation, to restore the Republican Party to its rightful place as the Party of Reason. Millennials value integrity over intransigence, action over rhetoric and equality over elitism. A poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics noted that among potential voters age 18 to 29 what is valued most in a candidate is integrity, level-headedness and authenticity. According to a Pew report, a majority of young Republicans say immigrants strengthen America, corporate profits are too high, and stricter environmental laws are worth the cost. And among the one-third of millennials who affiliate with or lean Republican, just 31 percent have a mix of political values that are right-of-center, whereas 51 percent take a mix of liberal and conservative positions and 18 percent have consistently or mostly liberal views.
To move toward a more purposeful party platform, here are a few proposals that place sound policy before partisanship. While increasing border security (without building a nonsensical wall), create a system where undocumented immigrants can work towards legal status, not citizenship. Acknowledge the dangers of climate change and promote a 20-30 year transitional path from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources, which includes a revenue neutral carbon tax. Close the gun-show loophole and expand the market for smart handguns that can only be used by their owners. Form a bipartisan commission on tax reform that will require two ironclad criteria: revenue neutrality and the guarantee that recommendations would receive only an up-or-down vote preventing riders and amendments. In addition, to keep the swarms of lobbyists at bay, members of the House and Senate would have to wait a minimum of three years before becoming a consultant or lobbyist.
The idea isn’t to go back in time and turn Republicanism into a kind of Norman Rockwell painting. We’re talking about the evolution of a new paradigm where some of the valued principles of the party are encoded with a state-of-the-art brand of logical thinking that addresses reality and gets government working again.
I come to practical politics from a very personal perspective. At 19, I was in a horrific car crash and lost my right leg above the knee and the use of my right arm. This life crisis reframed everything, and I had to learn to look at challenges and obstacles through the simple prism of “either this is going to work or it isn’t.” Over time, my politics shifted, as well. Instead of caring about what was more conservative or more liberal, my focus turned to what’s doable and efficient.
When he lost the Republican presidential nomination to Barry Goldwater in 1964, my great-uncle, Nelson Rockefeller, became one of the first victims of the extremist element’s rise in the party. During the campaign, he accused Goldwater of being out of touch with reality, which sounds disturbingly relevant today. My uncle, Jay Rockefeller, the only Democrat in the family to serve in public office, retired last year after 30 years in the Senate. While reliably liberal, he was always more concerned with policy than politics. He mourned the loss of a system where reasonable negotiation and collaborative deal making were mutually agreed upon standards.
Hence my hope for the future of the party rests largely on the next generation of reasonable Republican leaders. Like many of those who identify as Republicans, I’m not a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only), but rather someone seeking to update essential but dying traditions from the inside of a party that is on the verge of falling apart. When I became eligible to vote in 1979, I was proud to be a Reagan Republican. Now, younger GOP supporters, who aren’t aligned with the party’s platform or want no part of a Trump candidacy, have no place to turn.
As part of our college project, I sent out a request for opinions and feedback on today’s party platform. One note that was particularly moving was from a 25-year-old gay man named John, who preferred to remain anonymous. “I have found it very difficult to support the Republican Party, with the attractive free-market ideals clouded in divisive rhetoric and obstructionist tactics,” he wrote. “As a gay person, I have also been repelled by the Party’s socially conservative agenda. If the Republican Party wants to survive and gain the support of my generation, it needs to become the party of Reason. My generation is largely nonreligious, supportive of our diverse citizens (including race, sexual orientation, etc.) and solution focused. I hope Republican leaders will consider this going forward. Now is the perfect time to reinvent the Party.”
It is indeed time—or will be after November 8—from the rubble left behind by the Trump candidacy. The way to do that will be to remind ourselves what the party once stood for and what it was built on. If Ronald Reagan were talking to disheartened millennials today, that’s exactly what he would say: We’re the party that freed the slaves, the party of inclusion, the party of immigration. The harsh truth is Reagan wouldn’t even qualify as a Republican today—and he would call out a demagogue like Donald Trump as a perilous threat to traditional conservative tenets. Moreover, Reagan brought a sense of optimism and hope to a nation that had been worn down and divided and made people proud to be Americans again. Trump’s apocalyptic prophecies are anathema to the confidence and positivity Reagan inspired in us.
There must be a sea change in the GOP definition of visionary leadership. We need to encourage millennials who identify with the party of Lincoln to start running for school boards, city councils and state legislatures, as well as develop online communities and databases. And to elect Republican representatives, senators and governors who reflect their values and stands on issues. This is where the next great Republican leaders and president will come from. I don’t approve of some of President Barack Obama’s policies, but I agree 100 percent when he says, “democracy isn’t a spectator sport.”
For me, it’s time to be investing in GOP 2.0.