Confessions of a Fallen Away Republican

The real question is this: If the political party you believe in no longer stands for what you believe in, have you left the party or has it left you?

In 1959, I was a junior at Loyola High School in Los Angeles, and an active member of the school’s “varsity” debate team. My friend and partner was a fellow by the name of Bob Shrum. (The same Bob Shrum who has gone on to be a leading strategist for Democrats.)

To prepare for upcoming debate tournaments, it was customary for Bob and I to spend weekends at one another’s home, doing research and planning strategy. We both came from hard-working, middle-class families, and there was nothing unusual about the Shrum family home, except for one thing: In a very prominent part of the home there was something that could only be described as a shrine. It was a shrine to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as if he were some type of religious icon.

Already a died-in-the-wool Republican, this Shrum family shrine to FDR struck me as something just short of sacrilegiously bizarre. It did not resonate with me at the time, but when I asked Bob’s parents – who had come of age in the Great Depression – why they would have a shrine to President Roosevelt in their home, there response was, “He cared about people when people needed care.”

As a dedicated 18 year old Republican, this sentiment seemed a little silly to me at the time. After all, as a 9-year-old,  I had been more interested in following the 1952 presidential campaign between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson than in watching Buffalo Bob Smith and Howdy Doody. As a kid I can remember rushing to the drug store for the latest issue of – not Mad magazine, but U.S. News and World Report. And I recall, at age 12, getting on my bike during a school holiday to pedal several miles to listen to a speech by Republican California Governor Goodwin J. Knight. (And I thought Bob’s parents were strange!) I was also the high school student whose part-time job was not bagging groceries, but representing a large, Los Angeles financial institution, and was paid to deliver my speeches extolling the virtues of individual freedom and free enterprise to various organizations.

I resurrect this trivia only to verify my own bona fide credentials as a life-long Republican. And not just any old Republican; I have always been a true, straight-line conservative Republican. I had never voted for a Democratic – any Democrat – until 2008. And when I voted for Barack Obama, I joined ranks with Shrum and the Democrats.

What Kindled this Metamorphous in Political Thinking?

Typically, as a person ages and becomes more financially secure, there is a tendency to become more conservative and Republican leaning; for me it was just the opposite. Fortunate to live long enough to become old and successful enough to become a member of the “one percent club” much to the consternation of my friends, I have become more and more liberal.

There were a number of experiences along the way that ignited this change but, believe it or not, the fuel for this conversion was my success as an entrepreneur in the free enterprise system. What did not change were my underlying beliefs in individual freedom, opportunity and the unique benefits of capitalism. But I came to a new understanding and belief that, if individual freedom and opportunity is limited to only a few, it will ultimately be lost by all.

My career started in 1965 as an insurance salesman and my first corporate job was in 1975. When I entered the corporate world, I recognized and accepted, as most did, the concept that power and management in the corporate universe is top-down. One only had to look at an organization chart to recognize where the corporate power rested (and I do mean rested).

My first corporate job was at the vice-president level, so I entered the system near the pinnacle of the power pyramid. I quickly discovered that this top-down structure created an “I versus them” mentality among those in power. Those who had clawed their way up the power pyramid seemed to be hell bent on protecting their power and preventing others from becoming a threat. This struck me as illogical, wasteful and contrary to my long-held beliefs in individual freedom, responsibility and opportunity for all.

I was the new kid in the executive suite, but it seemed obvious to me that my ultimate success would depend on the willing support and effort of those who occupied the lower slopes on the power curve. And the only way I could marshal their support and effort would be to offer them the same in return. My belief was that real power comes from the bottom up, not the top down. This belief was reinforced when our division became the most efficient and successful in the company; and it resulted in me being offered my first CEO opportunity.

In that next job, as CEO of a poorly performing subsidiary owned by The Hartford, it did not take long to discover – and chafe – under the same, top-down management mindset. My rapidly emerging belief was that the only way to improve the performance of the company was to enlist the support and effort of everyone involved – from the bottom up; an approach resisted at every step by the bureaucratic power freaks at the top in Hartford. Once again my beliefs were reinforced when – supported by efforts from the bottom up – the company turned around and achieved significant success.

However, it seemed the more the company became successful, the more Hartford resisted the bottom-up management approach. Disillusioned but not bowed, I knew my options were either to give in or get out, and I decided it was time to start a new company – LifeUSA – where I would be free to implement, from scratch, a complete, bottom-up culture.

I was convinced that the best opportunity for my success and the success of the organization was to allow those who had the talent to help achieve the success, to share in the success. In other words, if the freedom of individual opportunity and success was good for me, it would be even better for me, if everyone was allowed the same opportunity to share in that success. To achieve this, LifeUSA was structured from the bottom up and it was no accident that the company organization chart was in the form of an inverted pyramid. I have no doubt that it was this approach that allowed LifeUSA to become one of the most successful companies of the 1990s.

What does this have to do with politics?

As my bottom-up management philosophy matured – we called it parallel interests – it struck me that the philosophy of government held by the Republican Party was the same type of governance found in corporations – top-down. Indeed, most corporate executives are Republicans, because they are comfortable with this philosophy. The Republican Party talks about individual freedom, opportunity and free enterprise – and they believe this. But when their rhetoric is translated into actual policy, it seeks to protect the freedom and opportunity of those at the top who already have it and prevent others from achieving it. If you harbor any doubts about this fact, the recent “secretly taped” Romney fund-raising video will remove them. The Republicans even have a name for their belief that government should be top-down: They call it “trickle-down.”

That is why you see the Republicans in favor of reducing taxes on the wealthy, eliminating taxes altogether on investment income and capital gains; while resisting extension of unemployment benefits, seeking to lower the benefits of Social Security, eviscerating Medicare, Medicaid and reducing Federal aid to education. (Not to mention the repeal of Obamacare.) It is why Republicans screech that any type of regulation is an infringement on individual freedom and opportunity. It is why Republicans support voting laws that restrict the rights of those below – minorities, poor and elderly – to exercise the power of voting. The Republicans see a government that seeks to expand individual freedom and opportunity to all as a threat to their individual freedom and opportunity. This is contrary to my belief that when individual freedom and opportunity is limited to a few elite, it will soon be lost by all.

Two Parties Two Visions, One Mess

The policies and actions of the Democrats seemed to be more in parallel with my management philosophy. The Democrats offered a bottom-up philosophy of government. That the purpose of government should be to create an environment that expands individual freedom and opportunity for all. A top-down Republican government philosophy is all about power for the few at the top, while a bottom-up Democratic approach is all about power for all the people. From my perspective – and experience – when given the chance, it is the people who create the power. People are not entitled to success, but they are entitled to the opportunity to achieve success.

If you talk with those who were associated with LifeUSA, they will tell you that they achieved the type of success that could not have been imagined working at any other company. As leaders of the company, I and the other founders did not create this success; all we did was implement a bottom-up philosophy of management and reward that created the opportunity for all to experience success. When people responded to the opportunity for success and worked to achieve it, the force of this effort pushed LifeUSA to exceptional levels of success.

Today, I have an even stronger belief in the free enterprise system than I did as rock-ribbed conservative Republican in my youth. But my experience gives me an equally strong belief that if we take the same approach to government – bottom up – then the benefits, incentives and rewards of individual freedom, opportunity and free enterprise will drive the entire country to higher levels of success.

And the Moral of the Story …

Despite the excess of fringe elements of both parties, both the Republicans and Democrats have, at their core, the same objective and that is to preserve, protect and defend individual freedom, rights and opportunity. The difference is that the Republicans sincerely believe this is best achieved from the top down and that the purpose of government is not to interfere with the process and even to protect those who have made it to the top. The Democrats, on the other hand, sincerely believe the objectives are best achieved from the bottom up and that the purpose of government is to take actions that assure individual freedom, rights and opportunity start at the bottom and is available to all.

My experience in business and the success I have enjoyed has convinced me that all we seek to achieve is made more possible when we work to assure that all have the same opportunity to achieve success.

Now, after all these years, I understand why Bob’s parents would have a shrine to FDR in their home. I have learned that power comes from caring about the people, rather than in caring about the people in power.