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.



19 responses to “Confessions of a Fallen Away Republican

  1. What a great article! Maybe because my folks were Republicans, I grew up believing to be of that same mind set, only to become confused about the beliefs of the Party and the actions or platforms put forth. I Agree that both parties want the best for America…it is the method that makes the difference. Thanks, Bob, for hitting the nail on the head.

  2. I do not know how you come to the conclusion that FDR and the Democratic way of thinking is “for the people.” FDR expanded government; took over the Supreme Court, and prolonged the great Depresssion much longer than it should have been. This way of thinking is for less freedoms and is not a bottoms up approach.
    The governments way of doing business is to take away our freedoms and assume more control over our lives. Republicans and Democrats are now all big business and tied into big money and the lobbyist industry. Both parties do not want what is best for the country. They are taking care of themselves first, and trying to maintain their base of power. When all politicians leave office much richer than when they started; refuse to have the same health care options that we have; refuse term limits; and vote along party lines no matter what the issue, it creates a leadership crisis and this puts a huge whole in your article. Voting laws require identification. How does that supress minorities?
    You need a license to drive, buy liquor etc. Obamacare is not health care for all. It is a bill that was not even read by our politicians before being passed. Maybe our politicians should have to have the same health care as us. I see Bob that your views have become liberal after you have made yourself successful. Most people change their views once thy make their money and can now work both sides of the aisle. Thanks for the article even though it is dramatically flawed.

  3. Mac
    I can see what you’re saying with bottom up approach, however you had the luxury of keeping good help and letting go people that didn’t work out. When you explain the us against them mentality, I can’t find a bigger abuser of than unions. Many businesses are not allowed to run things your way because of them.
    Personally, I don’t think it really matters who’s in charge. The power is in the radical ends of the 2 parties. Nothing will change with Romney. Nothing will change with Obama again. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

  4. A view from the coast

    Trickle down economics or trickle down government coupled with trickle down economics? Both not really good choices but the latter is clearly the worst. Our country and our world is in the midst of historical change as governments and central banks employ policies that create greater divisions of wealth in the name of saving the system and then confiscate that wealth to redistribute it as if it would be enough. It is not. Yet you suggest we give more power to those who have helped create the problems we have? It is not about Democrats vs Republicans. It is about politicians and government control. They can’t even run the post office let alone an economy. However if forced to choose I choose those who offer smaller government in spite of their other philosophical flaws. Redistributing other peoples money works only until those people run out of it. And the way the federal government does it will only make it run out faster.

  5. Wat an excellent article demonstrating how how n egalitarian society can be created by all working equally hard and hopefully smarter

  6. Such an interesting read. I am really impressed with the comparisons between corporate America and our political parties.

  7. A very interesting article. I was an active Goldwater conservative in my youth, though soon turned Democratic after it struck me that, despite their talk of liberty, Republicans–and I knew many–didn’t seem very interested in the freedom of all the people.

  8. I once had a conversation with a wise man who I would come to respect admire. He shared with me something I think you will appreciate.

    “When you enter an organization in a leadership role, those subordinate to you don’t give a damn about your pedigree, your education or your past accomplishments. The only question on their minds is do you care? And should they discover you don’t, the best and the brightest will be the first to move on.”

    I look for three character attributes in any leader, in any situation; wisedom, empathy and the moral courage to do the right thing. And you’re right, the Republicans appear to have have lost sight of the most fundamental of basic human needs and now appear to driven by morally questionable ideology and dehumanizing religious dogma. Is it really any wonder they lost?

  9. Nice article. Did all your employees become as rich as you with your bottom up style of management? Can’t quite put my finger on it but your article smells of propaganda and BS. Maybe because in ANY group ONE person has to have the final say. Democracy can not run an organization. Power to the people is a myth.

  10. bernard kitonyi

    Great staff put in a simple way; with basis of own experience

  11. bernard kitonyi

    Great stuff put in a simple way; with basis of own experience

  12. So, you succeeded in the corporate world by breaking down centralized, dictatorial management, and went through conversion after becoming monetarily self-sufficient that you want to vote for and support the biggest promoter of centralized government, directing everyone’s health care even? I do not know why folks who consider themselves to have triumphed and achieved self-sufficiency through their own efforts, supported by others not of the government, yet want to support greater and larger government that does just what it says: governs more and more. Thank you, but you can keep you reaction conversion. Too late though, you and others like you voted him back into office. Appreciate your vote of confidence in government and not the common man.

  13. james r wideman

    best exclamation of democratic party i have ever heard

  14. I’m sorry, but I find the article a bit too black and white. My father was active in the Democratic Party of California. What once was a party of workers and small farmers quickly turned into an Ivy League elite that knew better than the average voters. Rather than woo voters they have and continue to seek radical change through the courts. Rose Bird comes to mind. Indeed, my life long Democratic Dad, helped lead the charge that threw her out of office. Why? Because she had come to view her position as that of a Platonic Guardian, whose job was to impose the preferences of her “enlightened” class upon the poor uneducated voters. I admit the Republicans are infected by the same bug, but there are just as many Democrats who don’t believe in governing from the bottom up.

  15. “…it was customary for Bob and I to spend weekends at one another’s home…”

    Hm, that sentence really speaks to I. Please write some more for I, and for all of we.

  16. I quite enjoyed this article. I don’t want to say for sure that it convinced me that the Democratic Party specifically offers the USA a set of policies that will improve on the status quo, but the underlying message is right on target, I think.

    Once people are placed into positions of power, rather than try to compete freely they will prefer to use rules, regulations, and their current power to create institutions that block others from competing against them. Those at the top of the corporate structure hold to an us vs, them mindset because they understand that free competition and meritocratic governance and promotions threaten their own prosperity more than a de facto class war will. What is the solution? Beats me, though I recently read “Why Nations Fail”, which posits that a stronger system of “inclusive political insitutions” is the solution. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this subject.

  17. One of the best essays on Democracy, Power and Business, It made the distinction between the philosophies of the Democrats and the Republicans very clear. Testing this on practical fields during elections would be a different matter.

  18. Conceptually, bottoms-up sounds good. But practically, the bottoms people are ever so down and out that they always need a lift from the top and the middle. I think the current reality is what President Obama has been fighting for – the Protection of the Middle Class. The Top will always be necessary. The Bottom inevitable. But it takes a strong Middle Class to keep the Top and Bottom together. Power in the electoral system should ideally swing from from bottom up and top to bottom, cyclically, and always channeled through the middle, who sometimes rise to the top and other times fall to the bottom. For the electorate, the only way to keep the sanity and the needed discipline at the top is to throw thm out whenever they fail to protect the middle. the middle is where everyone is the safest to belong to.

  19. Great article. As a objective observer I would say that the real problem is that American politics are ironicly the most corrupt in the world. It’s all money,money money.You’ve got to be a millionaire to even be elected and all the legislature is bought and paid for by corporations and lobby groups. Can you imagine for instance,a school teacher becoming president.Why not just “buy” the presidency- saves millions of ridiculous razamataz of advertising and conventions and lies.In a true democracy even the poorest should be able to be elected with the skill of oratory,policy and integrity.The whole system is designed to protect the interests of the rich against the pleas of the poor.For America to preach to the world about democracy is laughable.It’s like the “emperors new clothes”.

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