But that was the mid-1980s, when Wisconsin was noted nationally for its pragmatic politics, its bipartisan spirit and it’s can-do attitude. I remember how aligned both political parties were to help Wisconsin avoid the perils of becoming another rust belt state. The debate was around ideas, not around people’s motives and Legislators from both parties drank beer together as they worked out deals. A set of economic development initiatives, including creation of WHEDA, easily passed and the state’s economy moved forward.
As a newcomer to the state, I was so taken with the public spirit among the government and business leaders I worked with that I fell deeply in love with Wisconsin. I so admire the strong shoulders of Wisconsin’s early leaders for their wisdom in creating cities on lakes, a culture of innovation and investing in the UW System. Only marriage (in 2011) pulled me away from the state I still consider home.
There was fear back in the 1980s for Wisconsin’s future, but the fear fueled united, proactive action. Today Wisconsinites’ fear has largely propelled divisiveness and self-serving actions. Back then, the Shining Star of the Midwest as we had been called, experienced its first relative economic decline. The past two decades have seen many more periods of falling behind as rapidly growing technology industries emerged outside our borders.
Wisconsin’s 1980s problem was that many of its leading companies had been acquired by outside companies, turning Wisconsin C-Suite leaders into plant managers. The same force is at work today and it explains a large part of why Wisconsin incomes are lower than that of the nation or neighboring states. Absent our campuses collaborating with the business community and local governments to jumpstart creation of new companies and industries in Wisconsin and attracting new facilities of companies headquartered outside Wisconsin, we are headed into a version of Iowa en route to Mississippi. It will take pragmatism and united effort, not divisive politics, to avoid the status-quo decline.
Observing Tuesday’s recall, I suspect Dreyfus would cry for Wisconsin. A master of understanding people and communications, he knew that when people feel scared their natural inclination is to protect what they have and to align with tribes that feel safe. Over time, we stop seeing what we share with the “other,” and only what makes us different. 24-hour TV news, social media, talk radio and protests magnify and reinforce these differences, further blinding us to what we have in common. “Others” become “monsters,” so different from us that we have the right to say anything we want about them, turning us into monsters by our behaviors.
No matter who won the vote count Tuesday, each of you will awake feeling more entrenched that even last weekend. And this continuation of otherness – like the Waukesha-Milwaukee divide and the Madison-Milwaukee divide – will only further hurt the state.
What if instead of feeling emboldened or cheated, you try one of the following and then forgive friends, family members, and associates who voted the other way?
· Listen to someone who voted differently than you did about why he voted as he did. Listen to be truly influenced by him, versus to collect points to win a debate.
· Ask yourself if some of the facts about the entire recall mess – facts you might have used to justify your vote - may in fact be assumptions that you mistakenly treated as facts and therefore did not test.
If, instead, you want to remain righteously “right” in your position, accept how you are contributing to keeping Wisconsin from realizing its potential for growth and prosperity. Forgiveness is ultimately a gift to our own spirit, freeing you to move forward, versus staying mired in the past.
Unless we all open our minds to not having the whole answer, Wisconsin’s best days will remain in the past.
Kay Plantes is an MIT-trained economist, business strategy consultant, columnist and author. Business model innovation, strategic leadership and smart economic policies are her professional passions. She was an economic advisor for former Wisconsin Gov. Lee Dreyfus.