Invading Wisconsin: Not The Battleground You Are Looking For

Buckley Brinkman is the Executive Director/CEO at Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing & Productivity. Brinkman is an industry thought leader who has authored several white papers on innovation, corporate culture, business strategy and other topics. A Wisconsin native, Brinkman holds a Business degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

Buckley Brinkman is the Executive Director/CEO at Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing & Productivity. Brinkman is an industry thought leader who has authored several white papers on innovation, corporate culture, business strategy and other topics. A Wisconsin native, Brinkman holds a Business degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

Primary voting for the Presidential Election hasn’t even started and The Washington Post has already identified Wisconsin as one of the critical states for the surviving candidates next year. I’m not sure if I should be excited or terrified at the prospects.

I’m excited because it’s the first time in my life that Wisconsin is seen as critical going into the election and I will have a front-row seat for all the campaign excitement. I’m also terrified because those of you covering the campaign will define Wisconsin as a battleground state; emphasizing our differences and conflicts, while the candidates flood the airwaves with reasons we should fear and hate each other. In reality, Wisconsin (like most places) presents a much more complicated picture.

It’s fall, so soon much of the country will know Wisconsin through images from Lambeau Field, of men with wedges of cheese on their heads and bellies exposed to sub-zero weather while they cheer on the Packers. Yes, we love our Packers, so much so that a win or loss can actually affect the economy, but we’re much more than that snapshot. 

We are a state full of diverse people, engaging the future in unique ways. A big part of Wisconsin is our legacy in manufacturing and agriculture. Our state is one of only two in the country where manufacturing still provides the largest part of our GDP. Our agriculture also plays a major role in our economy, with modern practices driving a leading position in feeding the world – not just with cheese, soybeans, and milk – but also with high-end proteins, the best livestock, and cutting edge approaches that don’t just provide other countries with fish, but actually teaches them how to fish as well.

Our manufacturing and agriculture heritage provides unique strengths and we’re using that heritage to grow beyond those fields. Our higher educational institutions are second to none, serving the state at all levels from the research scientists exploring new frontiers to students learning the new skills critical in our changing environment. We understand our strengths and create ecosystems that build on these strengths into the future; whether it’s our expertise around water, food and beverage, power generation and control, or the world of connected systems. We form new partnerships and alliances to address critical challenges facing the state that span all possible divisions.

We are a state of pragmatists, building our road to a successful future; but I fear you will describe us as a battleground. You will describe us as rural versus urban, or liberal versus conservative, or educated versus uneducated. You will describe and accentuate our differences and tell us why we need to be afraid of each other. That’s the easiest story for you to write, because all of those divisions will be obvious when you’re in the Badger State. 

Instead, I invite you to see how all of these differences come together to make a place stronger, rather than weaker. We recognize how different we are and we enjoy – not celebrate – those differences. Here in Wisconsin, you can do your own thing and still be accepted by your neighbors. We try to keep open minds and find the best way to accomplish new tasks and address difficult problems. We try to help each other succeed and build stronger communities. We may not always agree, but we always try to do what’s right.

Wisconsin experienced a bit of your attention before; when our governor ran for President, when one of our representatives became the Speaker of the House, and then when one of our own became the new President’s Chief of Staff. You visited Milwaukee, Green Bay, and other parts of our state. You found what you were looking for – both good and bad. But mostly, you oversimplified and underestimated who we are.

This time around, try something different. Look at us as people, trying to do the best that we can. Highlight the places where we try to forge alliances and not the places where we clash. Discover how our differences make us stronger – not in some esoteric utopian way – but rather on the front lines of tough challenges. You will discover a different piece of Wisconsin, and you will also discover a different piece of America – and maybe yourself. 

So, welcome to Wisconsin! We will greet you with open arms and teach you the living meaning of Gemütlichkeit. You will have the opportunity to see us at our best and worst. You will try to describe and analyze and quantify us – after all, that is your job. Still, I hope you invest a little time to see how a diverse and provincial state comes together to make the most of the future. If you can do that, I can be a little less fearful of the 2020 campaign in my home state.