Monday, August 6, 2012

Diversity in politics

By Bill Kraus

I was invited to a post-football-game party by then-UW President Fred Harvey Harrington more than 50 years ago. Others in attendance included professors, administrators, legislators, students, citizens from far and wide. It was the most diverse, best party I had ever attended.

When he was chancellor of UW-Stevens Point, Lee Dreyfus threw the same kind of parties in that smaller town where diversity was more common but not complete. The chief of police was there. The editor of the local paper. The president of the paper mill. Students. Teachers. Athletes. Politicians.

We carried this kind of mixing and matching into our own lives when I married a woman whose friends were mostly from the arts while mine were mostly from politics with a dose of journalists. They got along great. They were different in almost every way except their lives were driven by a common entrepreneurship. Artists were only as good as their last production, reporters as their last story, politicians as their last election.

The guests at parties at the executive mansion hosted by the governors I knew were always multi-partisan and multi-skilled. At one luncheon with guests from the four corners of Wisconsin I sat between Herb Kohler of Kohler Company fame and Burt McNamara, who was head of the Steelworkers Union at the time. The conversation those two carried on across me was stimulating and interesting.

At one of Tommy Thompson’s parties I had the humbling experience of losing at a game of sheepshead at one table while hearing a former opponent of Tommy’s exulting about his cribbage triumph at a table nearby.

A recent book on the amazing accomplishments of the thousands of scientists and engineers who populated the phenomenon known as Bell Labs attributed much of the success of that institution to the diversity and collegiality of the people who worked there. The Wisconsin Institute of Discovery is emulating the physical virtues that Bell Labs silos, no offices, a structure and system that almost forced cross communication and socialization.

Xenophobia is an endemic affliction that kills the kind of stimulation and cross pollination that makes democracy work. There is an antidote.

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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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