Data Wonk

How Liberals Imitate Right Wing

Their stance on Abele and charter schools is just as close-minded as right wingers.

By - Nov 19th, 2015 02:07 pm
Chris Larson vs Chris Abele

Chris Larson vs Chris Abele

One theme in my columns has been that the conservative movement increasingly suffers from a narrowing of permitted opinion. If empirical evidence differs from approved theory, the conservative reaction is to reject the evidence rather than modify the theory. As a result, conservatives find it more and more difficult to come up with realistic solutions to the nation’s problems. Those who try to do so find themselves marginalized, drummed out of the movement, or fired from their jobs with conservative think tanks. Why, then, do some on the left push for a similar narrowing of allowable thought?

The term “epistemic closure” is sometimes used to refer to political belief systems that are closed-off and therefore immune to empirical evidence. This term was first used by the libertarian commentator Julian Sanchez in a 2010 post:

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. … To prevent breach, the internal dissident needs to be resituated in the enemy camp. ….

In Milwaukee, conservatives listen to Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling or go to an array of conservative web sites that won’t challenge their biases.

In its post mortem on why Mitt Romney lost the 2016 presidential election, the Republican National Committee recognized the problem, concluding the party “needs to stop talking to itself. We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.” The RNC quoted Peggy Noonan complaining about “how groupthink has taken over.”

Noonan, in turn, quoted Joe Scarborough saying, “Everybody’s afraid to talk… The national conversation is more constricted, with radio stars, websites and magazines functioning as unofficial arbiters and limiters of domestic and foreign policy debate.” Noonan added that in 1994 the Republican Party “was alive with ideas: ….This was the bubble and fizz of a movement at its height.” The RNC concluded that “Third-party groups that promote purity are hurting our electoral prospects.”

Liberals, by contrast, generally place more emphasis on empirical evidence, rather than insisting their theory is always right. There is no liberal talk radio in Milwaukee. Fox News is far more financially successful than MSNBC.

That said, epistemic closure is alive and well on the left in Milwaukee. Consider the expansion of attacks on Chris Abele, culminating in the Chris Larson campaign against him, based largely on the charge that Abele is not a liberal. Paraphrasing Sanchez, Abele has been “resituated in the enemy camp,” routinely described as “conservative” by the Shepherd Express and in a recent fundraising appeal from an organization called Blue America, which apparently hopes to play a role on the left analogous to that played by right-wing groups like the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity.

As with conservative organizations in their attacks on moderate Republicans, the anti-Abele forces base their appeal on ideological purity rather than his effectiveness as County Executive. The recent Public Policy Forum report on the Milwaukee County budget is mostly upbeat, finding “the County is making substantial headway in its long and grueling march from perennial financial crisis to relative fiscal normalcy.” It goes on:

“While ‘status quo’ often has negative connotations, this state of affairs is very much a positive, as it indicates the extent to which the County’s diligent efforts to restore structural balance are bearing fruit. The County Executive has referred to his 2016 recommended budget as ‘a demonstration of Milwaukee County turning the corner towards a sustainable and better future.’ We find that there is much in the budget to support that statement.”

This report represents not only an endorsement of progress made during the Abele administration but also an implicit rebuke to the previous administration of Scott Walker, where the main emphasis was on cutting without looking for ways to enhance services. In a world more focused on results than ideology, Democrats might see the political advantage of a turnaround led by a Democrat. Liberals, of all people, should want government programs to work well.

One irony of Abele’s disputes with the county board, is that he, the accused conservative, has often been on the liberal side. One example is the board’s vote to rebuild the Estabrook dam, in opposition to the environmental groups. Another is the apparent alliance between the board and Sheriff David Clark when it comes to patrolling the county parks. Yet another example is described in a recent column by Kit Murphy McNally published in Urban Milwaukee and well-summarized by its title, How Sheriff Clarke Wrecked House of Correction: And how it’s been improved since he lost control.

One tactic used by those on the right promoting purity is to equate reaching out to selling out. A recent column from Christian Schneider illustrates this well. Entitled The toxic embrace that ended Chris Christie‘s career, it blamed Governor Christie’s inability to gain traction in the Republican presidential race on photos of his meeting, and possibly embracing, President Barack Obama in the wake of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. This photo made Christie extremely popular in New Jersey, as someone willing to work across the party divide for the good of his state, contributing to his overwhelming victory in his reelection.

Yet Schneider is saying, without a hint of irony, that the Republican base is so petty it is unwilling to forgive any gesture to reach across party lines. The fact that Schneider seems to applaud such pettiness says a lot about the moral decay of today’s conservative movement. (Schneider also ignores problems on Christie’s watch, including “Bridgegate,” that might have explained his recent fall in popularity.)

Similarly, the major charge made against Abele is that he has been willing to work with the enemy, mainly Gov. Walker and Republican legislators, to establish the so-called Opportunity Schools Partnership Program, which is authorized to take over a limited number of failing MPS schools each year.

In a recent email Larson claims that “executive takeovers of schools have never worked as promised.” While the Wisconsin legislation falls far short of a mayoral takeover of MPS, it is worth testing Larson’s statement against the record in cities where the school system has come under the control of the mayor.

Cities that have tried mayoral control of schools

Cities that have tried mayoral control of schools

A 2013 report from the liberal Center for American Progress concludes that “mayor-led districts may use resources more strategically” and “have seen increases in student achievement,” although, as with almost everything in education, there are no guarantees. The map to the right, taken from the CAP’s report, shows that mayor-led schools are mostly in blue states and in cities with Democratic mayors.

In two cases the threat posed to the school board—that if you are unwilling to turn around a failing school, someone else may do it for you–has already had a positive effect on Milwaukee Public Schools.

In the first case, a proposed charter school aimed at children in the city’s poorest neighborhoods was rejected by the board, even though the outside members of the district’s charter review committee unanimously supported it. Once it became clear the takeover legislation was likely to pass, the school board reversed course and approved the charter school. The school is scheduled to open this coming fall.

The second case is the proposal from the MPS administration to establish a third branch of the Carmen charter school in the Pulaski High School building and establish a partnership between Carmen and Pulaski. Without the takeover threat, it appears the bare 5-4 school board vote in favor would have been unattainable.

It is worth looking at the Pulaski situation further, as it shows how difficult it is to turn around failing schools without some outside pressure. Pulaski has all the signs of a failing high school. In the past two years enrollment dropped by 200 students each year. The next two charts show performance on last year’s state social studies and science tests for Pulaski and for the two Carmen campuses (when last checked, the DPI had not posted results for the other state tests).


At Pulaski 12 percent of students scored proficient or above in science, compared to 75 percent at Carmen South and 38 percent at the recently established Carmen North (this was the first year of testing). In social studies the percent proficient was 14 percent at Pulaski, compared to 79 percent at Carmen South and 55 percent at Carmen North. Especially disturbing is the large number of Pulaski students who seem to have given up and did not show up on test day.

Whether the partnership with Carmen will be sufficient to turn around Pulaski is highly doubtful based on the public hearing for the proposal. Most of those testifying against the proposal were Pulaski teachers and they showed little willingness to learn. Instead I came away with the impression they regarded the Pulaski building as their private property about to be invaded by foreigners analogous, in the words of one, to the German invasion of the Sudetenland.

The triumph of ideology on the right, at the expense of the empirical, has been very profitable for a variety of advocacy groups and media, and has often led to electoral success. However, it has also led to the death of serious conservative analysis. Folks on the left should be very cautious about embarking on the same course.

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Categories: Data Wonk, Education

26 thoughts on “Data Wonk: How Liberals Imitate Right Wing”

  1. matt says:

    There is no liberal talk radio in Milwaukee? 860 WNOV is full of liberal talk radio. No reason to be as myopic about black people as the MJS.

  2. Paul M. says:

    Thank you for this piece. Although I am definitely on the left side of liberal, I find someone like Chris Abele quite respectable even when I occasionally disagree with him. I often feel like he is the adult in the room who is trying to maximize the quality of services while also keeping the budget on track and improving the county’s credit rating (which he has done). I think he is a good example of a pragmatic and practical leader (and no, I have no personal connection to him or anyone else in MKE politics). If I were to compare my on-paper, idealized positions against those of Abele and Larson, I’d line up a little better with Larson, yet at the end of the day I think the outcomes for the county (and the city) are better with Abele’s vision and ability to work with others. Again, he’s not perfect, but who would be in such a convoluted and weird envitonment? Frankly I admire the guy and think he has a tough job. I respect his work so far considering the dysfunction of the board as it stands.

    Education is definitely one of those areas where I worry that we liberals are too knee-jerky against experimentation and against charter schools. Of course I don’t like the idea of what feels like privatized and corporatized education, but at the same time, MPS–and lots of urban schools around the country–are failing miserably. We have to try new things are gather good data about them. I think it is important for liberals to uphold the mantle of those who believe in research, in science, and in being progressive but also pragmatic.

  3. Duane Snyder says:

    A better article on liberals “imitating the right wing” would have been pointing out how often the Democratic Party turns into a “faux” opposition party on the issues that really, i.e., how we define our economy. On the local level Democrats sided with Republicans on giving hundreds of millions to billionaires to build a basketball arena and borrowing hundreds of millions to build highways to nowhere. On the national level high level Democrats like President Obama and Hillary Clinton support Republicans on free trade, financial deregulation, and massive industry consolidation creating oligopolies in almost every sector. That being said,

    Bernie Sanders 2016.

  4. JayS says:

    We will never fix the poor performing Schools until we fix the families that send kids to those Schools: The Statistical Fact Set says those born and raised by a married couple perform best in school;those born where the Mother & Father live (unmarried) under the same roof perform better; those born to an, unwed, single mother perform poorly.

    Enough of this D vs R crap. If there was anything I expected Obama to take a stand on it was the Single Unwed Mother = Disastrous Outcome; see fully supported fact set D’s and R’s.

  5. Begonia says:

    JayS said,

    “If there was anything I expected Obama to take a stand on it was the Single Unwed Mother = Disastrous Outcome”

    And why would you expect him to take a stand on that, given that for most of his youth he himself was raised by a single mom?

  6. Aaron says:

    Just a note: Chris Abele is not a mayor. Mayor-led school districts is the focus of your cited study, so why isn’t Tom Barrett in charge? I think you don’t have to go far to find folks who recognize that a county executive has different constituents and different interests than a mayor. That is especially true in a place like Milwaukee County where, as you note, the urban-suburban divide is stark.

    So…your comparison to mayor-led school district plans doesn’t make sense.

  7. Penrod says:

    Hi Begonia, expectations aside, Obama could have made a positive difference by seriously stigmatizing single parenthood. Single parenthood is not simply a lifestyle choice made by teenagers: It is a calamity for the children and parents alike. Perhaps less importantly it is a calamity for the taxpayers who cover the financial costs of supporting the massively dysfunctional households which result: That is money which isn’t available for other important social purposes.

    We dramatically reduced drunk driving by making it socially unacceptable- indeed, it was made illegal only when it was socially unacceptable. That stigmatizing anti-social behavior has saved many thousands of lives.

    If Obama had taken the opportunity to make single parenthood socially unacceptable for all races and income groups, he could have saved the futures of the girls who wouldn’t give birth unwed, and saved the futures of the children they would have had only after they finished school and were emotionally mature enough to marry, be employed, and be good parents.

    There is no argument in favor of single parenthood: It is a calamity for the parents, the grandparents, the children, the schools, and taxpayers. If Obama had been serious about hope and change, he blew it.

  8. Vincent Hanna says:

    How do you sufficiently and productively stigmatize single parenthood? Publish the names of single mothers in the newspaper? Shame them? People sound so confident that he should have done this, but the devil is in the details.

  9. Penrod says:

    Hi Vincent: “How do you sufficiently and productively stigmatize single parenthood?”

    The same way we did drunk driving: Speak out about it, publicly, clearly, and without any apologies. No one can reasonably claim that single parenthood is not our business: As taxpayers, if nothing else, it most certainly is our business. As politicians who have competing demands on the public purse, it is their business.

    President Obama, as the first African-American President, was in a unique position to speak out: No one could have claimed that his position was based on racism. Properly or not, that isn’t true of a white President, and perceptions are critically important to the message. It doesn’t matter if most unwed parents are white, or that most welfare recipients are white: the perception is that a white President criticizing welfare recipients or unwed parents is making criticisms based on racism.

    So, yes: shame them. Don’t be bashful about it: Their actions have likely destroyed not only their own lives but those of their children, and put an enormous burden on the grandparents and the public whose money could have been better spent on other things than supporting teenagers and their babies.

    Unlike drunk driving, we have spent billions of dollars encouraging unwed parenthood. Reality is that we get more of what we subsidize, and in the name of caring, we subsidize unwed parenthood. At some point, if we really do care, we need to stop subsidizing catastrophically bad behavior. We can’t do that cold turkey, but we do need to move towards it.

    Until then, we need to say clearly and repeatedly: unwed parenthood is irresponsible behavior which damages everyone, but the children and the mothers most of all. If shaming an unwed parent does no more than prevent him/her from having yet another, that is success. One is bad enough, but one is less bad than two or three.

    Is that judgemental? Of course it is. Refusing to be judgemental is a bad thing. As adults, we have to make judgements, and on this topic, there is no argument that single parenthood is anything less than a calamity. Lets say so: as the President should have.

  10. M says:

    This analysis of some progressives’ objections to Abele’s agenda is superficial in its focus on charter schools, which are already part of MPS or under the purview of UWM etc. .Also, Abele is not a mayor and so the comparison to mayor-led districts seems irrelevant, since those mayors retain local control.

    The Abele Takeover Plan was hatched up by suburban state legislators, who probably rarely set foot in most MPS territory. Lack of local control is fueling protest against the takeover scheme as much as anything.

    Milwaukee has plenty of “corporatist” elected officials including many Democrats. The Bucks Arena deal was cooked up by numerous Dems and supported by plenty of them—despite massive research that subsidized sports venues don’t produce net economic benefits. Campaign donations and lobbying surely played a bigger role than empirical data.

    Nonetheless, no one of any political leaning seems as absolutely committed to all forms of privatization of as Chris Abele. He’s even more zealous about privatizing everything in sight than Scott Walker (and Abele’s power-mongering, helped by tea-party cronies in state govt., will allow him to freely fulfill his mission).

    Privatizing schools is just the tip of Abele’s iceberg. He also wants to sell or privatize parks, the airport, zoo, transit system, mental health, etc. Privatizing correctional systems are likely on his radar, and he’s got his own private security team.

    Many economists and pundits (including George F. Will) warn that privatization rarely saves taxpayers money and often creates new sets of problems. For example, the for-profit “prison industrial complex” helps drive outrageous incarceration rates—you need bodies to fill those prisons for their profiteer owners.

    Also, Abele is a spendthrift when it comes to giving away public assets, such as Park East land, the Transit Center, O’Donnell Park, etc. So he’s not even good at filling budgetary holes through his liquidation projects. And tethering the Marcus Center to the Bucks Arena–that’s just bizarre meddling.

  11. Vincent Hanna says:

    You shift back and forth between unwed parenthood and single parenthood. Are you claiming both are always dangerous and life-ruining? I don’t think either is true (there are countless examples of successful people raised by a single parent), nor do I think two people need to be married in order to be good parents. I also don’t see how a public shaming campaign reduces the number of single parents.

    Also, the president has done exactly what you and others claim he should have. He has talked about the absence of fathers and single parents, like in a Father’s Day speech in 2008.

  12. Marie says:

    Re: Obama’s parentage, his parents were married and he was given his father’s name. His parents’ marriage ended in divorce, as did his mother’s second, just like about 50 percent of marriages. The bigger issue was that his white mother would not have been allowed to marry his black father in some states at the time. It was six years later, in 1967, when the Supreme Court made interracial marriage legal nationwide.

    If we want more people to marry, creating more family-supporting jobs can spur that, since many people don’t get married until they feel economically stable. Also, keeping young women in school, rather than “shaming” them, is perhaps the best way to encourage delayed child-bearing, marriage and more-stable families. MKE has had significant success with programs focused on decreasing teen pregnancy by helping girls succeed.

  13. JayS says:

    Hello Vincent, Staying tethered to the subject of this article and using statistical outcomes: I can not find any studies that indicate that children of single unwed mothers or those of unmarried cohabiting parents have an equal or higher High School graduation rate than children of married couples. Family supporting jobs that don’t require a High School Degree are a rarity today. I would think we are trying to achieve the best outcome with maximum of efficiency. I’d call not having a High School Degree a disaster for the individual and the whole economy.

    Hello Marie, As you point out interracial marriage as been legal since ’67. Unfortunately, since then, the rate of unwed single motherhood has more than doubled; an inverse correlation. Unemployment hit 10% in 2009 and it’s 5% today, in that same time frame the rate of single unwed motherhood continued to increase. The best “program” statistically speaking, in MKE or anywhere in USA, to produce a lower teen pregnancy rate is to be born and raised by a married couple.

  14. RMH says:

    only the simpleminded demand such simple answers, JayS. Life is so much more complex than your cozy little fairy tale.

  15. Marie says:


    None of us can control who our parents are, and the U.S. (or any democracy) is unlikely to institute “programs” that force people to wed and stay married as a way to avoid teen pregnancy. However, as I noted, programs that bolster teen girls and encourage them to stay in school can play a positive role. Here’s a new book by a Milwaukee-area former teacher with that focus. We can all play a part in promoting solutions in small ways…

    About inter-racial marriage, I hope you were not implying correlation. Yes, it has become easier to co-habitate rather than marry since cultural mores for everyone in the U.S. have changed over the past 40 years.

  16. Penrod says:

    RMH: ” Life is so much more complex than your cozy little fairy tale.”

    Has anyone noticed that the people who call others simpleminded, and say life is more complex, are the people with the shortest contributions to the conversation?

  17. Penrod says:

    Hi Marie: “the U.S. (or any democracy) is unlikely to institute “programs” that force people to wed and stay married as a way to avoid teen pregnancy. ”

    While you were replying to JayS, I think any such government attempt would be dreadful. I did not mean to imply anything to do with government mandates: I think WE as individuals should stop accepting unwed parenthood as respectable. It isn’t. it never should have been: It is disastrous for all concerned, and we should speak out against it. As should have President Obama, on a good many more occasions than a Father’s Day speech in 2008.

    Unwed parenthood, teenage or not, is not simply ‘another lifestyle choice’ as all too many seem to think. It is a ‘choice’ which is viable only so long as the community is forced to subsidize it with welfare payments. Remove the welfare/AFDC/WIC and all other subsidies, and it is clearly not viable. It is those subsidies which make unwed parenthood properly the concern of all the people who pay taxes to support government.

    We voluntarily subsidize those things which we want more of: donations of time or money to schools, hospitals, synagogues, churches, museums. We subsidize unwed teen parenthood and then wonder why the unwed teen birthrate skyrockets.

    I think we need to make dropping out of high school, and teenagers having babies both socially unacceptable. The problem is in making them unacceptable among the communities which accept them today. One of many steps is pure moral suasion. That is where President Obama has failed to lead.

    Another is eliminating government benefits for future children. Refusing to subsidize dysfunctional behavior is harsh. In the long run, though, subsidizing dysfunctional behavior is far harsher.

  18. Penrod says:

    Hi Vincent: “unwed parenthood and single parenthood. Are you claiming both are always dangerous and life-ruining? I don’t think either is true”

    The world is full of exceptions. They do not change the general result: They are exceptions.

    There is no evidence whatsoever that dropping out of high school improves most drop outs’ lives, nor is there any evidence that becoming unwed parents improves the lives of the parents, the children, or the grandparents.

  19. Vincent Hanna says:

    Isn’t teenage parenthood already considered pretty socially unacceptable? Isn’t that why the United Way and others run public campaigns that aim to prevent teenage pregnancies? You are never going to completely eliminate it (and school districts refusing to teach comprehensive sex education sure doesn’t help; neither does preaching abstinence-only education).

    How do you shame males here? Let’s not forget the role deadbeat dads play in all of this.

  20. Marie says:

    Hi Penrod, that level of public policy, and dare I say, social engineering is beyond my pay grade or vision. However, I do volunteer in the community you are referencing. For me, these are issues faced by real people. I know some “unwed” mothers whose children have gone on to earn advanced degrees–despite those mothers having not achieved a HS diploma or GED. I know people who dropped out of school to nurse a sick parent or because they were forced to take a job to help their family survive. Some of the challenges people are facing are beyond what those raised in supportive middle-class environments can comprehend.

    I try to support positive programs and will let others try to come up with other measures that could possibly produce desired results.

    From what the Obamas have said, I am sure they will continue to use their post-WH stature to promote positive change within the African American community and beyond. The First Lady has been especially focused on promoting healthy activities and choices. It may seem a small thing, but “urban agriculture,” community gardens, etc. are playing a very positive role in MKE, with leaders such as Will Allen, Andre Lee Ellis, Fidel Verdin and others using such activities for positive change and mentoring.

    Pres. Obama has had to walk a tightrope about how he addresses issues of race. I’m glad to hear him doing it more, but I don’t expect him to make any specific problem the bully-pulpit focus of his presidency. I’m glad he’s finally using it to shine attention on climate change…

  21. Vincent Hanna says:

    Obama has talked about this issue repeatedly. The Father’s Day speech was but one example. There are many others. In May of this year he talked about it at a panel discussion on poverty at Georgetown University. He talked about it at a Chicago high school in 2013. His administration also started the National Fatherhood Initiative. He has been vocal about this and he has taken action. It’s not his fault if people (and the media) haven’t been paying enough attention.

  22. Marie says:

    Thanks for setting the record straight!

  23. RMH says:

    wasting a bunch of words on people deeply invested in a shared unsupportable narrative is a waste of time. Any support I could link to would be dismissed as “liberal” or “biased”. Repeated attempts by people with more patience than myself to debunk the vast fake universe of “facts” spewed out from the right has proved increasingly fruitless. I’m only left with mockery because after over three decades of arguing with zealots I’m sick of expending the effort.

  24. Dennis says:

    WOW, how much does it cost to buy a Bruce Murphy? I look forward to checking out Abele’s campaign finance reports!

  25. Bruce Thompson says:

    Did it occur to you that your comment illustrates my (not Murphy’s) main point in the column?

  26. Dennis says:

    Bruce, did it occur to you that a glowing report of Abele’s budget from the Public Policy Forum, which is led to Scott Walker’s former Director of Administration, might lead some to point out that Abele is the one imitating conservatives?

    Did it occur to you that a self-described “data wonk” failing to criticize Abele’s use of one-time reserve funds and incompetent administration of the pension fund might lead some to question your objectivity?

    Did it occur to you that your regurgitation of the absurd Abele talking point that the County Board has an “alliance” with Sheriff Clarke, despite cutting his budget by $4m, might lead reasonable people to conclude that you are bought and paid for by Abele?

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