Data Wonk

When Progressives Imitate the Right

The Shepherd’s campaign against Democrat Chris Abele is a classic example

By - Apr 1st, 2016 12:08 pm
Shepherd Express - Chris Abele

Shepherd Express – Chris Abele

In recent years, the Republican Party has become more conservative and more ideologically homogeneous both nationally and in Wisconsin. Are Democrats in danger of suffering the same fate?

The moderately conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks commented that on climate change:

the G.O.P. has come to resemble a Soviet dictatorship — a vast majority of Republican politicians can’t publicly say what they know about the truth of climate change because they’re afraid the thought police will knock on their door and drag them off to an AM radio interrogation.

Organizations like the Club for Growth attacked moderate Republicans, calling them “RINO”s (Republican in Name Only), and targeted them in Republican primaries. In Wisconsin, moderate legislators like Dale Schultz were forced out or chose to leave.

The New York Times recently reported another example of what can befall a legislator who defies Republican orthodoxy: “Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas, faced a barrage of criticism from conservative groups on Friday after he broke with his party’s leadership by saying he favored holding hearings on President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court.” A Tea Party spokeswoman threatened to recruit an opponent against Senator Moran in the coming Republican primary.

The result has been more and more constrictions on allowable conservative discourse. Although a few independent thinkers remain on the conservative landscape, they have been relegated to the margins. Fresh thinking is not completely dead—consider, for example the American Conservative magazine, particularly when it comes to urbanism, and the Niskenen Center made up of refugees from the Koch-dominated Cato Foundation—but these are rare exceptions.

Today’s conservative elites take their cue from Ronald Reagan’s Inaugural Address, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” This belief has led to a glorification of the free market and cutting taxes and shrinking government programs as a cure for all problems. If the tax savings go mainly to the wealthy that is fine because they are the “job creators.”

The conservative elites embrace Adam Smith but lack his clear-eyed pragmatism, as expressed in this passage from his Wealth of Nations: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

An analysis by the Times’ Nicholas Confessore describes how “the G.O.P. elite lost its voters to Donald Trump”:

While wages declined and workers grew anxious about retirement, Republicans offered an economic program still centered on tax cuts for the affluent and the curtailing of popular entitlements like Medicare and Social Security. … The distance was magnified by the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, which gave wealthy donors rising weight in Republican circles, even amid signs that the party’s downscale voters were demanding more of a voice.

Trump’s success shows that the establishment’s definition of what constitutes acceptable conservatism is not shared by a significant segment of the voters that has been crucial to recent Republican electoral success. A Rand survey finds Trump supporters agree on the need for higher taxes on the rich and strongly agree with the statement “People like me don’t have any say.” Trump himself comes down on both sides of the tax issue; while he repeatedly tweets that rich people should pay more, his tax plan is highly favorable to the wealthiest.

The New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait argues that when conservatives view liberals they see a mirror image of themselves. Conservatives, believing along with Reagan that cutting government is a good in its own right, assume that liberals’ aim is to increase the size of government. They project their world view onto liberals, only in reverse: that liberals’ aim is to grow government. This came through in Marco Rubio’s strange rant that he repeated six times in one of his last Republican debates:

Let’s dispel once and for all with the fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he is doing, he knows exactly what he is doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world… it is a systematic effort to change America.

When asked if Rubio believes Obama is “intentionally trying to destroy the country, his communications director responded:

All evidence confirms that. He intentionally passed Obamacare. He intentionally passed Dodd-Frank. He intentionally went into this crazy deal with Iran — the nuclear deal.

Instead, Chait argues that the liberal aim is different: it is to solve problems. Sometimes this requires an expansion of government, other times a contraction. Sometimes the market offers a solution; sometimes not. Thus if conservatives’ slogan is “government bad, private sector good,” projecting the reverse on liberals– “government good, private sector bad“—misses the point.

Except when it doesn’t.

Anyone who has spent time around Milwaukee’s “progressive” circles quickly learns that “privatization” is a dirty word. In these circles, calling a charter school a private school is sufficient to condemn it. Whether the school is effective in giving students the tools they need to be successful is irrelevant.

This attitude is well illustrated in the Shepherd Express’s current condemnation of Chris Abele, illustrated by the current cover story entitled, We Apologize. This article is the culmination of an increasingly virulent series of attacks on Abele by the Shepherd in the years since the paper endorsed him in his initial election. In an echo of the Tea Party, many of these attacks accused Abele of being a Republican in disguise. In the same spirit the present article calls Abele “Scott Walker on steroids.”

While the Shepherd article contains numerous aspersions on Abele’s character based on anonymous sources, it does not attempt to answer the core question, has Abele been effective in improving Milwaukee County services? Back in March 2011, days before Abele’s election, the Shepherd published interviews with the two candidates. It prefaced these interviews with a paragraph describing the daunting challenges the winner would face:

The county’s finances are a mess, with an estimated $120 million structural deficit within the next four years. After years of questionable management, the mental health system needs to be utterly revamped. The Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) is struggling to survive. The county hasn’t sold any of its Park East properties and its facilities in the parks and elsewhere are crumbling. Members of its largest union, AFSCME District Council 48, had to take 26 unpaid days off in 2010 and will likely be forced to take another 26 unpaid furlough days—roughly one day per two-week pay period, or a 10% pay cut—this year, too, in order to balance the budget.

Has Abele effectively addressed these challenges? A recent Public Policy Forum report on the county budget would say that he has:

The budget reflects the County’s remarkable progress in reducing health care expenditures and debt service obligations – two of the primary drivers of its long-term structural imbalance – by accommodating an unanticipated spike in its pension contribution with few service reductions and a flat property tax levy, and while also providing a pay increase for employees. Such a scenario would have been unthinkable five years ago.

The recommended budget also reflects a strong commitment to priority service areas by bolstering tax levy and bonding for the Milwaukee County Transit System; adding resources for homelessness and mental health initiatives; and maintaining momentum for countywide space planning and facilities consolidation. In fact, with the notable exception of the Sheriff, it appears that no County department will be required to meaningfully reduce service levels or staff to fill next year’s budget gap.

The recent Shepherd article, by avoiding discussing the challenges it listed in its 2011 story, effectively confirms the Public Policy Forum’s conclusions. Given its desire to throw the kitchen sink at Abele, it would certainly have called attention to any gaps in performance. Based on the evidence, Abele has been an effective county executive.

The present crisis in the Republican Party illustrates the dangers of applying an ideology and demanding that everyone adhere to it. To win elections requires winning a majority of the votes (or more with a gerrymandered legislature, as in Wisconsin). To insist that everyone agrees does not seem to be a winning strategy. Long-term, a party that insists on conformity of thought risks intellectual stagnation. That county Democrats are ready to abandon an effective county executive over ideology shows they are on the same path.

Categories: Data Wonk, Politics

24 thoughts on “Data Wonk: When Progressives Imitate the Right”

  1. Vincent Hanna says:

    I never pick up a Shepherd anymore. I used to just pick them up for concern announcements. Does it carry any weight these days? I share some of the concerns here. At times Larson opponents are guilty of blatant hypocrisy, letting slide things they have condemned conservatives for in the past. Liberals and conservatives are certainly both guilty of playing the selective partisan outrage game.

    However, the last sentence is disconcerting. It posits that there is absolutely no valid criticism of Abele and not a single reason to vote against him. That is ridiculous and unfair. He’s hardly perfect.

  2. Bruce Thompson says:

    Your comment made me go back and read the last sentence. To say someone is effective doesn’t, in my view, does not require him to be perfect.

    I originally intended to mention my own frustration in trying to set up a candidate debate. I could never get a yes or no from Abele or his campaign manager. I suspect part of the problem are these little things that build up and curdle relationships.

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    That Abele has been an “effective” county executive doesn’t automatically mean voting for his opponent is foolhardy and the first step on a road to partisan destruction. Frankly I am not crazy about either candidate, and the race has been a little demoralizing.

  4. Rich says:

    Being “effective” first requires knowing what the problem or goal is. If “effective” means not going bankrupt and stabilizing the budget, yes, he’s made progress. If “effective” means making sure the Domes don’t fall down, then he’s failed.

    More germane to the re-electability of Abele is how he’s been “effective” to date. The consolidation of power in order to implement only has he sees fit does nothing to refine the problem statement or goals. Call it a witch-hunt if you will, but I haven’t seen a single story on how Abele has “played nice with others”. If he stepped up his communication and participation games a bit — e.g. first explaining things and debating the goals — then he’d get more respect and probably the votes too.

    Of course, all of this says nothing about whether Larson will deliver on any of this either; it sounds good now because he can easily paint a contrast today.

  5. dudemeister says:

    A wonderful appeal for moderacy in a ridiculously partisan time. Well done, Mr Thompson!

    Never understood the disappointment from some on the Left or many on the Right about Abele. No, he didnt gouge the County coffers or try to starve public aervices in the name of lower taxes. Nor did he lavish funds aplenty on the different deparments. He purposefully cut back in areas that could afford it (ahem, Sheriff’s office) and helped make those cuts and former scaledowns manageable and sustainable (ahem, MCTS).

    Overall, he wasn’t ideological in his approach – at least in the sense that extremists see it. He was a defensibly good administrator and decision maker in many regards.

    It’s interesting, the Shepard’s attacks. My girlfriend’s father is a seething conservative; a midsized business owner in the suburbs that swallows whole the FOX News anti-RINO mentality because he perceives an attack on his way of life by the Left. My own father is a bleeding heart therapist in the city that digests the Shep with ardor and humorously believes himself a moderate. They both hate Chris Abele for reasons having nothing to do with policy or accomplishments in office, and all to do with the media’s suggestions as to his “agenda” and “leanings” and “true color.”

    Went to UWM concurrent with Larson for a bit. He seemed like a nice guy; he does very much operate under the notion of being attacked. Despite this, his actual political positions aren’t too extreme. It should be interesting to see him as an administrator.

  6. The author is the same Bruce Thompson who would not allow my participation in an Eastside Candidate debate, nor supported or attended a community debate between myself and the Democratic nominee for State Assembly? Seems like Mr. Thomson can’t see the bolder in his own eye. From a third party perspective, Bruce Thompson seems little different in action than the paper he criticizes.

  7. Michael says:

    Bruce, the Shepherd consistently endorses Liberal candidates because they have a very strong point of view. Good for them! If it was the only paper you read, I might worry about you. They offer a nice alternative to the city’s daily paper and other news sources, thus preventing the very orthodoxy you fear.

    I thought your excerpt from the Public Policy Forum was interesting. Maybe Mr. Abele should highlight that in his ads instead of making bizarre misrepresentations of Mr. Larson. I think you might have mentioned that Mr. Larson seems like a very competent fellow, too. It’s nice to have choices.

  8. Jeremy says:

    I can’t get past the dichotomy of experience between the two candidates. Larson couldn’t wrangle together the 14 or so democratic senators in the WI Legislature. How is he going to lead the county? Additionally, he keeps talking about initiatives that require approval from the state legislature, which he is a part of already. He can’t get a bill through now, how is he going to get any of his bold ideas through as County Executive?

  9. David Clark says:

    Why not make your point without broad assertions about Republicans. Is it embarrassing to admit any fault on the progressive side without simultaneously assuring everyone that the conservatives are “far worse”? After deleting everything in here regarding Republicans, the article was only 1/3rd its original length. Perhaps headline should simply have read “All Republican’s Think Exactly the Same”. Sounds more like the Onion.

  10. Bill Sweeney says:

    How can we bring civility back to our public discourse in general and our politics in particular? Intelligent and capable individuals who could contribute to the public welfare choose not to do so because of the rancorous atmosphere of public life. As a result, many people who could be effective leaders decide not to run for office so we are left with a poor selection to choose from. An example would be the current State Supreme Court race. While I can see the merits in many of the comments that Mr Thompson makes about Mr Abele, I have been dismayed at the type of campaign Mr Abele is running which only contributes to the already poisoned political state of affairs.

  11. Kent Mueller says:

    No amount of fiscal or policy effectiveness on the part of Chris Abele allows me to overlook or discount his flagrant power consolidation, diminishment of public voice or his unceasing demands to be Czar of Milwaukee County. I found and find him admirable as a philanthropist and deplorable as a public servant.

  12. Joshua Kilroy says:

    I can’t help but notice that Mr. Thompson doesn’t actually engage with the Shepherd Express article he criticizes. He quotes only four words from the the article and doesn’t address any of their substantive complaints. Some data wonk.

  13. Pat Small says:

    Bruce Thompson: Oh, yeah, there’s nothing to see here. We’re all just worry-wart witnesses to a plutocrat playing Monopoly with Milwaukee County assets. Should we all take a HAPPY PILL and just forget about Abele’s assault on American democracy?

    Chris “The Conquistador” Abele has finagled immense powers to do every kind of public-land scam with just one other signature. He needs only one complicit “real-estate professional” to go along with any backroom deal–and together they can trump the county’s comptroller. (Take that, conscientious Mr. Scott Manske!)

    Just months ago, as a beer chaser to the Bloody Mary of the Bucks arena public-funding “package,” Abele gave away $9M worth of Park East land to three visiting billionaires. (The Bucks’ owners always love jetting into Milwaukee for a game. You bet they do, when they got, all told, 30 acres of free land–and Milwaukee School of Engineering had to pay top dollar for its Park East acreage.)

    If re-elected, he will get to keep playing “Chris the Liquidator” with everything that’s not nailed down. He can slice and dice other public assets worth millions (including the transit system, airport, zoo and thousands of acres of non-park land. (His motto: Trust me, I AM the government!)

    If you admire Abele’s “efficiency” and want him to do as he pleases–without the annoying involvement of an elected county board, perhaps you believe Mussolini made the trains run on time. Turns out that was also a myth to make a dictator look good.

    If placing near-unilateral power in one person’s hands is such a great idea, why don’t any other counties in the Midwest (and maybe the whole USA) do it? Abele, his factotums, cronies and meddling state legislators have turned Milwaukee County into a Petri dish for dismantling democracy. It’s not Democrat or Republican ideology at stake—it’s our foundation of government.

    Maybe Abele tells himself he’s come up with a brilliant “modern” way of governing, that his fondness for privatization is nothing like ALEC’s or the Koch Brothers. (Abele opines that “privatization is not my goal, it’s a tactic.” This is pithy eyewash!).

    Part of Abele’s politically-liberal cover is that he was the darling of the gay community and Planned Parenthood.

    Tyrannical Abele thinks his way is the best and ONLY way! He’s reinforced by people constantly having to bend to his will because the money is good—until he cuts it off. Just ask around the Milwaukee arts community about Chris Abele. His rep for nonchalantly discarding parking tickets is only topped by his disdain for those who have fallen out of his favor.

    Some of Abele’s greatest hits: Committing $80 million for the Bucks Arena from the county’s depleted coffers. Getting GOP pals to let him “dump” the Marcus Center. Relentlessly trying to sell O’Donnell Park and stabbing Milwaukee Art Museum in the back in the process. (With friends like Abele, who needs enemies?) Deciding that a 50-year run for the Domes was long enough. Clumsily crafting numerous “Pants-on-Fire” fibs to justify demolishing the Domes, a cherished symbol of Milwaukee.

    Bruce, you’re a public citizen and MSOE educator–your ho-humness about the dilettantish Chris Abele’s flagrant abuse of power and aversion to public accountability is alarming. Do you honestly believe that Chris Abele, the privileged college dropout who stumbled upon Wisconsin and Milwaukee during his decade-long sampling of American colleges, would have lasted even a semester at the rigorous MSOE—where REAL innovators and future leaders are trained?

    And let’s not even start about the baseless notion that Abele will be the savior of Milwaukee Public Schools. Now that’s “choice,” all right. Surely you have doubts as a former school board member.

    A vote for Abele is a vote for Garage Sale Governance by a tasteless poser—who hasn’t a clue, or a whit of real concern for the public good.

  14. Peter Gordy says:

    It is not necessarily a desire for ideological purity that motivates all opponents of Chris Abele in the forthcoming election. One can oppose Mr. Abele’s reelection on the basis of one’s personal priorities, priorities that are more fundamental than personal prefeeerence for one candidate for the other and which do not rely on a Manichean value system. Certainly, Mr. Abele was an able fiscal steward in extricating the county from its financial and and administrative nightmare coming out of the Ament and Walker regimes in the County, and we should recognize this. But, in recent years, the disenfranchisement of the County Board and the Milwaukee School Board–and, consequently, the citizens who elected them– by Mr. Abele gives cause for serious concern, possibly enough to make someone like me vote against him on April 5. This usurpation of rights and power increases the opportunities for corruption, especially in the realm of acquisitions and expenditures, and removes the possibility of correction of unwise decision by the sitting County Executive (and, perhaps his successors). It also removes the possibilty of input on fundamental decisions by the public. The decision to remove the the state’s share of financing of the new arena, placing an additional $80 million on shoulders of county taxpayers without any say from the taxpayers who will foot the bill is one is a disturbing one, which undermines the essential principle of the legislative responsibility for the fisc. Its timing also seems suspicious, the decision came almost simultaneously with the granting of the usurpation of fundamental county and school board legislative powers by the Legislature (and Governor) has the appearance of a quid pro quo, allowing the legislature to look like fiscal conservatives–even though Gov. Walker has long agitated for the building of an arena for the Bucks at public expense–as payment for Abele’s expanded powers. the County Executive now no longer needs to explain or argue for his decision his decisions, except in the most non-specific terms when forced to do so by widespread public opposition. Unilaterally cutting County Board members’ pay by 50%, without any debate is another case of unsavory power-grabbing, an action that smacks of revenge. It may well be that board members may not be worth what they have been paid up to now (and removing their most important fiscal responsibilities may make the County Board seem like a vestigial appendage to county government), but there has never been any public discussion or input (such pubic input might possibly support the decision to cut salaries. Also, it smacks of revenge against legislators who often have opposed the County Executive. Removing public and legislative input makes the County Executive’ decisions irrevocable except in the unlikely case that s/he sees the error of his/her ways in making that decision. The movement toward government by fiat or ukase fundamentally destroys democracy at its heart. That is a reason to vote against Abele based on principle, rather than ideology.

    On the other hand, there is Chris Larson, who is something of an X factor, as he has never served in a truly executive position and who has a reputation in some circles as being high-handed and non-cooperative with other public servants. In response, one can say that any popularly-elected public officer in his or her first term in a position with significantly increased responsibility and power is, despite what we may know of his or her prior record, is always an unknown quantity, and we can only guess how the newly-elected officer will respond to new responsibilities and dangers–unless the record shows him or her clearly to be a scoundrel, which is not the case with either candidate this year. History is replete with political figures who rose in stature upon readhing higher office (Harry Truman comes to mind) or who disappointed large numbers of many who voted for him or her (think of any U.S. President since 1960). There is always some element of a crapshoot in voting for any candidate. High-handedness and not “playing nice with others” are certainly not desirable qualities in a public figure, but for Chris Abele to accuse Chris Larson of this seems to me a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

    Many of us can make a decision to support a candidate for County Executive on grounds other than ideology,–left, right, or whatever-it-may-be. We all can and often do make our electoral decisions on the basis of our special interests (and all of us have them in one way or another), our priorities and desires, and occasionally on our principles, such as they are. would guess that many of us who will vote for Chris Larson will do so with fingers crossed and against will vote against Chris Abele, despite his positive accomplishments, because some of his actions have fundamentally offended our sense of right and wrong, outweighing our respect for those positive actions. Electioneering in this country and some others has almost always involved a large amount of distortion, unjustified Manicheanism, hyperbole, and outright lies, usually on both sides. I would recommend not reading too much into the fatuity and blather emanating from both campaigns.

  15. Peter Gordy says:

    Please excuse the various typos and grammatical/structual errors in my long submission. Some sentences were corrected in haste, leading me to overlook other parts of the long paragraphs which also needed correction. Unfortunately, I’m not a good proofreader of my own writing

  16. Jennie - Fox Point says:

    Interesting article but I’ve read the Public Policy Forum’s report and I do not think that enjoying “tremendous fiscal benefits from health care plan design changes and increased employee contributions adopted in each of the past four budgets” is any sort of indicator of an “effective” county executive. Abele has pulled a Scott Walker and foisted the financial burden of the county onto the backs of county workers and is creating debt for future generations by not maintaining county properties/facilities/etc. properly. If disagreeing with this level of fiscal conservativeness is ideological then so be it.

  17. Thomas says:

    Amen to responses 10 through 15. Bruce Thompson’s well written article misses a key point. Opposition to Abele is not based on ideology. It is based largely on the appearance that Abele has no ideology: that what he seems to care about is power exclusively.

  18. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    I think it’s OK for voters to have lines of conduct that shouldn’t be crossed, and Abele crosses those lines. Whether it’s on autocratic power grabs, working with voucher supporting GOPs to sell out MPS, and trying to sell off county assets instead of paying for services with taxes. Shouldn’t certain people say “this is unacceptable” and demand more?

    And the J-S’s half-hearted endorsement of Abele further confirms that this guy is the choice for the oligarchs at the MMAC. And further confirms that Larson is the only one that can change things for the better in that election.

  19. Bruce Thompson says:

    David Clark,

    What has occurred on the right is relevant as a cautionary tale for those on the left who want to drive out divergent voices. There are certainly thoughtful conservative voices but they have been largely relegated to the margins.

  20. David Clark says:

    I am Republican but believe in abortion, believe in immigration (subject to compliance with law and security checks), am perfectly fine with gay rights, believe in live and let live, do not like hectoring from the Christian right, etc. We are not a monolith. Further, I was trying to avoid cross accusations, but could easily point out instances of narrow conformist thinking on the left..

    Can we agree that neither side is a monolith but perhaps, it only seems that way during campaigns or when someone (often the media or candidate) has interested in creating divisions or appearances of conflict?

  21. Vincent Hanna says:

    You make some fair points David, and yes progressives can definitely be narrow-minded. It seems like things have changed pretty drastically though. Do you believe that there are a lot of voters like you left in the GOP today? What is one to make of the fact that the Republican front-runner in 2016 is being supported with robocalls from a white supremacist?

  22. David Clark says:

    I would think there are supporters of the Democratic candidates that people would also find distasteful. I did not vote for Mr. Trump but he has made me think about the costs of free trade, long accepted among conservatives, and reinforced concern about hyperactive foreign policy. He has also broadened the party base. Many Republicans are frustrated that their leadership has failed to shrink government and increase personal freedom as promised.

    Anyway, I did not intend to hijack the point of the original article, and would express support for Mr. Abele. The supposed power grab is a necessary response to issues with the county board.

  23. Vincent Hanna says:

    If by broaden the party base you mean he picks up 30,000 votes for every 50,000 votes he loses, then yes he did indeed broaden the party base.

  24. Virginia Small says:

    Bruce, other than some progressives not being fans of charter schools, what divergent voices are you implying are being driven from public debate? Charter schools are very much alive in MKE, even if some people don’t like them.

    The progressive Wisconsin Gazette wrote at length about the dangers of privatization, including of water systems, but Republicans also helped to defeat a bill meant to pave the way for privatizing utilities statewide. Concern for local control and the public good trumped “party ideology” in that case. That bipartisanship also applied to attempts to restrict access to public records. Progressives succeeded in making a bipartisan case.

    Likewise, members of the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and others helped to keep the state from unwisely selling off lands with important conservation value, including for hunting and fishing. They did so through transparent, online public input. However, county residents no longer have any such public forum regarding Chris Abele’s power to sell off most county property. Although land zoned as a park may be safe from land deals, at least 1,000 acres, and perhaps much more, is up for grabs since it is agricultural or open-space land and not zoned as a park.

    On the national stage, the Democratic Party is dramatically alive with the civil—and divergent–exchange of ideas on many relevant issues. The county executive race also shows there is no monolithic Democrat Party here.

    Suppression of ideas comes when a party exerts so much power that the party calls all the shots and disenfranchises the people it ostensibly represents. That is not happening among Milwaukee progressives.

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