When I read that a UW-Madison-based think tank had created a "partial antidote" to conservative policy pusher American Legislative Exchange Council, my first thought was that a lot of people would say liberals already have an antidote to ALEC. It's called the American university.
Academia as a den of leftists is a Republican talking point, bolstered by a handful of studies confirming university types are indeed more liberal and Democratic than the population at large.
But professors' political preferences only matter if they use their positions to give their politics a boost — especially if they're boosting them at taxpayer-funded universities such as UW-Madison.
The political preferences of the professor who created the anti-ALEC — called the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange, or ALICE — are pretty clear.
Center on Wisconsin Strategy director Joel Rogers has helped found or manage a number of progressive organizations, serves as a contributing editor at leftist The Nation magazine and has garnered unflattering attention from the right-wing talkers.
Rogers doesn't accept the notion that ALICE and even ALEC are political advocacy organizations. They just offer model legislation, he said.
And he calls both ALICE — described on its website as a "public library of progressive state and local law" — and COWS — usually considered a left-leaning outfit — as "absolutely within the mainstream of the University of Wisconsin."
Consummate UW-Madison critic state Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, would probably agree with that.
Nass, the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, is known for his digs at the alleged liberalism of the Madison campus. His spokesman, Mike Mikalsen, contended COWS and other university-housed centers regularly do research and push issues for Democrats.
The notion that there's a need to create ALICE as a counterweight to ALEC is "kind of hilarious," he said. "ALEC is actually outgunned."
Still, COWS' only formal support from the university comes in its tax status. As a center at a nonprofit university, COWS is eligible for grants awarded to nonprofits, Rogers said. COWS' costs are covered by the governmental and nongovernmental grants and other non-state money, said Rogers and Maria Cancian, associate dean in the College of Letters and Science.
I asked the head of the Senate committee on the UW System, Kathleen Vinehout — a Democrat, yes, but not of the rabidly liberal variety — if ALICE is a political group being improperly propped up by a public university.
"I think we don't know the answer to your question," Vinehout said, adding ALICE will bear monitoring.
She said she'd like to see more UW-Madison experts at the Capitol advising lawmakers with nonpartisan, evidence-based research. In short, more of the Wisconsin Idea.
"We need the university be a real partner," she said, in finding "truth with a capital T."
No doubt. The capital Ds and Rs are much less critical.