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Which political party is better for animals?
The answer: neither.
Right-wing media has been blowing up over the last few days regarding the experiments on beagles funded by the NIH and Anthony Fauci. The most gruesome of the procedures, which was most extensively reported by my friend Leighton Woodhouse, involved putting beagle puppies into netting that covered their heads, and then filling the netting with sandflies. The flies were infected with a dangerous parasite called leishmaniasis, and media accounts, along with a press release from the White Coat Waste Project, described the process as eating the animals alive. A Who’s Who of right wing media, including Fox News and the New York Post, ran with the story, and a Republican legislator took up the cause, penning a bipartisan letter to Fauci.
This comes in the week of a number of significant victories for animals, pushed in part by Republican party interests, in recent years:
The EPA’s end to the use of animal testing was pushed hard by Trump appointee Andrew Wheeler.
The Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act (PACT) was pushed by Republican Pat Toomey and signed by Trump.
TV host Tucker Carlson gave animals a national, right-wing audience when he invited Farm Sanctuary founder Gene Baur to discuss veganism.
These events have turned the traditional politics of animals on their head. Democrats and progressives have generally been seen as more supportive of animals; Republicans, in contrast, have been in bed with corporate and factory farm interests. So it might be good to ask the question, which party is better for the animals?
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Democratic Party is still far and away the better option. The victories listed above, after all, are relatively small and tend not to go after powerful corporate interests. (The beagle experiments Fauci is condemned for supporting occurred in Tunisia, without any apparent large corporate support.) Moreover, a disproportionate of Big Ag and Big Pharma campaign contributions still go to the Republican Party. Republicans have also led the charge in passing ag gag laws across the nation, including in North Carolina and Utah, two states where I am being prosecuted by Republican officials. When it comes to the big stuff, Republicans are doing a lot of bad stuff.
But the Democrats have far from clean hands. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, one of the most absurd pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress, was co-sponsored by a long-time Democratic senator from California, Diane Feinstein. Democrats like Tom Vilsack, the former president of the Dairy Expert Council, and Bernie Sanders, who has received extensive support from the Vermont farming industry, have long supported bailouts and subsidies for agricultural interests. (Those payouts overwhelmingly go to the richest and most powerful corporate farmers, not to the struggling family.) And the single largest prosecution of animal rights activists nationwide, both in terms of the number of felony charges and the number of people arrested and charged, is unfolding in a Democratic stronghold — Sonoma County, California — under a Democratic district attorney (Jill Ravitch) who was endorsed by Kamala Harris. In short, if the Democrats are our friends, we need to do a better job making friends!
Where does this leave us? That partly depends on what question we are trying to answer. From an ethical perspective, while both parties have supported cruel and corrupt industries, the Democrats probably still do have the upper hand. (Just follow the money.) But from a strategic perspective, it’s not clear at all to me that working with Democrats is the approach to change, for two reasons.
First, Democratic “support” for animal rights may create a false halo around outcomes that are bad for animals, not so different from the way “humane meat” normalizes animal agriculture. If even Democrats say that we can’t do anything revolutionary for animals — and we’ve tied our fate to their interests — than objectives that move beyond relatively meaningless change will be undermined. Cory Booker’s retreat from veganism, when asked about it during the Presidential debates, is an example of this.
Second, the most important social changes over the last few decades, from civil rights for people of color to gay marriage in the Supreme Court, have been driven by bipartisan coalitions. Indeed, in many ways it is the unexpected proponents of change, within otherwise conservative institutions, that have been most instrumental for progress. I’ve spoken previously about how Lyndon Johnson’s support for the Civil Rights Act, despite being a southern senator with a long history of personal racism, was crucial to pushing that legislation — and the broader movement against segregation — forward. That leans in favor of strategically seeing both parties as necessary to win over.
Weighing against that are, well, the times we’re in. There are many who see the Republican Party as an existential threat to democracy. Indeed, Evan Wolfson, who spoke compellingly at the Animal Liberation Conference last month, made the case that, without democracy, no movements can succeed. There’s also the issue of personal safety. Movements like #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter have transformed not just our policy but our interpersonal norms, in positive ways. Conservative organizations, to the extent they could support animal rights, take positions and promote norms that make many within a social movement feel unsafe.
My thinking at the moment is that these challenges are real, but must be overcome. Much of what is driving the most hateful conduct and words on all sides is the self-fulfilling prophecy of mutual exclusion. Each side believes they won’t be accepted by the other; this drives the most resentful and aggressive conduct. Imagine we created movements with norms that started with empathy and dialogue, rather than condemnation and exclusion. I’m not saying it’s an easy task. But it seems to me a way to get to bipartisan coalitions in a way that won’t cause conflict around our other fundamental values.
But I’m not sure about this. And I’m open to your thoughts. What do you think? Which party is better for the animals, and what can we do to move both parties in the direction of animal rights?