There was a time when animal welfare issues were considered by politicians to be fringe, if they were considered at all. Over time, many animal welfare issues began to be taken up by elected officials, although they were often addressed by the liberal/environmentalist/hippie end of the electoral spectrum. But more recently, animal welfare policy has ceased to be a partisan issue at all. No longer would one only expect liberal democrats to take animal welfare seriously. Increasingly politicians on both sides of the aisle are taking animal welfare issues seriously, judging them on their merits, and taking into account the expectations by growing numbers of their constituents for action on important animal welfare issues.
Animal welfare efforts have become so mainstream and acceptable and the goals sought by its supporters so reasonable that political party is not nearly the factor it once was. As a former Democratic Committeeman I used to appreciate that often (not always, but often) you could count on the Democrat to be on the right side of these issues. However, as an animal welfare advocate and professional in the field, I now recognize that in my region of the country Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to have exceptionally good –or bad- records. Party affiliation matters less, if at all, on many issues.
In the Congressional district of my organization the incumbent Republican, Jim Gerlach, has a very good voting record based on the Humane Society Legislative Fund (no relation to HSBC) criteria, better than a majority of Pennsylvania Democratics. His Democratic opponent, Manan Trivedi, has openly expressed his support for the animal welfare issues and there is every reason to believe he would also have a very good voting record. Both are actively engaged in making that support known to my organization’s donors and volunteers, and to voters.
This did not happen by accident. It happened because increasingly large numbers of citizens have been telling their candidates that they expect good animal welfare policy, that they don’t consider themselves to be “fringe”, and they began to de-couple animal welfare from other third-rail issues. In other words, every animal issue was not a fight between us and them- farmers, hunters, gun owners, constitutional conservatives, veterinarians, breeders, or whatever the “them” of the hour was. It could be about the issue itself and how we presented it.
And once it was about the issue, you could find reasonable people on both sides of the political aisle with a continuum of reasonable positions from which real movement- and real votes- could be garnered. Once the zealous red paint hurling fringe ceased to be the perceived face of animal welfare and that face was replaced by you and me and our neighbors and Oprah, who had very real concerns about the welfare of animals and very reasonably questioned the political inactivity we saw, our politicians were forced to engage us. Once the passionate animal welfare supporters on our side began to see that a positive, civil dialogue was effective, we began to build partnerships with politicians. And once the politicians saw that there was a real political benefit to be had by being on the right side of animal welfare, and maybe a real penalty from being on the wrong side, they have increasingly sought to demonstrate to us that they care about animal welfare.
Somewhere along the way supporting animal welfare issues became about as expected as supporting the troops, wearing a flag pin, and kissing babies. And this is exactly what we should want and have been seeking all along, no matter what political party we support.
As voters, we need to ensure every candidate for elected office includes an animal welfare policy platform statement as a matter of course, regardless of party affiliation. As professionals in animal welfare, we need to ensure that the appeals we make to animal lovers and animal welfare advocates span party lines or political molds and that we are encouraging polite, effective interaction with elected officials. And when they don’t live up to our new expectations, voters need to get behind candidates who will, either in general elections or in party primaries. Democrat or Republican, I think we can all take away one lesson from the Tea Party folks: Politicians, ignore your constituents at your peril.
It is time for those of us who think good animal welfare policy is good for our nation to forcefully make the same case and politely demand that all candidates of any party, in every election, take these issues as seriously as we do. If they won’t, we need to find candidates who will.
Fingers crossed we can do it without having to wear silly hats.