Making Animal Protection a Political Priority

Guest blog by Paul Shapiro

PaulIn 1965, after a decade of landmark advancements—from Brown v. Board to the March on Washington to the Civil Rights Act—the American civil rights movement was at a crossroads. Having achieved progress few would’ve thought possible just 10 years prior, the movement was faced with the painful reality that, for as much forward movement as it had produced, the plight of black Americans was still dire.

One of the movement’s heroes, March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin, penned a column, “From Protest to Politics,” in which he laid out a new roadmap for helping take the next steps not just for black opportunity, but for actual black equality.

A veteran of the nonviolent civil disobedience tradition, Rustin was long-steeped in demonstrations. But his message to his fellow activists was clear: It’s time for the movement to pivot. It’s time, if the movement was to make even more fundamental progress toward racial equality, to become more serious about politics. He wrote:  “A conscious bid for political power is being made, and in the course of that effort a tactical shift is being effected: direct-action techniques are being subordinated to a strategy calling for the building of community institutions or power bases….What began as a protest movement is being challenged to translate itself into a political movement.”

In many ways, we’re beginning to see a similar shift by the animal protection movement today. Animal advocates indeed have made important strides in recent
years, especially in shining a spotlight on the routine abuse of animals raised for food. And now, the movement is in getting far more involved in political campaigns than ever before.

Animal advocates have used ballot measures with great success since the early 1990s, but those were primarily waged because of an inability to pass reforms through state legislatures, which were in the grips of animal-use industries. Why are those special interests so influential?  Their political influence doesn’t stem from factory farmers or hunters making up majorities of constituents, but from those industries’ political involvement.

Today, we’re seeing a large increase in state animal protection political action committees (PACs), animal advocates running for office, and animal advocates’ direct involvement in candidate races. And these actions are already yielding dividends, with literally hundreds of state animal protection laws enacted across the country in just the past few short years.

This pivot by the movement is critical. The animal protection movement is right about how detestable the rampant cruelty we inflict on our fellow creatures is. But being right, unfortunately, is rarely enough. Animals need us to be both right and effective.

The importance of changing laws to protect animals from cruelty can’t be overstated. In addition to reducing suffering—such laws codify the notion that animals’ interests matter. And making the animal protection movement a political force to be reckoned with—one with even more political influence than those who defend animal cruelty —will only come to be when enough animal protectionists dive into the political game and start delivering the votes and other resources that sway policy-makers.

Rustin was right that creating a voting bloc and obtaining political power was the right pathway forward for civil rights. The same should be so for many other social justice movements today, including animal protection. When it comes to rectifying societal injustices, as civil rights activist Florynce Kennedy so aptly put it: “Don’t agonize, organize.”

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Photo credit: Matt Reese

Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow him at http://twitter.com/pshapiro.

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