Raised by liberal Jewish parents, I’ve been a proud progressive most of my life — and also a vegan and animal advocate.
So by the time I began volunteering in 2007 for a long-shot presidential candidate named Barack Obama, I assumed most Democratic candidates shared my core progressive values: reproductive rights, human rights, civil rights, environmental protection and animal welfare.
At a town hall forum that year, then-U.S. Sen. Obama challenged this assumption when I asked for his thoughts on a 2006 U.N. report that found factory farming generates more greenhouse gases than the transportation sector. Obama said he hadn’t read the report, and more importantly, he didn’t think factory farming could be so harmful.
As for the welfare of farmed animals, well, that seemed of even less concern.
Obama’s response has become a recurring theme among the many Democratic candidates and elected officials I’ve met over the years, but his paucity of knowledge and interest on the issue didn’t stop me helping elect him — twice.
It did, however, make me wonder why a party that champions the little guy ignores abuse of defenseless animals.
Part of this dynamic is fed by a desire to appeal to Middle America.
The Harkin Steak Fry — a now-retired event in Iowa at which prominent Democrats ate a lot of steak — is emblematic of a party whose candidates wrongly assume supporting factory farming will help them win rural votes. Unsurprisingly, the Democratic platform in 2016 didn’t mention animals at all, much less farmed animal welfare.
There have been moments where Democrats have risen to the occasion and given animal cruelty the seriousness the issue deserves.
Hillary Clinton’s platform included animal protection.
Jon Stewart exposed Gov. Chris Christie’s cruelty when he vetoed a bill to ban gestation crates, which confine mother pigs so tightly they’re unable to turn around for months on end. (Stewart has also become vegan and started a sanctuary for abused farmed animals.)
Most notably, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., is a vegan and outspoken animal advocate.
Even Obama has accepted the fact that high meat consumption is bad for our environment and health.
But it’s a mistake — and a missed opportunity — for the vast majority of Democrats to remain silent. A clear majority of Americans oppose animal cruelty, and poll after poll shows consumers want food industry retailers to reduce suffering for farmed animals in their supply chains.
There’s a good reason Americans so uniformly agree we need to change how we farm and eat: The lives of farmed animals are hell on Earth.
For instance, chickens raised for meat are bred to grow so fast that many collapse under their own unnatural weight. They live in their own waste, which causes ammonia burns, and the poor air quality of factory farm sheds can cause respiratory diseases and even eye lesions.
Chickens who don’t die before making it to the slaughterhouse are shackled upside down by their feet and subjected to painful shocks in an electrified water tank. Finally, their throats are cut open, often while the birds are still fully conscious.
Unlike most of the developed world, the United States has no federal law that protects all farmed animals from birth to death. The few protection laws we do have either exclude some species or are woefully unenforced.
The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, for example, provides no protections to chickens or turkeys at slaughter, even though they constitute nearly 90 percent of land animals killed for food.
Fortunately, animal protection isn’t a partisan issue.
It is certainly true that most politicians who support animal welfare legislation are Democrats and tend to represent more progressive, urban voters.
But some Republicans from predominantly rural states — such as Sens. David Vitter, R-La., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., — have strong voting records on animal protection bills. In the House, Martha McSally, R-Ariz., Robert Dold, R-Ill., Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., and others have equally respectable track records.
Former U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., for whom I interned in 2006, was a champion for animals.
There’s opportunity for rural Republican members of Congress to win over more voters by cracking down on factory-farm pollution that harms nearby residents and drives down rural property values — and by addressing factory farming’s abhorrent record of jeopardizing worker safety and health.
Those defending the status quo on this issue can seem intransigent — in part because the meat industry is so powerful. Tyson, Smithfield and other meat giants dole out millions in political contributions yearly. As a result, factory farms abuse animals and harm the environment with few to no consequences.
For those of us who consider ourselves progressive and care about the oppression of those who have no voice, our circle of compassion should extend well beyond our own kind. In the personal realm, this extension can include simple actions such as eating less meat and more plant-based foods.
In the political realm, it can include standing up to powerful corporations and passing state laws to ban the worst factory-farming practices — such as extreme confinement of egg-laying hens and breeding sows — and electing leaders who take action against animal cruelty.
Until then, we’ll fall far short of the progressive values most worth fighting for.
Jared Milrad, JD, MS, is global campaigns lead for Mercy For Animals, an international farmed animal protection organization.