The Cory Booker Dilemma for Progressive Animal Activists

During the 2016 Democratic primary, I was very much a Bernie Sanders partisan. The candidate was so much on my mind, that when I was writing my biography of Ronnie Lee, founder of the Animal Liberation Front, my subject emailed me on more than one occasion to say I’d accidentally substituted his name with that of the Vermont senator’s in the manuscript draft!

Now, there was a period during the primary in which it seemed that the animal activist group Direct Action Everywhere was only protesting at Sanders’ rallies. This made me very angry! It made me even more angry when the group was challenged on this and essentially said — a pox on both the Clinton and Sanders; vote for Cory Booker in 2020. While the New Jersey senator is vegan, he’s very much aligned with the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. As Frederik deBoer pointed out, Booker has “criticized unions, pushed for lower corporate taxes and undermined public schools.”

I seethed over what I saw as Direct Action Everywhere’s naive, bourgeois liberalism. But as time passed, I wondered if my feeling reflected an insufficient commitment to animal liberation. I found myself empathizing with something the pseudonymous socialist Carl Beijer wrote. “Given the scale and proximity of the danger, it seems to me to follow trivially that stopping global warming warrants literally any sacrifice we could possibly make.” he said. “If stopping climate change means accepting a totalitarian global autocracy that exercises absolute control over the world economy and carbon outputs with zero tolerance for democratic resistance, that is what we should endorse.”

That’s how I feel about ending the exploitation of animals. I believe their suffering dwarfs that of any human tragedy or injustice. After all, we slaughter more than 65 billion land animals every year, according to Farm Animal Rights Movement. To put that in perspective, the Population Reference Bureau estimates estimates only 107 billion humans have ever lived. If mitigating this violence — only to a slightly greater degree than we would otherwise — means accepting an economic conservative like Booker, then that’s what I believed we should endorse.

The New Jersey senator’s record on animal issues seems to be fairly strong when compared to that of his colleagues. Booker’s personal veganism, while perhaps symbolic, suggests a certain degree of ideological commitment. He received the Humane Society of the United States’ 2011 Humane Public Servant Award. “Booker has been a strong champion of animal protection and an effective leader in cracking down on cruelty and abuse,” said Sara Amundson, executive director of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.” He has consistently stood up for the values of kindness and compassion.”

While both Sanders and Clinton managed a 100-percent rating from HSLF in some years, Booker seems to have done this every year. If someone wants to make the argument that HSLF ratings don’t accurately reflect politicians’ record on animal issues, I’d be open to hearing it. Perhaps the ratings don’t fully account for the impact of unrestrained capitalism on non-human lives. Such a conclusion would certainly simplify things for me, a progressive animal activist, looking toward the next presidential primary.

This seems to miss the point though. Why is the relative commitment of centrists and progressives to improving the lives of animals even up for debate? Why isn’t animal liberation — hell, even animal welfare — a core progressive value? There’s a long history, from Élisée Reclus to Angela Davis, of the left extending its emancipatory vision to include non-humans. Let’s just hope that when 2020 rolls around, progressive animal activists aren’t forced to make a terrible choice.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town.

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