The Differing Concept of “Dog” in Red and Blue America
Andrei S. Markovits
The United States Department of Agriculture’s recent decision to eliminate from its website the inspection reports and animal welfare data on some 9,000 facilities that use animals in a wide variety of ways -- from dog breeding operations to roadside zoos, from animal research labs to walking horse show participants -- was not only shocking in its essential undermining of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Horse Protection Act (HPA) but also surprising. While I am certain that saving money on such inspections was a reason in these times of curtailing pretty much any act of generosity, compassion and humaneness; the prevalent reaction by the media seemed to bespeak a worry that this move on the part of the Trump Administration was a punishment of a vocal group of Democratic Party supporters (animal rights activists of various sorts and their allies); a gift to animal-related businesses; or yet another effort to restrict information and reduce transparency as an integral part of the Trump Administration’s worrisome authoritarian tendencies in general. All good possibilities: But I sincerely believe that a massive divergence in the very perception of animals’ essential identity and role in contemporary America constituted a major, if not sole, reason for this action. Simply put, the social and cultural meaning of “animal” has come to vary by political affinities in the United States.
In our research on breed-specific canine rescue in the United States, Katherine N. Crosby and I found that the meaning of a dog’s being differs greatly in the culture of predominantly blue and red areas. Examining ten geographic regions of the United States constituting the Standard Federal Regions created by the Office of Management and Budget, and correlating our findings with voting results for Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 presidential election; we found that on the whole dog “owners” in southern states and rural areas still tended to treat dogs as animals, rather than as family members. Dogs in these regions of the country remain mainly companion animals that continue to perform the jobs for which they were bred, such as herding, guarding, and hunting. In blue states, in contrast, these animals have become family members whose predominant, if not indeed sole function, is to give and receive unconditional affection, not to their “owners” but to their “moms”, “dads” and “siblings”. Inhabitants of southern and rural areas are less likely to spend money on neutering their dogs or giving them preventative care, to enact community-or state-mandated spay and neuter laws, and to volunteer for animal rescue groups than their northeastern, West-Coast-based urban and suburban counterparts. This, of course, is not to say that people in southern states and rural areas of the country – i.e. “red” America -- love dogs any less than folks do in the North and in cities – i.e. “blue” America. It is merely to state that they love dogs differently, or better still, that dogs’ roles have attained different meanings in these increasingly divergent cultures that so inform contemporary American life. Even the role of dogs in society has become contested ground in America’s culture clash pitting “blue” against “red” states.
I see this as part of the massive changes that have altered important parts of American society and culture since the late 1960s and early 1970s. This “culture turn” ushered in a “discourse of compassion” whose essence has been to give voice to the voiceless, include all hitherto excluded, and empower the formerly disempowered. I think it far from coincidental that women have arguably been the most important agents of this social and cultural transformation, just like we found in our study that women have played a hugely disproportional role in every aspect of dog rescue and animal welfare. And it was this “culture turn”, too, that commenced to create the chasm that now has created two such different Americas subscribing to different values and identities and preferences as to what it means to be American.
Thus, the recent elimination of website inspection reports protecting animals is a telling manifestation of the Trump Administration’s frontal attack on precisely this “discourse of compassion” that the current government so disdains and wants to eradicate as a manifestation of America’s weakness rather than its moral magnanimity.
Andrei S. Markovits, professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan, is co-author with Katherine N. Crosby of From Property to Family: American Dog Rescue and the Discourse of Compassion published by the University of Michigan Press in 2014.