Political animals

7

Red squirrels are definitely Republicans—gray squirrels liberal Democrats like myself.

I base these judgments on morning hours spent sitting in a sunny easy chair observing the politics of my own backyard while I am supposed to be writing.

The focus of communal life in the backyard is the bird feeder that hangs outside the kitchen window. We intend it to feed black oil sunflower seeds and suet to the chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, cardinals and woodpeckers, but more often than not we have gray squirrels hanging upside down scarfing down seeds and gnawing on the suet through the cage, and agitated red squirrels scurrying around in a constant hissy fit.

Gray squirrels will take anything they can get, but they are willing to share most of the time. That’s a core Democratic principle. Red squirrels, on the other hand, are feisty and selfish, do not play well with others and absolutely refuse to share, a core Republican principle.

The other day I broadcast handfuls of seed and stale bread across the crusty snow and watched how the backyard animals responded to the bounty. The imperious crows, oligarchs of the treetops, were the first to spot the bread and announced the news in excited caws, but when the first crow approached warily, it ended up flying away as though suspicious of my intent. Crows are willing to share, but only with their own kind.

Six gray squirrels showed up shortly thereafter, coming from all directions and not quite sure what to make of all the bread or of one another. Very quickly, they settled into munching bread and seeds peacefully, content to profit together from my largesse.

Then a pair of red squirrels came out of the woods. Territorial little critters, they first tried to chase off their gray cousins, then they chased each other so fast, so far and so furiously that the democratic gray squirrels were able to eat all the bread while the red squirrels were fighting among themselves. In the Republic of the Red Squirrel, it is apparently better that everyone suffer rather than anyone benefit.

I could be wrong about the party affiliations of the gray and red Sciuridae in my yard, but humans have been ascribing political personae to animals for hundreds of years.

My hero George Orwell, of course, immortalized himself with “Animal Farm,” his 1945 allegorical satire of communism. It has always bothered me, however, that no particular personal traits of barnyard animals seemed to recommend them to the roles Orwell assigned. Pigs, for instance, are no more prone to revolution than chickens. Why not a troika of wild horses as stand-ins for Marx, Lenin and Stalin?

And why make a raven the spy in “Animal Farm?” In our yard, the most subversive critters are the moles that tunnel beneath the lawn and garden, invisibly undermining all of our horticulture efforts and occasionally erupting in telltale hills of dirt. Only the anarchist skunks, which come out at night on the ballfield and lawn, do more damage.

The totem animals of our two-party system are the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant, 19th-century cartoons that took on lives of their own. The donkey seems to have a dual origin, born both in 1828 when Andrew Jackson took great pride rather than umbrage when critics called him a jackass, and again in 1874 when cartoonist Thomas Nast satirized the prospects of Ulysses S. Grant seeking a third term in a cartoon that pictured a braying ass wearing a lion skin, and a horrified elephant labelled “The Republican Vote.”

The elephant has been the GOP symbol ever since, but I would argue that there is nothing remotely elephantine about the Republican Party in 2018. Elephants are powerful, compassionate and wise. Republicans, not. I’d propose the nasty little red squirrel as the GOP totem, but perhaps more fitting would be the vampire squid, the elusive sea creature Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi used to describe Goldman Sachs.

“The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity,” wrote Taibbi, “relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

What better animal than the vampire squid to evoke a political party that represents the monied class and has no principles other than capital?

Alas, long gone are the days when Teddy Roosevelt Republicans marched beneath the progressive banner of the Bull Moose. Imagine Republicans today espousing strict campaign finance reform; a national health service; a minimum wage; social insurance for the elderly, unemployed and disabled; an inheritance tax; workers’ compensation, and direct elections.

You can have all your Yellow Dogs, Blue Dogs and Boll Weevils. Give me the good old Bull Moose any day.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.