Meat is, and long has been, one of America’s fiercest political battlegrounds. But these fights have taken on a new tenor recently. Last month, a friend sent me a photo of a small meat shop in Brooklyn. Its front window was once plastered with neon pink and orange posters advertising ham, turkey breast and top round by the pound. Now, a stock image of a giant, billowing American flag dresses that same window, flanked at the bottom by a banner depicting cuts of raw, red meat, as another banner at the top proclaims, “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.” Why did this neighborhood spot change from a place to pick up dinner into a beacon of freedom?
Meat is, and long has been, one of America’s fiercest political battlegrounds. But these fights have taken on a new tenor recently.
This question of meaty liberty became a topic of viral discussion recently — at least in some corners of the internet — as outrage erupted over false claims that President Joe Biden’s climate plan demanded that Americans drastically reduce the amount of meat they eat. Personal food consumption isn’t currently part of Biden’s eco-policy, but nonetheless conservative warnings that the left is coming for your meat have steadily gained ground over the last couple of years. These anxieties reveal our current moment’s deep political division. But there’s a reason why this faux warning cry about a meat ban, in particular, conjures such fury and fear.
Take, for example, the role eating meat, or not, played in the 2020 presidential campaign. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii both campaigned as the nation’s first vocally vegan presidential candidates. This didn’t sit well with some conservatives. A Fox News article decreed, “Iowa voters have beef with non-meat eaters Booker, Gabbard at Iowa State Fair,” while opinion pieces endorsed perspectives like “Why I vote ‘hell, no!’ on a vegan president” and “No to a vegan president.” These writers framed a vegan leader as out of step with tradition, as someone who wouldn’t eat pork at the Iowa State Fair or whose presidential turkey pardon at Thanksgiving would ring hollow. These voices also worried a vegan president would be prescriptive and restrictive — that is, someone whose dietary zeal might spill over into national policy. (Booker directly responded to such concerns, saying "Freedom is one of the most sacred values — whatever you want to eat, go ahead and eat it.”)
Former Vice President Mike Pence also made meat an issue at a Farmers and Ranchers for Trump event in Iowa in August 2020, which was held shortly after Biden announced then-Sen. Kamala Harris of California as his running mate. Pence warned Iowans of Harris’ comments from CNN’s 2019 climate crisis town hall, when she endorsed modifying dietary guidelines to reduce red meat consumption, which earned little attention at the time. To booing from his audience, Pence vowed, “We’re not going to let Joe Biden and Kamala Harris cut America’s meat.” The message was clear: Anything less than a full-throated endorsement of cheeseburgers and steaks was unpatriotic. (Never mind the fact that Harris herself said, in that same town hall, that she loved a good cheeseburger “from time to time.”)
To be fair, food is always political, but meat has become hyper-politicized. This has occurred as meat-free eating has transformed from a countercultural and relatively fringe movement into a more common feature at restaurants, in grocery stores and in food culture more broadly. Just last week, the recipe website Epicurious formally announced that it would no longer develop or prominently post beef recipes, a move that garnered both support and disdain on Twitter.
And yet, despite the increasingly heated rhetoric about meat-free cooking and the availability of plant-based products in the marketplace, the overall number of vegetarians has barely increased in the last 20 years, holding steady at about 5 percent of American eaters.
Rates of vegetarianism do differ significantly when political beliefs are taken into account. A 2018 Gallup poll found that 11 percent of respondents who identified as liberals also identified as vegetarian, compared with only 2 percent of conservatives and 3 percent of moderates. In fact, political ideology resulted in larger gaps between vegetarians versus nonvegetarians than race, gender, age or region.
But enough people to take away America’s burgers? Hardly. Plant-based burgers may be coming to a fast-food chain near you, but a relatively small number of American eaters, of any political stripe, are giving up all meat. So why the recent media deluge threatening outright meat bans?
In a literal interpretation of the political “red meat” approach, conservative pundits have seized on the hamburger as an apparently effective symbol of personal freedom. The claim that Democrats want to take away your burger — like the claim Democrats want to take away your guns — is a strategy to manipulate classic conservative anxieties about individual autonomy and liberty.
It’s not a new tactic, either. In 2019, former Trump White House aide Sebastian Gorka said proponents of the Green New Deal wanted to “take away your hamburgers.” The Daily Mail echoed such rumors when it misreported that “Biden’s climate plan could limit you to eat just one burger a MONTH.” As the claims spread, former Trump White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow warned of “No burger on July 4,” while the consistently conspiratorial Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., called Biden “The Hamburglar.”
Even when they’re false, these claims resonate, and not just because hamburgers are widely adored as delicious. The hamburger is a symbol of America, an immigrant-invented food recognized around the world as both laudably and deplorably “American.” Burgers are affordable and conveniently available at globalized fast-food franchises and local spots, while also ripe for culinary innovation. A totalizing myth-maker, the hamburger is past and present, tradition and modernization all wrapped into one.
And perhaps that is what’s really at stake in this meat ban panic: not burgers themselves, but the fear of losing what they represent. The American identity — left and right, liberal and conservative — is currently fractured, broken even, but not irreparably so. When political fires flared over meat this past week, the real question at hand had little to do with beef. Change is scary — there is a reason some conservative politicians have made change the boogeyman of the past several decades. Biden isn't going to take away our hamburgers. But as a collective nation, we do have to reckon with a mutual future that won't look, or taste, quite the same as it has in the past.