Keep your partisan hands off my burgers and avocados
Serious issues too often get set aside by politicians eager to make a quick point
We shouldn’t let politicians define what we eat as a partisan choice, but that’s indicative of the way we avoid decision-making on tough issues. (Photo by KWON JUNHO on Unsplash)
Inflation has become Public Enemy No. 1 in America, even though it’s clearly a temporary condition — since, as the stock market is painfully reminding us, what goes up must come down. A crisis always exposes our weaknesses, this one revealing how vulnerable we are to the kind of knee-jerk policymaking that’s aimed more at impressing voters than actually advancing their best interests.
Not that millions of people aren’t affected by inflation — they are, and it’s especially hard on people with less disposable income — but a cool analysis wouldn’t elevate the short-term problem of higher prices over concerns that have forever implications. Take human-induced climate change, for example, which threatens to displace millions of people and yield mass starvation and violent political upheaval by the middle of this century.1 Have you heard much about that lately?
Here's what you are hearing about: We’re paying five bucks a gallon for gasoline and we’re less than five months away from an election. One party wants to assign blame and the other wants to avoid it, so we’re all in on the inflation fight. Don’t go saying it’s Vladimir Putin’s fault, or that it’s a global phenomenon connected to the pandemic; Americans want retail prices to fall and stocks to rebound, right now, so somebody had better fix the economy.
Of course, in the meantime, we also could try to patch things up on our own rather than expecting quick and painless answers from our political system. Take, for example, your rising grocery bills. We’ve been told that one way to protect ourselves from inflation’s peril is to change what we’re eating. Food prices are up 10 percent year over year, but the price of meat has risen at a much faster rate than prices for fruits and vegetables.2 If we were to eat less meat, then, we could cut our food bills.
But that’s about as unlikely as Mitch McConnell singing bass in the Senate Kumbaya Chorus. Americans eat more meat than anybody else in the world: about 219 pounds per person each year (closely followed by Australians and Argentinians).3 We’re a carnivorous society, with only about 5 percent of us claiming to be vegetarian, and 3 percent taking the label of vegan.4 We will not go gently if we are asked to hand over our Whoppers and Quarter Pounders With Cheese.
One reason for that, it turns out, is politics: What we eat, like practically everything else in our country, has become partisan. It’s a pretty good metaphor, in fact, for the way political identity is seeping into every aspect of our lives.
It goes beyond meat, though you could start there. Back in the middle of the Trump administration, The Economist surveyed Americans’ eating habits, and found that Democrats were 1.8 times more likely than Republicans to say that they wanted to reduce their meat consumption. That result emerged even after the researchers used what’s called a logistic regression model to account for factors other than political affiliation in the decision — like education, sex, household income and the like.
Maybe Democrats were simply turned off by Donald Trump’s well-known appetite for fast food. When the Clemson Tigers came to the White House after winning the 2018 national collegiate football playoffs, Trump served a spread of what he called “great American food” — from McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s and Domino’s. It might have disappointed the young athletes who imagined a swell White House spread, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise: In a book published the year before, aides had said Trump’s favorite meal on the campaign trail was this: Two Big Macs, two Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and a large chocolate shake.5 (Mike Pence might have been closer to the presidency than we imagined: That one meal is 2,381 calories, by McDonald’s measure, which experts say is more than even a moderately active male in Donald Trump’s age group ought to consume in a whole day.)6
Of course, Trump is not alone in this gastronomic neopopulism. As if to suggest that a patriot wouldn’t show up at a Nancy Pelosi dinner party, some Republican politicians have stretched their imagination to denigrate green food. Ted Cruz, for example, has often bragged of how much he loathes avocados, seeming to suggest that eschewing the flavorful big-seeded fruit is a mark of right-wing bona fides. Marco Rubio, too, not long ago spoke sneeringly of people whose mornings include “drinking your caramel macchiato, and then you’re reading The New York Times and as you’re eating your avocado toast.” Not to be outdone, the senator from Louisiana, John Kennedy, deplored “cosmopolitan, goat’s milk latte-drinking, avocado toast-eating insider elites.”
I’m indebted to a Northern California farmer/philosopher, Andy Griffin, for cataloguing the right wing’s anti-avocado sentiments. Griffin insists that he doesn’t drink macchiato or subscribe to the Times, though he concedes to owning some avocado trees on his Mariquita Farm, “which apparently makes me an enabler or enhancer of politically incorrect thought.”
Just to be clear, food as a tool of political branding isn’t a new thing. In the late 1980s, George H.W. Bush sought to shed his image as a New England prepster by asserting that he loved pork rinds and hated broccoli. And in 1972, when Richard Nixon visited the Texas ranch of John Connally during his re-election campaign, an elite crowd of 200 invited guests enjoyed juicy steaks washed down by Moet et Chandon champagne, while a few miles away, Democrats sought to make the point that they were the party of ordinary working folks by featuring their vice presidential candidate, Sargent Shriver, at a $5-a-head street party featuring vats of tamales and kegs of beer.7
But efforts to use food to establish a candidate’s identity — chowing down on hot dogs at the state fair, or sampling pizza at a local pub — aren’t the same as what we see nowadays, which is a branding of voters by diet. I’m a political progressive, but don’t try to stop me from eating pork chops or bison burgers, nor shame me for putting avocado on my toast. I drink black coffee with lunch, as my Republican-leaning parents did, but does my occasional latte with whole milk reveal me to be a leftie? Are conservatives really supposed to avoid vegetables, because Donald Trump does?
This is not the way that food ought to figure in American politics. How we produce, process, pay for and distribute food in this country deserves deep scrutiny at government’s highest levels, but it’s overshadowed by the topic of the day, which never seems to involve that basic issue of what we eat. We need to be discussing issues like this: Tax policies encourage corporate ownership of farms, and low commodity prices for years have driven out of business millions of small farms, the kind that tend to better conserve the land. And our federal standards for what’s called “organic” products are so lax as to be laughable. Rather than using food preferences as a cudgel, politicians could view food policy as an environmental issue, a rural development issue, an immigration issue and a foreign policy issue.
But that requires the kind of long-term thinking that is hard for a public official to embrace when an election is just around the corner, as an election always is. Right now, we’re all signed up to board the bus to bust inflation, and if we can’t quickly do that, well, we’ll just blame it on somebody else — like, maybe, those folks who enjoy some avocado slices on toast. That approach to our politics is, sadly, as American as a juicy burger and fries.
Nixon’s visit to the Connally ranch is based on the article at https://www.nytimes.com/1972/05/02/archives/nixon-samples-good-life-at-connallys-ranch.html ; the Shriver reference is based on the recollection of the writer, who was the first Citizens for McGovern coordinator in San Antonio, Tex., in 1972.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Bourbon, Ind. (South Bend Tribune, southbendtribune.com)
Fall River, Mass. (The Herald News, heraldnews.com)
Silver City, N.M. (Searchlight New Mexico, demingheadlight.com)
Salem, Ore. (Statesman Journal, statesmanjournal.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Woman now runs park that she credits with saving her life
Deeply depressed for months as she recovered from near-fatal Covid-19 and a difficult childbirth, Lacey Pfeiffer wandered a 317-acre woodland on the banks of the Tippecanoe River where, she says, she found peace. Now, according to reporting by Joseph Dits in the South Bend Tribune, she has become the manager of the Potowatamie Wildlife Park, and she is determined to help more families get into nature. Pfeiffer is an advocate for “1,000 Hours Outside,” a movement aimed at encouraging families to combat kids’ excessive screen time by getting them outside for at least 1,000 hours a year.
Students design prosthetics for animals
It has become a yearly tradition at Bishop Connolly High School: Once the seniors have graduated, the remaining students spend the last week of school in three teams, each engaged in a design and engineering project. This year, according to reporting by Audrey Cooney in The Herald News, the students are creating prosthetics for injured animals: a turtle missing a fin, a horse that’s lost most of a hoof, and an eagle with a severely damaged beak. The plan is for them to first create prototypes, then consult with experts who will visit the school and help the students use 3D printers to create the final products.
Acute need, low pay, long hours: mental health system fails providers and patients
In New Mexico, the rate of adverse childhood experiences — such traumas as abuse, neglect or incarcerated parents — is among the highest in the nation. That puts particular pressure on social services providers in the state, according to reporting by Anabella Farmer for Searchlight New Mexico, an independent, nonprofit news service. But the intense and lengthy training required for those jobs isn’t matched by the workload or compensation, leading to a care crisis in the state. “There just aren’t enough therapists, and many of them are retired or burnt out,” Aretha Amundson, a licensed clinical counselor in the state, told Farmer. Two-thirds of the state’s residents live in underserved areas — a problem facing everyplace in the country, but especially rural areas.
Climate change and extreme weather affect youth mental health
Two years ago, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ordered several state agencies to take steps to reduce and regulate greenhouse gases. As a part of that, the Oregon Health Authority has issued a report finding that there are growing feelings of “hopelessness, despair, anxiety and frustration” among the state’s young people, according to reporting in the Statesman Journal by Tracy Low. “As climate effects get worse, youth are becoming very worried about their future and the future of their younger siblings,” said the report’s lead author.
And in the end, will anybody pay attention?
As the hearings of the Jan. 6 investigative committee continue, it’s hard to imagine that most Americans won’t be horrified at what is being laid out — namely, a willful abrogation of the oath of office by an American president, with activities by both him and key aides at least bordering on criminal. But will it matter?
After all, it is only now — 23 years after Columbine, a decade after Sandy Hook, five years after Las Vegas, six years after Orlando, four years after Parkland — that a barely modest reform in U.S. gun laws seems to be on the verge of narrowly passing the Senate, due to lockstep Republican opposition to gun regulation. If so many deaths of innocent people can’t shake politicians into action, can we expect a mere threat to America’s tradition of a peaceful transfer of power to draw their attention?
At this moment, there are indications that the mass of evidence presented in the hearings may have the salutary effect of deflating the expectations of Donald Trump that he can cruise to another Republican nomination. But even if that’s so — that is, even if, miraculously, we are spared another Trump presidency — the greater threat that he has unleashed on America remains. That’s found in the huge number of Republican candidates (not all Republicans, but most nowadays, sadly) who eagerly mislead citizens into believing the lie that Trump was cheated out of the White House, and thus that our democracy isn’t fair. Trust is essential to our republic’s survival; a belief that a vote doesn’t count is a sure way to discourage people from voting, and to cause them to lose respect for whatever government results from elections. Why honor an illegitimate government, after all? And what will happen if unethical election officials — those whose allegiance is to Trump’s lie, rather than to impartial administration of election laws — really do distort the results, in ways that we haven’t seen before in America?
This is the worry we must face in the fall, as campaigns by the Liars’ Caucus get into full swing. For now, we may take some oddly uneasy encouragement in the surely unsettling findings of the Jan. 6 committee — because we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of Donald Trump’s political career.
Thank you for reading The Upstate American, and for joining me in our journey across *our common ground, this America.