U.S. Markets closed

How Democratic candidates deal with the only bipartisan value left: cheeseburgers

Annalisa Merelli

The year is 2019, and the United States—or at least the part of it that believes in science—is dealing with an emergency of unprecedented dimensions: climate change.

It is a matter so urgent that CNN decided to give it a marathon-length town hall: seven hours in which 10 top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination shared their plans for cutting carbon emissions, dealing with potentially catastrophic weather, and saving the planet for the generations to come. Oh, and protecting the inalienable right to a cheeseburger.

With a Republican party that still denies the urgency of climate change intervention, the Democratic candidates know they have to reach across the political aisle to help save the planet. Which is why they spent so much time on Wednesday discussing beef patties—and whether or not their climate change policies would take them away from Americans.

The people want to know. Whether they volunteered the information or were prompted by questions from CNN’s hosts and the audience, a majority of candidates had an opportunity to clarify where they stand when it comes to the most bipartisan of American values.

Sure, it was a convenient diversion. “Oh, come on, give me a break,” said Elizabeth Warren, answering whether the government should prescribe what light bulbs Americans can use. The Massachusetts senator warned that focusing on individual sacrifices—light bulbs, cheeseburgers, what have you—simply plays into the hands of the fossil fuel industry, which would love to distract citizens from more systematic issues.

And yet seven out of 10 candidates contended with the issue of burgers. While discussing red meats, dietary requirements, and beef production, it seemed they were debating whether the Democrats would uphold American’s pursuit of happiness vis-a-vis buns and patties.

Asked about climate activism and her stand on the beef and cheese industries, Amy Klobuchar, went out big. “I am hopeful that we’re going to be able to [cut carbon emissions] in a way—especially when I am president—that we can continue to have hamburgers and cheese.” A campaign promise if there ever was one.

Kamala Harris, lest Americans think otherwise, conceded she loves cheeseburgers. She didn’t seem too proud of it: “I mean just to be very honest with you; I love cheeseburgers from time to time. Right. I mean I—I just do,” she said, before gesturing toward the incentives and educational programs she’d institute to encourage moderation in eating. CNN’s Erin Burnett pushed Harris: Would she change the dietary guidelines “to reduce red meat specifically?” Because she is a woman of courage, Harris admitted: “Yes, I would.”

Another proponent of the frankly unimaginable—less beef—was Andrew Yang, who quoted a UN study saying that “we’re going to be OK if the vast majority of the world goes vegetarian immediately.” He quickly realized his words might be interpreted as anti-burger, and self-corrected: “But, again, this is a country where there’s a lot of individual autonomy. And so you can’t force people’s eating choices on them,” he said, assuring listeners that he wouldn’t take their meat away.

Nor would Cory Booker, for the matter, even though he is vegan. “You said that you don’t want to preach to anybody about their diets,” asked Don Lemon, but is that true? Or would a Booker administration try and promote healthy habits (code for ‘limit red meat’)?

Booker’s hurt answer shows he understood just how loaded the question was: “So let’s go right at this, because I hear about it all the time. Booker wants to take away your hamburger,” he said. “That is the kind of lies and fear-mongering that they spread out there, that somehow the Democrats want to get rid of hamburgers.” They are not, or in any case he is not, coming for anyone’s burger.

Pete Buttigieg, on the other hand, is definitely not a vegan. “Look, first of all I’m from Indiana and secondly I love cheeseburgers,” he answered host Chris Cuomo, who asked about changes in cattle rearing. That is how much of a true American Buttigieg is: Cheeseburgers are the second-most important part of his identity. No matter the rumor you’ve heard about the Green New Deal, Buttigieg does not “propose that they abolish the cow.”

And you know who else loves red meat? Beto O’Rourke. He doesn’t even need to say it—he’s from Texas! His wife grew up on a cattle ranch! O’Rourke is a believer, that’s the kind of American he is. “I believe in the ingenuity of the American rancher and the American farmer,” he said, in an emotionally charged crescendo. “I believe that we can be up to these challenges and reject any notion that we have to radically or fundamentally change how we eat or what we eat.”

Nobody threatens the burger, not under O’Rourke’s watch. After all, is the Earth even worth saving if you can’t have a cheeseburger on it?

 

Sign up for the Quartz Daily Brief, our free daily newsletter with the world’s most important and interesting news.

More stories from Quartz: