Don’t Ask Cory Booker About Veganism

Americans might be ready for a vegan politician, but they aren’t ready for political veganism

There’s a vegan running for president, and nobody is talking about it — not even the man himself. Senator Cory Booker is quietly making history as the first practicing vegan to make a credible run at the Presidency, and he doesn’t want you to bring it up.

Booker’s vegan bona fides are solid: Gandhi-inspired vegetarian since 1992, vegan since 2014. He isn’t a politician on a “plant-based diet” (e.g., Bill Clinton) but a genuine environmentalist and animal lover. When he saw my friends staging an animal rights demonstration in New Hampshire, he went out to them and stopped to meet everyone, grinning all the while. He’s gone beyond the call of duty for animals: He’s known to drive around outside and save dogs from freezing to death in the winter. He even has a veggie burger named after him. From a vegan perspective, the Senator’s resume is unrivaled in politics.

The competition for this honor is thin, seeing as most of the other Democratic candidates are hypocritical on this topic. Julián Castro is stridently against shelters euthanizing dogs and cats, and yet he is okay with killing cows, pigs, and chickens. On climate change, Andrew Yang has said that “we’re going to be OK if the vast majority of the world goes vegetarian immediately,” but apparently the “vast majority of the world” does not include him — he is a regular consumer of meat. Kamala Harris has urged Americans to reduce meat consumption, and yet she openly says that she loves cheeseburgers. On the day after the Climate Strike, which every Democrat praised enthusiastically, the candidates gathered in Iowa to fry over 10,000 steaks together. Some ironies are too painful to enjoy.

The bar for practicing what one preaches is incredibly low, and Cory is the only major candidate to step over it. If we include more peripheral candidates, Tulsi Gabbard does too, but nobody polling over 1% has put their money where their mouth is on animal agriculture.

Yet even as Booker manages to be the only prominent politician to walk the walk, he refuses to talk the talk. Aside from a single short interview for VegNews, Booker has repeatedly responded to being called vegan as if it were an accusation, rather than an accurate description.

During the third Democratic debate, Senator Booker was offered an enormous opportunity to speak out on behalf of animals and the environment. In the context of a discussion about climate change, moderator Jorge Ramos asked Booker whether or not more Americans should join him in following a vegan diet.

For abolitionists like myself, Booker’s response could not have been more disappointing. “No… Actually, I want to translate that into Spanish: no,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Veganism? I think you meant to say, “veterans.”

Vegans briefly enjoyed our first mention in a national debate, only to be immediately betrayed by our only representative. Spartacus, as Booker sometimes calls himself, decided to turn on his fellow gladiators.

Booker continued on to blame “factory farming” for environmental degradation and advocated for “family farmers” as an ally in the fight against climate change, before inexplicably leaping into a practiced soundbite on veterans.

After all, if he genuinely thinks family farms are morally defensible, why does he refuse to buy meat from them? Indeed, why would he be vegan if he didn’t support veganism? A vegan actively insisting that other Americans shouldn’t be vegan — in two languages, no less — is as absurd as a feminist candidate recommending that voters continue to be sexist.

Though Booker seemed visibly surprised by the question, his response was strategic. He intentionally obfuscated his own opinions, and then he rushed to change the topic. This is a tactic he has employed elsewhere: When he was asked about the carbon footprint of beef on MSNBC, he joked around with the moderator, stating “I do not have a radical vegan agenda,” before broadening the topic to include fast fashion and chemical pollution, and then endorsing family farms. Make a joke, endorse family farms, change the subject — this is Cory Booker’s victory-while-vegan strategy.

Now, I could write about how Booker is unlikely to actually believe much of what he says publicly on this topic. After all, if he genuinely thinks family farms are morally defensible, why does he refuse to buy meat from them? Indeed, why would he be vegan if he didn’t support veganism? A vegan actively insisting that other Americans shouldn’t be vegan — in two languages, no less — is as absurd as a feminist candidate recommending that voters continue to be sexist.

I could also write about the factual inaccuracies in Booker’s statements: The only reason factory farms have caused more environmental damage than family farms is because they represent an outsized share of the market. Non-intensive farms are less efficient, take up more land per animal, and maintain most of the problems inherent to modern forms of animal farming. In fact, it would be physically impossible to go back to the days of pasture-raised animals without dramatically changing our diets: A Harvard study found that even if we were to use all of our available pasture-land to raise cattle, we would only be able to produce 27% of what we currently consume with the help of factory farms. In enlisting family-owned animal farms in the fight against climate change, Booker may as well have argued that we should support small coal mines to combat air pollution, or that we should protect local tobacco farms to fight lung cancer.

However, I think Booker is making a conscious choice to obscure his opinion and ignore the data on this topic, and for those of us hoping for a vegan world, that should be far more interesting.

For the vegans who expected more from Booker, just imagine if he had actually responded to Ramos by saying, “Yes, Americans should all go vegan to stop climate change and boycott animal cruelty.”

The entire debate stage would have taken turns crucifying him. Fox News’s headquarters would have needed a fleet of ambulances to deal with all the aneurysms. Socialists would respond by writing vicious think-pieces about how there is “no ethical consumption under capitalism,” and right-wing talk radio hosts would go on apoplectic rants about how liberals want to take away guns and meat from “real” Americans. In short, Booker would be attacked from all angles, while a handful of vegans cheered him on. To root for Booker to speak out on veganism would be to root for him to immolate his campaign.

It’s not that voters aren’t ready for a vegan politician. According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, 74% of registered voters don’t care whether or not a candidate is vegan. Of those that claimed to care, 12% said it would make them less likely to support a candidate, and 7% felt they would be more likely to support a vegan. But supporting a vegan politician is different from supporting political veganism.

Political veganism, as I am defining it, is when the state is utilized as an apparatus to further vegan goals. This could include moderate actions, like a politician using their platform to ask for veganism at an individual level, or legislating an end to animal agriculture subsidies. It could also include more revolutionary actions, such as a total ban on animal exploitation.

One day, if veganism keeps growing at its current rate, political veganism will become a viable mode of operation. In fact, it seems likely that if vegans were to attain a legislative majority, this is what would transpire. But today, this route is not yet open to us.

According to Gallup, only 3% of Americans identify as vegan. More specifically, the same poll shows that 5% of Democrats are vegan. While these numbers might sound pretty good, let’s put them in perspective: 21% of Americans believe in witches, and one in five Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth. Ideas like these are more mainstream than veganism. When you sit down with the numbers, the entire vegan population begins to look like a rounding error.

The rather tame statement that “people should go vegan,” would not be a popular one in the public sphere, and that’s why he refused to make it. About 19 out of 20 Democrats would disagree with it. Politicians, in America, typically act as mirrors that reflect the opinions of their constituents. Senator Booker’s brand of veganism merely reflects the reality of our movement: It is not yet a popular one.

Cory Booker cannot possibly expect the remaining 95% of non-vegan Democrats to rally against their own behavior. He would have better luck asking college kids to support a ban on vaping. Booker, like all politicians, cannot afford to endorse dramatically unpopular positions. The rather tame statement that “people should go vegan,” would not be a popular one in the public sphere, and that’s why he refused to make it. About 19 out of 20 Democrats would disagree with it. Politicians, in America, typically act as mirrors that reflect the opinions of their constituents. Senator Booker’s brand of veganism merely reflects the reality of our movement: It is not yet a popular one.

America might be ready for a vegan president, but they are not ready for vegan policy. For now, voting vegan can only mean “voting with your dollar.”

And yet, I desperately want political veganism to arrive. I want animal cruelty to be illegal, and I want pigs, cows, and chickens to get all the same protections we give dogs. So where can would-be political vegans like me place our efforts? Well, we can write articles castigating Cory as an apologist, tweet about how disappointed we are in him, write strongly worded letters to his office, and hope that he destroys his own career to appease us, giving veganism 15 minutes of national fame in the process. Or, we can recognize that even moderate veganism puts Booker leagues ahead of his rivals, and aim to change the voters, instead of the candidates. We can work to create a lasting shift that opens the door for people like Booker to speak powerfully on this topic in the future.

Making voters go vegan might seem to be an impossible task, but persuading people to join the movement isn’t nearly as hard as you might think. Here are some simple options: Invite your friends over for a movie night and watch your favorite documentary on veganism. Start cooking vegan meals for your non-vegan relatives, and debunk their misconception that vegans eat nothing but grass. Share meaningful videos about veganism on social media. Text articles about veganism to people you know, and ask what they think about them. If you aren’t making progress with the people in your life — or you’ve already persuaded them all — get involved with activist groups, and have open conversations with local meat-eaters. I do street activism with my friends at least once a week, and every time we go out we convince a few people to go vegan on the spot, and persuade many more people to look into veganism further.

These small commitments might seem meaningless, but every successful act of persuasion is worth it. 2020 is too early for political veganism, but if every vegan brought in just one new vegan per year, this country would be majority-vegan in time for 2024. You can help one person go vegan this year, can’t you?

To be clear, I don’t expect us to have a vegan majority before the next election. Frankly, I don’t expect it within the next few decades. But it isn’t so crazy to expect that our numbers will increase to the point of political significance within my lifetime. America being 3% vegan might seem hopelessly low, but just seven years ago, that number was closer to 2%. A single percentage point might seem meaningless, but that is a 50% increase in our numbers and 3 million new vegans. If we continue to focus on growth, one day, we will get to vote with more than our dollars.

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