Gordon Hodson, Ph.D.

Gordon Hodson Ph.D.

Without Prejudice

Meat Eating and Political Ideology

Does your political view predict eating animals?

Posted Sep 10, 2018

In a previous column I discussed recent research (Hodson & Earle, 2018) showing that conservatives, relative to liberals, are more likely to return to eating meat when they try to eliminate it from their diet. They lapse back to meat consumption. And we demonstrated that this left-right difference in lapsing back to meat is due to those on the right being: (a) less likely to try cutting out meat for social justice reasons (e.g., animal welfare; feeding the poor); and (b) less socially supported in their attempt to curb meat consumption. Interestingly, the left-right difference was NOT due to factors such as differential meat craving by those on the left or right.

So how big is the left-right divide in meat consumption?

New figures from a 2018 Gallup poll provide excellent estimates of vegetarianism and veganism in the U.S. Overall, 5 percent of Americans consider themselves vegetarian (i.e., do not eat meat), with another 3 percent considering themselves vegan (i.e., do not eat any animal products, including meat, milk, eggs, etc).

The story gets all the more interesting when you look at ideological differences. Among liberals, 11 percent are vegetarian, but only 2 percent of conservatives are vegetarians. (see Figure below). This is a staggering difference, with liberals 5.5 times more likely to be vegetarian compared to conservatives.

 Created by Gordon Hodson based on Gallup's data
2018 Gallup data on the percentage of vegetarians and vegans as a function of political ideology
Source: Created by Gordon Hodson based on Gallup's data

A similar difference is observed for vegans: liberals are 2.5 times more likely to be vegan than are conservatives (see Figure).

Obviously, political ideology is a very strong predictor of meat consumption.

This pattern has two important implications. First, our previous research (Hodson & Earle, 2018) shows that those on the political right are more likely to return to meat consumption because they report a lack of social support. Given that people associate with those similar to themselves (what we call “homophily”), liberals tend to hang out with liberals and conservatives tend to hang out with conservatives. As such, liberals truly will find more social support for the goal of avoiding meat consumption in their social circles.

Second, there seems to be something about being on the political left, and not just relatively more left-wing, that predicts less meat consumption. Look again at the figure. Moderates look very similar to conservatives (and in fact are even less likely be vegan than are conservatives). The “action” or “effect” seems to be that liberals (and not just those relatively more left-leaning) consume less meat than conservatives.

The overall number of vegetarians and vegans in the U.S. remains less than 10 percent, and this number has remained largely unchanged since Gallup’s 2012 poll on this topic. But there are clear signs that people are becoming much more open to the idea of eating less meat. As they note, “Sales of plant-based food grew 8.1% in 2017 alone and exceeded $3.1 billion last year, and plant-based alternatives to dairy products are soon expected to account for 40% of dairy beverage sales”. Even Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the U.S., now owns a 5 percent share in Beyond Meat (a plant-based food company). (see also Reuters story).

What does this mean? As we wrote previously (Hodson & Earle, 2018, p. 79):

“With vegetarian and vegan diets becoming increasingly popular (Newport, 2012; Saner, 2016), social support will become more salient and presumably weaken the left-right divide in lapsing” back to meat consumption.

Based on our past research, an even stronger way to reduce the left-right difference would be to encourage those on the right to reduce meat consumption for reasons of social justice, including animal rights.

References

Hodson, G., & Earle, M. (2018). Conservatism predicts lapses from vegetarian/vegan diets to meat consumption (through lower social justice concerns and social support). Appetite, 120, 75-81.  DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2017.08.027