Have we learned anything from the endless presidential campaigning?
I’m not sure, because as often as the candidates try to talk tough, only to get scorched by the opposition for being intemperate, impulsive or otherwise incompetent, it never seems to sink in that flaming rhetoric is at best a balancing act: While bare-knuckle messaging fires up the base, it also alienates plenty of undecided voters who might otherwise consider the candidate more favorably.
Such tactics, while they’re devoured by the partisans who already agree with the candidate, don’t generate much traction outside of the voters he or she already has onboard.
That metric applies beyond politics. Here’s an example:
A few months back, Nebraska’s Republican Gov. Dave Heineman decided to call out the Humane Society of the United States, saying that “Nebraska would kick the group’s backsides if they attempted to enter the state.”
Then last month he doubled down. According to the state’s The Columbus Telegram newspaper, Heineman received a standing ovation from the audience at the second annual Central Plains Beef Industry Day in Howells, Neb., back in August. At the event, he reiterated that Nebraskans won’t be intimidated by HSUS or any other animal rights groups that have pushed for stricter regulations on livestock production.
“They’re out to destroy the American way of life as it pertains to all of you and your kids,” Heineman told attendees. “They want to destroy American farming and ranching.”
He called on the livestock producers and FFA members in attendance to “stand tall” on the issue of animal welfare and help protect the state’s agricultural economy.
“If [HSUS] wants to come to Nebraska, they’re in for the fight of their life,” he said.
Wrong message, wrong crowd
So what’s wrong with standing tall, especially when the antagonist in question happens to be a group that by all indications actually is dedicated to “phasing out” livestock production, meat processing and eventually the consumption of animal products entirely?
On one hand, the governor’s comments were right on target. HSUS’s leadership has made numerous ham-handed speeches condemning animal agriculture, without ever seeming to consider either the economic impact that would result if the industry went down nor the reality that millions of otherwise good and decent people earn an honest living producing the food products that 90 percent of Americans consume as a valued and appreciated part of their daily diets.
Not to mention that HSUS’s muscular fund-raising is predicated on a bald-faced lie: Millions of people who care deeply about the problems of abandoned pets, puppy mills and dog fighting are suckered into handing over contributions to support those causes, which HSUS then uses to bankroll state-by-state referenda banning commercial production practices with which they disagree.
But here’s the problem: Beyond HSUS, there’s an avalanche of negative news regarding livestock production, meat-eating and the entire business complex responsible for food production in the United States that hits news channels, cable shows and other mainstream media on a daily basis—and that’s not counting the vast blogosphere where virulent attacks on farmers, ranchers and can be cataloged almost hourly.
That means that the supporters of the larger meat and poultry industry have an uphill battle if they want to sway the millions of people who are regularly exposed to the idea that raising livestock is damaging the Earth, creating illness and abusing the animals themselves.
Think about that: Nearly 90 percent of Americans say they’re “concerned” about environmental issues. At least two-thirds of Americans currently suffer from a variety of chronic health problems, many of them linked to the obesity crisis we’re facing. And a resounding majority—somewhere north of 55 percent —considers animal welfare to be a problem associated with the food production system itself.
That means most Americans are pre-disposed to embrace the messaging of HSUS, PETA and other activist groups because it connects with their values.
Which means that the proponents of animal agriculture ought to worry less about throwing rocks at those groups—much as they might deserve it—and more about connecting with the millions of consumers who might be persuaded to view the industry more favorably if the counter-argument could synch with what they believe.
Bluster always feels good, and tough talk delivered to a crowd who already agrees with your opinion is immensely satisfying. Ask any politician.
But in the end it does little to move the needle with those who disagree, because it’s off-message to the larger audience that needs to hear something positive from the people promoting animal agriculture
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.