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Liberals just don't have the meats

Tim Nelson
July 16, 2018

Maybe it’s just a product of today’s media and political climate, but the divide between conservative and liberal Americans feels deeper and fiercer than ever before. It’s almost as if people who worship Donald Trump as an infallible god-emperor and those who worry about the deep, potentially irreparable harm his administration could do to the country (and arguably the planet as a whole) can’t see eye to eye. Weird.

As you might expect, those red and blue state differences have manifested in divergent culinary tastes. Now, a new study shows that one’s feelings about America’s most-maligned restaurants is strongly correlated with their political preferences.

According to the Washington Post, two economists at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business developed an algorithm that would allow machines to make predictions about an individual’s income, race, gender, level of education, and political persuasion based solely on survey responses. Their findings, published in a National Bureau of Economic Research paper showed the algorithm was able to guess the demographic characteristics of individuals based on brand preferences, with a remarkable 70 percent success rate in some instances.

The algorithm’s knack for knowing where we fall on the political spectrum based on what and where we eat (and drink) yielded some telling results. For example, if you admitted to buying an alcoholic beverage but feel ranch dressing is too gauche, you’re more likely than not to identify as a liberal. Liking JIF peanut butter also places you on the rightward end of the spectrum.

In the process, this research finally answered some of American food culture’s most enduring questions: who exactly is eating at Applebee’s and Arby’s? Turns out the answer is conservatives (or at least not liberals). 55.6 percent of those who identified as a liberal showed no interest in the fast food chain that wants to give you a heart attack, making it one of the more telling indicators of political ideology. Applebee’s, America’s neighborhood restaurant, and Sonic, the official drive-thru of those two middle-aged male friends from the commercials, were shunned by 54.4 and 54.1 percent of self-identified liberals, respectively.

As we all know (or should know), correlation does not imply causation, and the study doesn’t suggest that one’s distaste for watery $1 margaritas actively determines their political ideology. It’s likely that the concentration of these establishments in traditional red states just means that conservative voters are more likely to encounter them. After all, there are far fewer Sonics in liberal strongholds like New York (16) and Massachusetts (6) than in deep-red swaths of the south like Tennessee (227), Mississippi (128), and Oklahoma (227).

And while it’s easy to think that eating at chain restaurants mocked by city-dwellers could be an attempt to “trigger the libs” similar to smashing a Keurig or shooting a cooler, the fact that the survey data is compiled from 2009 and earlier suggests that the right’s current fixation on the politics of resentment isn’t the factor here. Maybe it’s just that conservatives have a preference for eatin’ good in the neighborhood, the classic drive-in experience, and roast beef.

Could American liberals find a way to bridge the political gap and come to a greater understanding of Trump voters by sitting down in an Applebee’s for a few hours? Who knows. But rest assured, someone at a major newspaper is already planning a trip to one right now.

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