Democracy. Equality. Ice cream.
Those are the timeless values underpinning a new campaign by Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in response to the wave of restrictions on voting and the flood of big money in politics. The effort aims to build support for restoring the Voting Rights Act to full strength, after it was weakened by the Supreme Court; for automatic voter registration, which could bring millions of new voters into the process; and for overturning the Citizens United ruling that scrapped most limits on political money.
The Vermont-based ice-cream-makers Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are known for getting political—in past years they’ve taken on global warming and income inequality. They’ve also been big Bernie Sanders backers, with Ben even releasing a “Bernie’s Yearning” flavor (“Political Revolution inside!”) But in pushing for more democracy, they’re throwing themselves into the cross-hairs of the 2016 general election, where voting restrictions in place for the first time in many states, and a barrage of corporate dollars, could play key roles.
Cohen and Greenfield traveled to North Carolina – which in 2013 passed the nation’s most restrictive voting law – to launch the campaign Tuesday, along with a brand new flavor to promote it: Empower-Mint. And last week they spoke to MSNBC about why voting rights isn’t a black issue it’s an American issue, why all companies are political animals, and their plan to offer “deliciousness combined with communication.”
MSNBC: First of all, let me say it’s an honor to speak to the men behind so much of the dessert consumed in our household. My wife was very excited when I told her about this.
Ben: It’s important to excite your wife!
MSNBC: It certainly is. Now, you’ve done political campaigns before. But why did you want to focus on issues of democracy right now?
Ben: Justice! Equality! I mean, I think the idea is to increase voter access to the polls, and it appears that there’s now a bunch of states that are seeking to decrease access to the polls. And the reality is that they’re targeting who to decrease access to, and that happens to be poor people and people of color, and students. And I would say that’s discriminatory and anti-American.
Jerry: That was Ben in case you were interested.
Ben: It doesn’t really matter, we’re both the same.
Jerry: And the company has a history and a heritage of being involved in issues of equality, whether it’s around money in politics, reducing the military budget and weapons systems, and investing in human needs in the country, or whether it’s around Citizens United. And when we looked at the social mission of the company going forward, there are two big issues. One is the issue of justice and equality, particularly around, say, issues of poverty or racial justice. And then the other one is around the environment, climate justice. So this is just a small part of I think what we’re going to try to do going forward.
MSNBC: Increasingly, people are drawing together these issues of voting rights and money in politics, seeing them as part of a broad assault on democracy. Is that how you think about it?
Ben: Absolutely. It’s been shortened to: “Money out, voters in.” It’s two sides of the same coin. It’s doing what’s necessary in order to have the voice of regular people not silenced. Big money in politics ends up silencing or drowning out the voices of people who aren’t billionaires. And these new laws that are limiting access to the polls end up, what, not even allowing people of color or younger people or lower-income people to do the most basic thing in a democracy which is to vote. I was incredibly heartened during Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening that finally those two movements came together. The NAACP played a very large role, it was a very diverse crowd. And I think the reality is that what’s been the mostly white money-out movement and what’s been the mostly black voters-in movement, neither one of them will succeed unless we’re both working together.
MSNBC: What can you guys bring with the platform that you have? And what do you plan to do in this campaign?
Ben: I think one of the unique aspects that Ben & Jerry’s brings is ice cream, and communications abilities around ice cream. So coming up with a flavor that is specifically designed to call attention to this I think will be helpful. But that’s really just the start. We plan to be on the ground in North Carolina, supposed to be introducing the flavor on May 17. But we have a local scoop shop owner who’s going to be with a scoop truck throughout North Carolina, we’re going to engage Ben & Jerry scoop shops both in terms of registering people to vote and to try to get people involved in the Voting Rights Act. Ben & Jerry’s has a very active social media presence. So I think being able to work with a broad coalition of non-profits who are currently doing this and bringing Ben & Jerry’s’ ability to have deliciousness combined with communication brings a different sort of – it’s a different level. You can talk about very serious and very important issues but in a way that incorporates ice cream. And that’s a way to connect with people on an emotional level and also on a gustatory level. You know, I think that businesses, corporations, well-known and respected brands have a certain degree of credibility or recognition in the culture. And I think that it’s powerful to use those corporations and those brands to speak out for issues of social and economic justice. I was both proud and saddened to see that Ben & Jerry’s was the only corporation that was involved in the Democracy Awakening/Democracy Spring activity. This is basic justice and basic democratic rights. And I think that if we could get more companies to embrace this issue, it would advance the issue. And the other thing is that I think that the issue of access to the polls, voting rights, in many ways has been pigeon-holed into an issue for people of color. And you know, Ben & Jerry’s at least at this time, hopefully not in the future, is kind of a white company. And I think it’s really important to broaden, to make the statement that it’s not a black issue. It’s an American issue.
MSNBC: Why do you think it has been hard for corporations to take political positions, even on basic democracy issues? And how does that change?
Ben: I think it is changing. Just prior to this call we were … talking about Lush cosmetics, how they’ve taken a very strong stand on the issue of immigration. And we were also talking about all these mainstream corporations that took a stand on the issue of LGBTQ rights. And so that’s kind of the leading edge. Starbucks has been taking stands in fits and starts. You can list 10 corporations that have taken stands that never did before. It used to be it was just Ben & Jerry’s and a few smaller companies. So I think we’re making headway. I think the reason why companies are not taking these stands is that they have not seen it in their own narrow self-interest. They’ve been on the traditional school of thought that businesses have no business getting into politics. At Ben & Jerry’s, what we’ve always said is that businesses are incredibly political animals. All the lobbyists on Capitol Hill are paid for by businesses, so they’re very political. They take very strong political stands, they just happen to do it covertly and in their own narrow self-interest. What we’re talking about is doing it overtly and for the general welfare. I think what’s happening is that companies that are looking at the data and are looking at the research in terms of what their customers want are finding that customers want companies that are authentic and that do take a stand.