Polls have repeatedly shown that a broad majority of American citizens think money has too much influence in politics and support some sort of campaign finance reform. Yet, even as campaign spending continues to soar, the issue hasn’t broken toward any actual national policy change for more than 15 years.
Ben Cohen wants to change that — with some help from perhaps his most effective weapon: ice cream.
The Ben & Jerry’s co-founder and longtime campaign finance reform advocate is touring Boston on Friday to dish out free scoops and collect signatures for a recently certified 2018 ballot initiative in Massachusetts in support of a 28th amendment to the Constitution.
Cohen talked to Boston.com about what the ballot initiative would do, how he would solve the issue of money in politics, and, of course, ice cream.
This interview has been edited and condensed. More on when and where Cohen is giving out free ice cream below.
So what is this petition trying to achieve?
If you look at most any problem that we as Americans are experiencing, the root cause is usually found in campaign finance — how corporations and the 0.1 percent are essentially bribing what are supposed to be our representatives. They’re essentially bribing them with campaign, so-called donations to pass, or not pass, legislation that helps corporations and the ultra-wealthy at the expense of everybody else.
John McCain calls it legalized bribery and in most any other country doing what they do would be considered illegal. The problem is that in our country the Supreme Court made some 5-4 decisions that don’t make any sense.
The Supreme Court is really a bunch of corporate lawyers. They made a ruling that said money is the same as free speech, and they made another ruling that said that corporations have the same rights as human beings. And then they passed their most recent famous Citizens United decision that put the two together. It said, if money is free speech and corporations are people, then corporations can spend as much money as they want to influence elections.
And that’s the root cause of why student debt is so high, it’s the root cause of why credit card fees are so high, because these industries give millions — and if you add them up, billions — to influence these guys. They know where their bread is buttered; they don’t bite the hand that feeds them.
So this initiative in Massachusetts, it’s a signature campaign that’s now in its final stages. The signatures need to be gathered by November 22 in order to get a ballot initiative on the ballot in 2018. That ballot initiative says that the state of Massachusetts is in favor of an amendment to get money out of politics.
The precedent-setting part of it is that, along with this resolution, it establishes a citizens’ commission that would hold politicians’ feet to the fire. It’s the citizens who will figure out exactly what the best amendment should be.
What do you think the 28th amendment should look like?
There’s several different amendment proposals that are out there. The one that I like the best, and that’s really the easiest, is the idea that all federal elections shall exclusively be funded by “democracy vouchers.”
That’s essentially an amount of money — say, $100 — that every citizen would get to donate to the politician of their choice. But that is the only money the politicians could use to fund their election campaigns. That makes everybody in the United States equal, and I always thought that was the idea behind our democracy.
Where would the money for the vouchers come from under that idea?
It gets funded as a tax credit, so it’s essentially a deduction off the taxes you pay. And for people who are not paying taxes, they get a voucher. They get the same amount of money.
Citizens United gets mentioned a lot, but it seems that Buckley v. Valeo, which essentially established that money equals free speech precedent, is the root cause of the issue you’re trying to address.
I think you’re exactly right. I think that the system was broken because of Buckley. And since that ruling, Citizens United was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It made it a lot worse, and that’s what finally got this movement kicked into high gear.
There are two roots of the problem. One was Buckley, and the other was [Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co.] back in the 1800s that started a line of reasoning that corporations are entitled to the same bill of rights that human beings are entitled to.
What do you do about the paradox of how the public broadly agrees on getting money out of politics with the polls that show people don’t think it’s a top issue? How do you get people to prioritize it, if you think it is the root of a lot of our problems?
There was recently a new coalition that formed called the Democracy Initiative and that is a group that includes the Sierra Club and Greenpeace and the Communication Workers of America and the NAACP and whole bunch of other organizations.
The founding members, especially the two big environmental organizations, got together because they realized that they’re never going to make headway on getting decent environmental regulations until they get money out of politics.
To get one sort of ice cream-related question in here, I have to ask, if campaign finance reform was a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor, what would you say would be in it.
I’m not sure what the reform flavor would be, but the current flavor would be All Fudged Up.
Cohen will be scooping free ice cream in support of the initiative Friday at Boston University’s George Sherman Union from 1 to 2 p.m and at the Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shop at 174 Newbury St. from 3 to 4 p.m. He will also be at a 6 p.m. fundraiser at Old West Church at 131 Cambridge St.
Cohen’s tour of Massachusetts continues Saturday with a 9 a.m. volunteer send-off at Brookline’s Lawton Park, a noon rally in Worcester’s Kelley Square, and a 5 p.m. public event (with more ice cream) at the Shire City Sanctuary in Pittsfield.