Ben and Jerry: After Citizen United, our government looks more like a plutocracy
We need a stampede to rout the special interests who have corralled congress, they say
Ben and Jerry: Stamp Stampede wants people to put a message on their dollars
If we don't stunt the influence of money in politics, we might lose our democracy
Editor’s Note: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield co-founded Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. Ben is the founder and Head Stamper at the Stamp Stampede campaign, whose goal is to help build the movement to amend the constitution to get money out of politics. Jerry is president of the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation and promotes the company’s social and environmental initiatives.
When Jerry and I first started slinging scoops in 1978, we knew that it was about more than just the ice cream; it was about community.
Our first scoop shop was in a dilapidated gas station that we renovated with a small loan, a little pocket change and a lot of green wood. In the summer, folks would crowd around at the picnic tables late into the evenings and lounge on the grass laughing, talking and eating ice cream.
Ice cream brings people together. We might not agree on politics or religion, heck we might not agree on Chunky Monkey or Phish Food, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk. And in that way, ice cream teaches us a lesson about democracy.
Democracy is the triple-deluxe droolworthy idea that the people can govern and be governed in turn, that We the People are the author and the subject of the law. In America, it’s the idea that we can elect representatives who will rise above self-interest and work on behalf of the common good.
At least, that was the idea. These days, it looks a little different.
Thanks to Supreme Court cases such as Citizens United in 2010, which trampled over the last remaining semblance of campaign finance laws, our government looks a lot more like a plutocracy: a government where the wealthy rule.
The massive influx of corporate dough doesn’t guarantee victory for Democrats or Republicans. But it allows wealthy donors to control the national conversation and drown out other voices, making it harder and harder for the people to be heard. It allows corporations to bully our representatives and influence their votes. All they have to do is threaten to throw gobs of cash against members of Congress who oppose them, and they can chill democratic debate.
When George Washington gave a farewell address to Congress in 1796, he talked about why the U.S. Constitution deserved the people’s support and confidence. It wasn’t because it contained immutable, universal principles; it was because the people wrote it and the people have the power to alter it.
Well, if we’re going to save our democracy, we need a constitutional amendment that declares once and for all: 1) Money is not free speech. 2) Corporations are not people.
The movement to amend is already making big waves. Thirteen states and more than 500 municipalities have passed ballot initiatives calling on Congress to propose a constitutional amendment. More than 150 congressmen and President Barack Obama say they would support an amendment. But change won’t happen if we sit back and let other people do the dirty work.
We need a stampede to rout the special interests who have corralled Congress. And that’s what we’re doing.
The Stamp Stampede encourages people to adorn their dollars, to beautify their bucks, to put make-up on their moola, to stamp money with messages that promote a constitutional amendment to get special interest money out of politics.
We know it’s unusual, it’s slightly subversive, but it’s 100% legal (we checked into it), and it’s precisely the kind of democratic action we need if we’re going to win a constitutional amendment.
It’s not enough for people to sign a petition. We need a petition on steroids. You can open up your windows and scream “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” But if we want Congress to hear us we need to join together in a chorus.
So take out your stamps and start stamping messages on your money. The average dollar exchanges hands 875 times. That means if a thousand people stamp one dollar a day for a year, the message would be seen more than 300 million times. If 10,000 people do it, the message would be seen more than 3 billion times. If we all do it, we’ll flush “dark money” out of politics for good.
The time to act is now.
This is OUR democracy – a government of the people, for the people and by the people. But if we don’t stunt the influence of money in politics, we may very well lose our democracy to special interests.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield.