Everyone knows Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream company, but far fewer know Ben and Jerry, the men behind the company. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield are not only businessmen but passionate activists deeply invested in a range of social and political issues. For years, they used their company to push for progressive causes, advocating wage hikes, fighting for environmental justice and embracing the LGBT cause.
Now, Cohen and Greenfield are throwing their weight behind a candidate who embodies their progressive values, Bernie Sanders. They recently spoke with In These Times about their support for Bernie, the business community’s role in social change and a host of other activist issues.
You two are ardent supporters of Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign. What really draws you to him?
JERRY: Ben and I have been constituents of Bernie’s for over 40 years here in Vermont. We saw him as Mayor of Burlington, and then he was also our congressperson, and now he’s our Senator. Bernie has been tireless and unwavering in support of people who typically don’t have a voice – working families, senior citizens, veterans, students. He is the only presidential candidate who is willing to talk about how the political and economic system is rigged for the benefit of the super-wealthy and corporations.
BEN: He’s finally a presidential candidate we’re voting for! Usually in politics, you’re voting for the lesser of two evils. This is finally a candidate who represents the best of our aspirations and he understands that it’s going to take a real movement in order to change the corrupt political system that’s in place.
JERRY: Bernie is not for sale. He doesn’t take any money from Wall Street. He doesn’t take money from the pharmaceutical industry. He doesn’t take money from the fossil fuel industry. All his contributions are from individuals — the average amount is 27 dollars. He is beholden only to the people of this country, not to any special interests.
Do you see any connections between your support for Bernie Sanders and your ice cream company?
BEN: During the time when Jerry and I were running the ice cream company, we recognized the very powerful role that business has in our society, and in our political system, and we were trying to use that power as a force for progressive social change. All the stuff we were trying to do at Ben & Jerry’s as a business are the very same things that Bernie is trying to do: to help those that are oppressed economically and socially.
JERRY: Ben & Jerry’s as a company doesn’t support any candidate. But Ben and I are thrilled to personally support Bernie. We are supporting him as loudly and as enthusiastically as you possibly can.
Ben, you founded the organization The Stampede to help get money out of politics. You guys have a unique approach to this issue, stamping currency with slogans like “Not to be used for buying elections” — can you speak about that?
BEN: I got very involved in this issue of getting money out of politics because it is the root cause of most of the problems with our country. It’s the reason why we have an energy policy that doesn’t make any sense. It’s the reason why we can’t pass decent environmental regulation. It’s the reason why we can’t pass universal healthcare. It’s the reason why we’re still buying Cold War-era weapons for the Pentagon. It’s the reason why student debt is so ridiculously high and students can’t get decent interest rates. It’s the reason why big pharma is screwing us all.
I got involved in this campaign to get money out of politics because it’s kind of job one. Until we get money out of politics, we’re really not going to be able to solve the other problems. A recognition of that is the reason why some of the major environmental organizations like Greenpeace and Sierra Club recently called the Democracy Initiative to focus on getting money out of politics. I’ve realized that we’re not going to be able to get money out of politics until there’s a huge movement supporting that, kind of like the movement that Bernie is catalyzing.
The tactic of stamping money with messages talking about getting money out of politics allows those millions of Americans who understand that this is the major problem facing our country to make their voice heard in a way that’s constant, because money stays in circulation for about five years after it gets stamped. As more people join the movement — and there’s about a thousand people joining each week — it builds on the people before them. It’s a protest and a very major demonstration to get rid of this system of legalized bribery that we have today.
Both of you have also taken a progressive stance on wages in the past, with Ben & Jerry’s at one time having a policy stating that no employee’s rate of pay could be more than five times that of entry-level employees. What do you think of the state of wages in America right now, and what are some possible solutions to this issue?
JERRY: I think the minimum wage is obscenely low. It is absolutely impossible to live on the minimum wage. It’s a terrible situation when you can be working 40 hours a week in the United States, the richest country in the world, and you’re still living in poverty.
BEN: It also creates a situation where the taxpayers are subsidizing these corporations that are paying minimum wage. People are still in poverty, and you’re subsidizing food stamps and Medicaid and rent assistance — the whole bit.
What are the origins of your social activism?
BEN: The basic American values of justice and equality. You go to school and you hear that the big thing about America is that we’re all equal, and then you get out into the world and you realize, well, that’s not the case. A lot of people are getting screwed by a system that is designed to screw them. You can either accept that or you can go around complaining about it or you can do your best to change it. I think Jerry and I feel best when we’re working to change it.
JERRY: I think the big thing for me was college. I started college in 1969 and there was a lot of social activism and social movements going on the. There was the Vietnam War, the shootings at Kent State, a very active civil rights movement and women’s movement. I was exposed to a lot of that when I first went away to college and it made me understand that you can either be a spectator or you can be a participant.
What responsibilities do you feel that the business community has to address economic and social problems?
JERRY: Business, as has been mentioned, has an enormous influence on the country and on the society at large. It has enormous influence on elections through campaign contributions. It controls legislation through lobbying. It controls all the mainstream media through ownership. It has a huge impact on people both as employees and as consumers. It can use that influence for its own self-interest, or it can use it for the common good. That really is the responsibility that business has.
How has the business community’s response to these issues changed over the years, if at all? Are they more engaged, less engaged?
JERRY: I think there are a lot of entrepreneurial companies that are much more engaged, whereas the larger multinational corporations are following when they are pushed to follow — generally by their consumers.
A lot of people worry that Bernie’s proposed political revolution is unlikely to come about this election cycle. Would he still be an effective president, in your view, even without the backing of such a nationwide movement?
JERRY: I think Bernie will be at least as effective as anyone else who gets elected. There is gridlock in Washington. For anyone who is concerned that Bernie won’t be effective once he gets elected, well he has the best chance of all because he has such a strong following. No other candidate has nearly the passion and support that Bernie does.
BEN: Bernie is the first person to say that if he gets elected President but there is not this huge movement of people behind him helping to shift the way our country works, there’s really not going to be much that he can do. All those people that are working for him now, that are inspired by him now, that are donating to him and voting for him, need to keep working with him once he gets elected. The reality is that Congress is essentially bought and paid for by corporations and the ultra-wealthy, and Bernie’s candidacy is finally a chance to overcome that, but it’s going to take a whole lot of work by a whole lot of people.
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