New Ben & Jerry’s flavor: Dirty Little Secrets

George Scoville Media Strategist
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First, you take politics, and add a lot of money. Then you mix in hypocrisy and a velvety ribbon of smugness to cut the bite of the irony.

Populism has been just as much an ingredient in Ben & Jerry’s ice cream over the years as milk and sugar. Their business model turns a profit for shareholders while realizing appreciable benefits to communities through foundation philanthropy, funded by 7.5 percent of pre-tax profits. There isn’t much to dislike about Ben & Jerry’s. But when co-founder Ben Cohen publicly decries “money in politics,” he transforms from hip, counter-cultural icon into hypocritical censorship advocate. You can bet that Cohen will blame “money in politics” if Mitt Romney wins the election. If you care about your right to persuade your fellow citizens to vote for your candidate, or your right to be persuaded, you should be highly suspicious of Ben & Jerry’s latest gimmick.

Politico recently reported that Ben & Jerry’s will soon distribute a limited edition AmeriCone Dream™ variety, complete with a campaign finance reform message from Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert on the carton (a “super PACk” of ice cream). Cohen told Politico, “What’s amazing to me is that 80 percent of the population — Democrats and Republicans — wants to get money out of politics. … The only large company supporting its customers is Ben & Jerry’s. That’s absurd.”

A review of facts shows how absurd Cohen’s claims are. In 2001, Gallup reported that respondents of one survey favored campaign finance reform by a 76 percent-to-19 percent margin. But by 2008, even after then-Candidate Obama reversed course on his public funding pledge, respondents in a new survey said by similar margins that how the campaigns raised money had no bearing on how they viewed the candidates. Following the 2010 landmark Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision, twice as many Democrats and Republicans both viewed money spent communicating as inseparable from constitutionally protected speech as those who did not. Charitably, 63 percent of people recently surveyed by the First Amendment Center oppose unlimited spending; they don’t oppose money in politics altogether.

Ben Cohen has spent $66,874 of his own money on politics since 2007. By comparison, the median income in the U.S. in 2008 was just over $52,000, a figure that has since declined. So while progressives decry the drowning-out effect of “money in politics,” Cohen personally spent more in a single election cycle than the average American earns in a year. Cohen also founded True Majority to broaden his reach into politics. True Majority is now part of US Action, a national progressive group that boasts three Big Labor affiliates: the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). But Wall Street Journal reports in 2010 and 2012 pegged Big Labor as the most dominant political spending group in recent cycles. Shouldn’t Cohen stop spending so much on elections and renounce his affiliation with these groups?

Cohen’s hypocrisy doesn’t stop there. In April 2000, Cohen and Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Jerry Greenfield sold their popular ice creamery to multinational food and consumer good giant Unilever, which also owns brands like Dove, Lipton, and TRESemmé. Cohen is still a Unilever employee and an ongoing spokesman for both the Ben & Jerry’s brand and progressive advocacy. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, Unilever has spent close to $1 million lobbying the United States government on “[Miscellaneous] Manufacturing & Distributing” issues. The Sunlight Foundation’s Influence Explorer clocks Unilever’s recent lobbying expenditures at above $1.6 million. Neither expenditure estimate is a lot of money for a company of Unilever’s size to spend on lobbying, but it’s far more than a median income earner could ever afford to influence public policy.

In fairness, most of the recent “money in politics” hysteria has focused on corporate contributions to super PACs, more so than on lobbying. But here again, the data don’t bear out the narrative.

Ben Cohen’s deceptive “money in politics” gambit is a front in the high-stakes competition for voters’ attention. While Cohen may be wrong on the merits, we should take his claims seriously. After all, they’re popular views, and President Obama recently expressed support for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, the functional equivalent of repealing the First Amendment. People like Cohen don’t want money out of politics; they just want their opponents’ money out of politics.

Just as money Cohen, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, US Action, and Unilever spend on politics amplifies the views of poor, urban progressives who can’t afford TV ads, so does money Sheldon Adelson spends on politics amplify the views of poor, rural conservatives. Communicating clearly, effectively, and comprehensively requires resources. Money in politics brings about the social good we know as “open debate.” Government censorship of candidates or groups by restricting their access to resources they need amounts to a net loss for free society.

George Scoville is a political media strategist in Springfield, Virginia. He founded and edits The Dangerous Servant and contributes to United Liberty.