Three weeks ago, Ben Cohen—the “Ben” in Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream—started stamping paper currency. The stamps read “Money is not free speech” or “Not to be used for bribing politicians.” Cohen is now head stamper of Stamp Stampede, a nonprofit selling rubber stamps to promote a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.
The Indy caught Cohen on his cell last week, just before a flight from Arizona to California. Mostly we wanted to ask why the heck he’s stamping money. [This Q&A has been edited for length].
Indy: So, Ben, we were just curious. What promoted the co-founder of an ice cream company to weigh in so heavily on corporate money in politics?
Ben Cohen: It’s really clear to me that the root of most of our problems in terms of how the government works and the decisions that get made is money in politics. Essentially corporations and very wealthy people paying politicians money to pass laws that are in their own narrow self-interest. All those billions of dollars we’ve been reading about that are being spent on the presidential election campaign this year are being spent by people who have a purpose and an agenda in terms of what they want politicians to do.
Most people on the street, they’re smart enough to know corporations aren’t people. Certainly it wasn’t the intent of the Founders to give corporations the same rights as people, but that’s what the Supreme Court has done. In order to overturn those things and get back to the way America was supposed to be, as I learned in elementary school, we need to amend the constitution.
Indy: A constitutional amendment is no easy thing to pull off. What makes you think initiatives like Stamp Stampede or Move to Amend have a chance of convincing Congress to pass one?
Cohen: Before the Occupy movement started up, I felt like that’s not possible. But I think the Occupy movement demonstrated that it is possible to bring together a massive, broad-based, grassroots movement to demand that change. The last constitutional amendment, the one that changed the voting age from 21 to 18, that went through in about two years. So it is possible.
Indy: How quickly has Stamp Stampede caught on?
Cohen: We just started it about two weeks ago, and...I think we’ve sold over 1,000 stamps so far. Move to Amend, another organization that’s working on this as well, I think they’ve distributed over 500 stamps. I’d say it’s definitely starting...It’s meeting my expectations in terms of how many stamps have been ordered. Now we just need to make sure people use them.
Can you hold on just one second while I tie my shoes?
Indy: Have you stumbled on any currency that’s been stamped already?
Cohen: A friend of mine has, but I personally haven’t gotten any that’s been stamped by others. I’ve been stamping a lot. I can tell you that the Pepsi vending machine doesn’t have any problem with it here at the airport.
Indy: How many have you stamped?
Cohen: Oh, I’ve stamped thousands.
Indy: So, here in Montana, we’ve seen some serious efforts to overturn our campaign finance laws. Have you been following much of what’s going on at state levels when it comes to the trickle-effect of Citizens United?
Cohen: I do know that some public campaign finance laws have been overturned or the efforts to get them in place have kind of stopped. I’m also very aware that over 300 municipalities and over eight states including Vermont have passed resolutions calling on Congress to amend the constitution to state that money is not free speech and corporations are not people. There’s an initiative happening in Montana, and I believe in Colorado as well. I know that in New York state, New York City has a pretty good public campaign finance law, and there’s a big effort to get that same law passed at the state level.
Indy: Is there any fear that people will eventually tune out the Stamp Stampede stamps the same way they’ve tuned out a lot of the advertising backed by this unlimited money?
Cohen: Definitely. I think people are really cynical about politics. I think they’re cynical because they understand it’s the money game. It’s not one person, one vote. It’s one dollar, one vote. The reality is a dollar doesn’t count. The only people who count are those people who can contribute thousands and thousands of dollars. It’s not a democracy. It’s a money-ocracy.
Indy: Good phrase. How long have you been active in this fight? Did it start with Stamp Stampede or did you build up to this?
Cohen: For about 10 years, I was running a campaign called Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, then a spin-off of that which was True Majority. They were both focused on shifting national budget priorities to social needs at no additional cost by reducing Pentagon spending. We were very active in the presidential primaries for a couple rounds, so yeah, I’ve been really interested in trying to get the federal government to operate in the interests of the people as opposed to corporations and the wealthy for a long time. That’s where the money is. We’re not out of money. There’s no fiscal crisis. The only crisis we’ve got is that we’re spending the money in all the wrong places. And we’re spending the money in the wrong places because of money in politics.
Indy: Who else are you working with on the issue? I mean, the people doing all this spending span both sides of the aisle. Have you seen that bi-partisan vibe reflected in the groups you’re working with?
Cohen: The major groups we’ve been working with are Move to Amend, Common Cause, People for the American Way, Public Citizen and Free Speech for People. They’re largely left, and that’s one of the big problems in terms of this movement to amend the constitution. Clearly the constitution is never going to get amended if it’s only people on the left who want to do it. The interesting thing is that, when you look at the rank and file of the population, the numbers are pretty similar in terms of the percentage of Republicans who want to get money out of politics and Democrats. I would love to help a group on the right to form. It’s very interesting that the leadership on the right is not advocating for...I have to get off the phone, because I’m on the plane and they’re making me.