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 Article of Interest - Advocacy and Legislation

One-Click Activism

by Lane Fisher, Hope Magazine, October 30, 2002

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It's a would-be activist's dream come true: Someone with kindred values monitors Congress and alerts you to significant votes. Better still, they draft a letter to your congressional delegation and ask if you'd like it faxed right away. Want to edit it? No problem! They'll do it your way. Welcome to TrueMajority. It's the new brainchild of ice cream mogul Ben Cohen and Priorities, a 6-year-old nonprofit that has pressed to get adequate funding for education, children's health care and other social issues by reducing obsolete, Cold War-oriented Pentagon expenses. This could be easily accomplished if the pork barrel were taken out of military spending, according to Priorities' advisory committee of high-ranking, retired military officers.


If that sounds great to you, you're not alone-and TrueMajority is here to help voters tell Congress to listen up. The project will attempt to engage the 50 million "cultural creatives" named by sociologist Paul H. Ray- U.S. citizens who share, among other things, social, ecological and political values that the government is failing to address adequately. "[These people] have no idea how big a group they are ... and how important they can be to American life," writes Ray. Even higher levels of support for values embedded in TrueMajority's 10 principles are apparent in independent surveys. For instance, 75 percent of Americans are willing to pay an additional $50 a year to cut world hunger in half by 2015. The problem, says Cohen, is that hardly anyone has time to track what Congress is doing in all those areas, so they wind up attending to just one or two issues. "You start off with a cohesive group of 50 million, but it gets fragmented. Then, when it comes time to pressure Congress, no one organization has enough of a constituency to be effective. Instead of being guided by the values of the American people, the government is being guided by the values of corporations-which are, essentially, to maximize profits," he says.


Cohen's plan is "one-click activism," a free service that he believes will help Congress act according to Americans' deeper values. The TrueMajority Website lets individuals register for email alerts that arrive once or twice a month. Complementary to Working Assets' Act for Change alerts, TrueMajority focuses exclusively on national leadership and easy action. By clicking on the URL in the TrueMajority email, members open three options: having a letter in front of them faxed with their names to their own congressional delegates or revising the letter before TrueMajority sends it. Or they can send nothing.


Will Congress pay attention to form faxes? "I've spent a bunch of time strolling around Congress and talking to people there," says Cohen. "Essentially they are saying the best thing people can do is make their views known to their legislators. We understood that emails are disregarded by a lot of them, and that's why we're generating faxes."


He admits that a phone call to Congress might be more effective-but then there's nothing to stop a person who's sent the fax from picking up the phone, as well.


"It's probably true that personal lobbying's the best thing you could do," says cartoonist Ted Rall, who recently signed up for TrueMajority's email alerts. "Hell, the best thing you could do is buy your own congressman. Failing that, you have to get people to be involved to the extent that they're willing and able.... Isn't [a form letter] better than nothing?" TrueMajority is still developing, says Cohen, and there's plenty of room for suggestions. Active in late June, the Website enrolled 30,000 members in its first five weeks. Meanwhile Cohen and cohort hit the highways, parading through cities with cleverly molded vehicles and carnival games to raise awareness of how the government spends tax dollars. The tab for TrueMajority is picked up by Priorities, an umbrella for the 10-member military advisory committee, some 500 CEOs and corporate presidents in Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities (BLSP), Religious Leaders for Sensible Priorities representing 40 denominations, and a new and growing group of Entertainers for Sensible Priorities. Additional funds come from foundations and Cohen personally.


The seed of priorities was sown in BLSP when Ben and Jerry's was still, well, Ben and Jerry's. Cohen fervently believes that business is the most powerful force in our society and therefore has a social responsibility imperative, although it's not required by corporate law. "If the most powerful force in society does not look out for the general welfare, society will be destroyed," he and Jerry Greenfield wrote in "Ben and Jerry's Double Dip" (1997). Starting with a desire to build a "community-based" business, Cohen and Greenfield made their ice cream company a model of social responsibility and tried to inspire other businesses to follow suit. BLSP evolved as an attempt by hundreds of like-minded CEOs to persuade Congress to shift spending priorities out of the Cold War and into programs that nurture the overall health of society. When Unilever bought Ben and Jerry's in 2000 -- making such an unmatchable offer that the board, bound by law to maximize shareholder profits, had to accept it-Cohen was stripped of his primary medium for effecting positive change.


"I'm continuing to work for things that are passions for me in terms of economic and social justice, but I'm doing it without the aid of that incredible asset and tool," he says, the loss weighing in his voice. He threw his legendary energies into BLSP-stacking cookies on the polished tables of Congress to illustrate how our military spending towers over that of all our allies and potential enemies combined and dwarfs our spending for social services-and into the Ben and Jerry's Foundation and the Hot Fudge Social Ventures fund, which invests in businesses owned by women, minorities and low-income people.


But change in congressional priorities, he realized, can come only if prodded by an electoral base. "Politicians essentially listen to two things: money from the people who give them campaign contributions and votes," says Cohen. Then came Sept. 11. "There were a lot of people watching the news and thinking, There's got to be something greater than more guns, more drilling, and more welfare for corporations as a vision for our nation's future."


Barbara Valocore, president of Lifebridge Foundation, which is making a grant to TrueMajority, agrees. "There's a large portion of the population that feels strongly about life-enhancing and values-based issues but is not getting its voice heard. If that voice of concern was really organized, we could change things rapidly for the better for all people," she says. "It's not necessary to have 24,000 people dying every day. Poverty can be solved for a fraction of the military budget."


And what would become of the military? It could get better-and it desperately needs to, according to Priorities' military advisory committee, which includes former CIA director and retired navy Admiral Stansfield Turner and retired army Colonel David Hackworth, this country's most decorated living combat veteran.


Before Sept. 11, Congress appropriated about $350 billion dollars for weaponry and forces that are largely outmoded, says retired navy Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan, who chairs the advisory committee; this year's proposed budget simply tacked on an extra $45 billion for the war on terrorism, bringing military spending to more than $1 billion a day. "If you look at our military structure today, it would be a miracle, an absolute miracle, if it were to be successful tracking down, in an urban, third-world environment, these shadowy figures that are out to get us," he says. We are wasting money on army divisions and carrier battle groups, according to Shanahan, when what we will need in the future is better intelligence and more special forces. Of course, there's a lot of PAC money and votes embedded in old-style military spending. "This is where the military-industrial complex has a chokehold on those people who would like to see us reorganize our military," says Shanahan. Although jobs are at stake, he says money could be redirected to new jobs in sectors "that improve the quality of life for the average American."


Cohen fumes at the subject of military spending. "Despite all the talk about reducing nuclear weapons, our country is developing new nuclear weapons and continues to spend about $30 billion a year on our nuclear arsenal. That's enough to blow up the entire world ten times over. That didn't make any sense before the terrorist attacks, and it doesn't make any sense after the terrorist attacks.


"What's really patriotic is struggling and fighting for the soul and spirit of America.... The majority of the population wants to increase spending for education. They want to take care of people in poverty at home and abroad. They want the U.S. to act in a multilateral fashion, cooperating with other countries in the world instead of ... refusing to sign international treaties," says Cohen. "These are things that are based on the traditional American values of compassion, equality, and social justice." Lane Fisher is an associate editor of Hope Magazine.


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