BURLINGTON, Vt. — When ice-cream magnate Ben Cohen wanted to raise the profile of his campaign to take big-money contributions out of political campaign, he turned to the entertainment world.
The man who founded Ben & Jerry’s in Burlington with Jerry Greenfield in 1978 is on tour with roots musicians Donna the Buffalo and Peter Rowan. Their tour is called “The Stampede,” partly in reference to the rampaging herds Donna the Buffalo evokes but also because Cohen will be stamping dollar bills with the demand that money be taken out of politics. He has done his stamping on his own before, yet Cohen knows his issue stands a better chance of being heard if he connects it to entertainers.
He said he has talked to many people in the public relations industry about that. “What they keep on saying consistently is it’s a celebrity-driven culture. It doesn’t particularly make sense,” Cohen said, laughing. “The fact that a celebrity happens to support something shouldn’t mean any more than if a person on the street does, but it does. The key to social and political change is getting the message into the popular culture and getting the message carried by celebrities.”
Bernie Sanders recognizes that as well. The Vermont senator and candidate for the Democratic nomination for president has a website full of celebrity endorsements, ranging from comedians (Will Ferrell, Sarah Silverman) to musicians (Bonnie Raitt, Phish members Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman) and actors (Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito). The popular Ultimate Fighting Championship athlete Ronda Rousey threw her support behind Sanders last week.
Mark Ruffalo realizes that entertainers carry weight when it comes to capturing the public’s attention. The Oscar-nominated actor is among those celebrities listed on Sanders’ website as supporters of his candidacy. Speaking with the Burlington Free Press by phone Friday afternoon from New York City, Ruffalo said all a person has to do is see commercials for watches or perfume to notice that celebrity endorsements are valued.
“Artists in general, we have a place in the culture that transcends just entertainment culture,” said Ruffalo, whose next movie, Spotlight, is in theaters. “We do have a reach into the culture that many of the politicians who bash us wish that they had.”
A ‘powerful vehicle’
Why entertainers reach the public when others cannot is a question Tara Nevins is willing to tackle. She is the singer and multi-instrumentalist for Donna the Buffalo, an upstate New York band that met Cohen a few years ago at a festival and liked what he was doing with his money-stamping campaign.
The entertainment Donna the Buffalo brings is especially well suited to carrying a greater issue, according to Nevins. “There’s sort of that undefinable component in music that reaches people universally a certain way. It’s a very fluid, kind of subtle but powerful vehicle conveying a message through not only words but a feeling,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “There’s a feeling of community.”
Nevins thinks the issue of big money in politics is an important one to address. “The people who are giving all that money, their voice is that much bigger and they can ask for favors and they sway decisions. What it does is it negates our voice, the voice of the people,” she said. “It’s corrupt and a big problem; it sort of seems obvious to me.”
She said she knows the band might be “preaching to the choir” for some in its audience. Nevins suspects, though, that by highlighting the issue of money in politics the Stampede tour might put the issue on the front burner for fans.
“People love music so people are going to come and listen to Ben Cohen and they’re going to listen to a band that they really like,” Nevins said. “Their hearts are open; they’re open vessels. They’re not closed up and stuck. That’s when you have a better way to kind of get the message out and have it be heard.”
Cohen will be on the Stampede tour that continues into December. He plans to speak two or three times from the stage for a few minutes at each show, and will have stamping stations on hand for people to mark their dollar bills.
“We’re hoping to build a movement to pass legislation to get money out of politics,” Cohen said.
He believes music is a great way to usher that along. “People feel a real affinity to musicians,” according to Cohen. “Musicians appeal to people on an emotional and spiritual level, especially if they’re at a concert and they’re hearing this music that is so meaningful to them and then they hear the musician talking about a particular issue. It becomes more meaningful.”
Holding the microphone
Cohen also supports Sanders and said he and Greenfield, his fellow Ben & Jerry’s founder, have gone out as “surrogates” for Sanders when the Vermont senator can’t attend an event he’s been invited to. Cohen, who calls himself “kind of a C-level celebrity,” is among dozens of familiar names putting his support behind Sanders, who represents the opinions of many who lean left politically. Sanders also is a fervent opponent of big money in political campaigns.
Ruffalo has long been a Sanders fan. “He’s a leader that has an enormous amount of credibility based upon years and years of work that has never really changed,” said the actor who was nominated for an Oscar this year for his role in Foxcatcher, a film produced by University of Vermont alumnus Jon Kilik.
“Today the name of the game is credibility; that’s really money in the bank today,” Ruffalo said. “There’s really very few people who have been leading the way he has been leading, kind of in the shadows on the national scene but with some kind of prophetic genius about it. Everything he has been working toward or working against fits perfectly into this moment in time.”
Those issues Sanders has raised, according to Ruffalo — money in politics, climate change, opposition to the Keystone oil pipeline and the “flawed hoax” of the Iraq War among them — are resonating more and more nationally. “He’s someone who’s seen the writing on the wall for some period of time, and now gets to say he was always right,” Ruffalo said. “What I love about him is it’s not about Bernie Sanders, it’s not about legacy-building. His legacy will be this revolution.”
Ruffalo, who a few weeks ago introduced Sanders at a New York City fundraiser and vouches for him on social media, said he is aware “all the time” that it’s risky for someone whose career depends upon popularity among the masses to publicize potentially controversial opinions. “You’re sort of weighing that against what’s right in the world,” Ruffalo said.
John Flansburgh grapples with that, too. The member of the pop-rock duo They Might Be Giants said he’s a Sanders supporter. “I’m a knee-jerk liberal; I’m from ‘Taxachusetts,’” Flansburgh said by phone Thursday from his current home in New York. “If you’ve grown up in that culture it’s hard to shake.”
Flansburgh said he isn’t sure he’ll express his support for Sanders from the stage during the band’s current tour. “Anyone who’s a citizen thinks about how things are in the world and you want to be responsible and you want to be a positive force,” Flansburgh said. “The preaching-to-the-choir aspect of being a performer, or maybe more accurately the solipsistic aspect of politics and entertainers where performers assume everyone thinks like them, seems a little simple to me.”
“I am always surprised at how diverse our audience is, but I don’t know why I am because a lot of our music is on television and has reached far-away places,” Flansburgh said. “We’re going to have all sorts of people like what we do and I don’t want to alienate them. You spend a lot of your energy as a performer trying to get people to like what you’re doing, and nothing kind of dashes the possibility of people enjoying what you do more than saying something that seems dopey or kind of snooty.”
Yet Flansburgh knows entertainers have the power to reach people with those messages. “We think of ourselves as civilians,” he said. “I don’t feel like we feel our insights are any greater than anyone else’s might be, but fortunately we have a microphone so we get to say things that are crossing our minds.”
Ruffalo has found strength in that. “The longer I’ve been doing this (activism) my success as an actor has actually slowly come up as I become more and more vocal about what I care about,” he said.
“I was much more fearful back in the day,” said Ruffalo, who came out early against the Iraq War even though he was just building his career a dozen years ago. “I realized, you know, I’m still here. I didn’t get killed — (opponents) attack you, but the more they do that attacking the less powerful their voice becomes.”
Follow Brent Hallenbeck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BrentHallenbeck.
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