Business Leaders Can Change Our Democracy For The Better

April 7, 2016

Jostein Solheim, CEO of Ben & Jerry's

A message from our CEO:

Five years ago I took a bet on the state of Vermont and a little, iconic ice cream company called Ben & Jerry’s when I joined as the CEO. Since then, I’ve come to learn and love many things about the place I now call home: Vermonters are immensely proud of their state, with its green mountains, homegrown products (like our ice cream and a world-famous selection of craft beers), and recently a particular homegrown candidate for president.

There is something else that Vermonters take a lot of pride in: their democracy. Every year, on the first Tuesday in March, Vermonters come together in towns and cities around the state for Town Meeting Day. 

Town Meeting Day, a state holiday, is a long held tradition of direct and participatory democracy where citizens of a town come together to debate, discuss, and vote on municipal issues as varied as school budgets, tax rates, and whether or not to buy a new fire truck. Town Meeting Day is a time when all are encouraged to participate, all voices are heard, and big money has no influence.

Unfortunately, this idyllic expression of democracy is all too often the exception to the rule in the United States. In a number of states around the country and in Washington, DC, there are clear signs that our democracy is not working for everyone. Our elections are drowning in unlimited, unregulated, and often untraceable amounts of money that influence election outcomes and enable a very few, very wealthy corporate and private interests to have much more power over the direction of our country than the vast majority of Americans. In fact, just 158 wealthy families were responsible for half of the early money in the 2016 election cycle. In addition, 16 states will for the first time have new laws on the books for the  Presidential Election that make it more difficult for millions of low-income people and African Americans, to exercise their right to vote.

These two trends, unlimited unregulated and undisclosed cash in our elections and the erosion of voting rights are driving deep inequities in the United States. The gap between the rich and poor is larger than it has been since the 1930s, with almost all of the new wealth generated going to the top 1 percent of income earners. The United States continues to grapple with systemic racism, which threatens to leaves another generation of American Americans behind. These are the statistics that startle me: the black unemployment rate is twice that of whites, black households earn a little more than half that of white households, 45 percent of black children live below the poverty compared to 12 percent of white children, and the incarceration rate for black men is more than six times higher than that of white men. 

All of this is bad for our political system and citizens, but it’s also bad for business—my investment in this issue is, quite literally, an investment. Our business and most other companies do best when the American people do well.  We could call it trickle up economics. The most progressive businesses around the world have realized that an enabled, innovative, empowered workforce delivers exponential returns. I find this to be true every day with my employees, and quite honestly, our company has been doing very well because of their initiative and imagination.

That’s why I am calling on other business leaders to embrace the urgency of this issue and join me in standing up for democracy that works for everyone. For better or worse, business is the most powerful force in society, and we have the opportunity to use this power to support a fair and inclusive democracy.

I am pleased to see citizens from all over the country converging on April 16-18, in Washington, DC for an event called Democracy Awakening 2016. Democracy Awakening 2016 will bring together a diverse array of movements and people who all care about one very important issue: our broken democracy. We’re pleased to throw Ben & Jerry’s support behind the call for a freer, fairer, and more inclusive democracy that ensures every voice counts.  I strongly urge more companies and business leaders to do the same. Democracy Awakening 2016 can be a critical infection point in the fight for a truly just and representative democracy. Together as citizens, companies, and business leaders we can stand up for a system that rests power in the hands of all Americans, not just in the pockets a narrow self- interested group of campaign contributors. This is good for buisness, this is good for America.