Two years ago, Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, founded Truemajority.org, a grassroots, online-advocacy group. In an election where the Internet's impact on politics is only expected to grow, Truemajority.org is angling to make its voice heard. Cohen spoke with BusinessWeek Internet Editor Heather Green about the group. Following are edited excerpts:
Q: What is TrueMajority.org?
A:It's an e-mail-based political-action organization. We are united and organized around a set of 10 principles, most of them around social and economic justice and environmental sustainability.
Q: Talk a little bit about its background.
A:It's a project of the Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, which was created eight years ago based on analyzing the federal budget in the same way as a business leader would.
The idea we came up with at the end of the cold war was that it didn't make sense to keep spending this kind of money on the military. We started with the organizing principle that we, as businesspeople, had an opportunity to use the credibility and the public and media recognition we get to make our voices heard on these issues.
At the time, we decided to focus on the elite businesspeople, because we would never have a grassroots component. Now we have 500 businesspeople who use their clout to get their voices heard in the media and to take out full-page ads in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal to pressure the Congress at the same time as they're being bombarded by TrueMajority grassroots faxes.
Q: Why did you think when you started Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities that you couldn't be a grassroots organization?
A:Because at the time it was impossible. Then the Internet came into being and e-mail came into being, and we realized that now we had an ability to organize on a large, grassroots scale.
Q: What's the benefit of doing this kind of project over the Internet?
A:The most amazing thing is it allows a group to organize without having the traditional infrastructure. That makes it incredibly efficient and able to scale rapidly. TrueMajority didn't exist two years ago, and now it has over 400,000 members.
One of the big differences between Internet organizing and the traditional way of running campaigns through direct mail is that all the people online have opted in. They want to be part of this. So the way it spreads is amazing. Our membership is growing 1,000 every two days. It's amped up word of mouth.
Take one example: With the business organization, we developed a demonstration using Oreos to explain the federal budget, because it was just so huge that it was hard to understand. We turned that into an online video. And now 1 million people have seen the thing.
Q: What part will the Internet play in this election? People are somewhat skeptical of the Internet, since the Howard Dean campaign for the Democratic nomination imploded.
A:Just as the JFK/Nixon election was the first TV election, I think this one is going to be the first Internet election. You could say, sure Governor Dean didn't get the nomination, he wasn't successful. But there were a heck of a lot of things he did that were done right using the Internet. I think it's just the beginning of the part the Internet will play in politics.
The other thing that preceded Howard's use of the Internet was the run-up to the war in Iraq, where all the opposition was organized and built using the Internet. That created the biggest, most coordinated, virtually instantaneous public opposition to a war that there has ever been. Ten million people around the world were marching.
Howard Dean tapped into that already organized online Internet community that had opposed to the war. He was the only candidate [among the front-runners] that stated his opposition to the war, then the other guys glommed onto that. Now the task is to take those 500,000 million people who are already organized to show George the door.
Q: Are there successes you can point to with TrueMajority?
A:Even in this situation, where you have an Administration and both houses of Congress that have been opposed to our viewpoint, we have been able to limit the development of mini nukes, and we stopped some of the worst environmental disasters with the energy bill.
What you really see happening is a trend. Typically, it has been the few moneyed interests that have had an inordinate interest in politics, whereas the numbers of people who want a different course of action have been on the other side. Now, on the Internet, we're finally able to organize those numbers. But the Internet isn't as helpful to the comparatively small moneyed interest.
Q: What are you focusing on for the rest of the year?
A:A whole lot of this campaign is going to be about getting new people to the polls. It's not about just registering to vote, but getting people to use absentee ballots either because they're out of the state or they're simply would rather mail in a ballot than go down to the polls.
We're in the process of putting an infrastructure in place that would allow people to come to one site -- it doesn't matter what state you're in -- fill out one form, and print out a voter-registration form and an absentee-ballot request.
Q: Why are you focusing on that?
A:We believe that there's a tremendous number of voters who would tend to vote Democrat who tend to not vote. There are several different groups we're targeting, 18- to 24-year-olds, unmarried women, and advocacy groups whose members didn't vote in the last election.