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Can Cooperatives Revitalize our Democracy?

Crowd with hands raised in air

As I reflect back on a week that included Voter Registration Day and the passing of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, I find myself wondering about the role that cooperatives can play in helping democratic systems live up to their promise.

After all, the foundation of our democracy is civic participation. I subscribe to the notion that democracy is a fragile institution—it only works when citizens understand how to meaningfully participate and engage in the democratic process on a local level. That engagement must happen continually and in a variety of contexts, not just every four years at the ballot box, where the media and two-party system encourage polarization, anger, and a lack of empathy for those with different views.

Sadly, since the 1960s, civic engagement has been on the decline, as detailed in Robert Putnam’s seminal book, Bowling Alone. Americans have been retreating into their houses, jobs, families, and devices. The number of Americans practicing democracy—for example, on the board of their church, or in their local parent-teacher association—has plummeted dramatically, and even moreso since COVID-19. Cooperatives are one tool for teaching democracy through doing.

As civic participation declines, inequality increases. Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a champion for equality—not just gender equality, but also financial and racial equality (which, of course, are all closely linked). In a 2013 WNYC interview she said, “I see my advocacy as part of an effort to make the equality principle everything the founders would have wanted it to be if they weren’t held back by the society in which they lived.”

Both worker-owned cooperatives, like PixelSpoke, and member-owned cooperatives, like credit unions, reduce inequality and promote civic participation by virtue of their shared ownership structure. But for whatever reason, the cooperative model is not discussed in the United States much at all. I’d like to see us change that. Cooperatives just might be a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to revitalizing our democracy and stemming the tides of rising inequality, political polarization, social withdrawal, and declining levels of empathy.

Can we do more to promote democratic, cooperative models? I think so. Though I’m not yet sure how, let’s at least start the conversation.

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