Can cooperatives revitalize our democracy?

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.

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