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It is election season for a couple of coops that I belong to. It is a time of discourse, to be sure, but also a time when I wonder if something isn't missing from our democracy.

For the most part the elections (regardless of the sector) consist of a 300 word or less statement from the candidate. Maybe a few questions put forth at a forum. Then a vote, a count and the seating of the new board.

I just can't help but have a Peggy Lee moment:

In the consumer cooperative world, only 6% of membership even bother to vote. While we could shrug our collective shoulders and announce that an apathetic membership is a content membership, I believe that is akin to the proverbial whistling past the graveyard. I see the 6% number (and only 60% in my worker coop) as a sign of something else. The people, if you asked be, have been disenchanted from the franchise. When Rochdale opened shop in 1844, most people had no right to vote. It was part of the Chartist and Suffrage movements of the day. However, the idea of the vote was not simply to allow people to mark a piece of paper. The idea of the vote was to allow the voices of working men and women to be heard. That is a significant difference and part of the reason that voting, in and of itself, is a poor measure of democracy. One could even argue that voting is simply giving your voice to someone else (a director) and hoping that they will speak for you.

The "powers that be" figured out how to overcome the vote. They bombard us with issue ads, create false dichotomies of "us and them", lesser of two evils, and an array of tools designed to squelch our voice in the election process. This year, more than ever, the voice of individuals will be drowned out by corporate marketing departments with the ultimate goal of maximizing return on investment rather than good government or a stable nation. Thankfully, this hasn't happened in our coops, yet. When a coop such as mine has a membership that is almost larger than two Aldermanic districts, it is a bit surprising that candidates haven't taken to the airwaves (or that issue ads haven't cropped up).

Real democracy, of course, is where we need to focus. This is exactly the tact that my workplace adopted this year. With an ambitious goal to revamp our entire disciplinary system ever, the board, committees and teams went to work. It resulted in a year long process. Members were asked what they liked and didn't like about the current system by asking them to post their ideas on a wall for everyone to consider. There were a couple of forums to discuss and decipher the postings. The committee meetings were held in the open and went through a painstaking process of examining all of the options, asking questions, making amendments. The committees were open to the membership who had the opportunity to observe and participate in the debate. More forums, more meetings and finally the board received the document. The Board then took its time in open session examining, asking questions, making amendments. Almost 13 months after the Strategic Plan put alignment of the dispute resolution process on the table, it was completed.

The final document is exciting (if you are a policy and governance wonk), but the more exciting part was the process. The funny thing is that I don't think a lot of our members really recognize that process as "democracy"! We really aren't used to seeing real democracy. We are used to sound bites, floor votes and filibusters. Real democracy is sitting at a table and working together. Examining what works and what doesn't. Challenging each others assumptions and ideas (and maybe even ideals). Our society is trained to avoid conflict, but when we do, we are really avoiding democracy. In a coop, we are avoiding our responsibility as a member and owner. We need to learn how to fight for our ideas without making it about personalities of the combatants. We also need to see being part of a democratic organization requires more than a simple vote.

We need to learn how to be good democrats. That means being willing to get a bit messy and disagreeing once and a while. We don't have to be personal (attacking people), but we should be willing to embrace conflicts of ideas and process. We should also be willing to recognize that age-old saying "nobody's right if everybody's wrong." If you coop is holding elections right now, get out and vote, but don't think that is the end of your commitment or the totality of democracy. It really is only the beginning.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 18th, 2010 02:44 am (UTC)
Another thought
In thinking about this before I wrote it, I was reminded of the sifting and winnowing of the Wisconsin Idea. That is the type of democracy that we need. Also, we need to recognize that the action of the board voting is not democracy, but the culmination of a process that got the idea to that point. If that process is exclusionary and fails to meet the basic principles of the Cooperative Identity, then the vote (no matter how fair the voting to elect directors) can't really be democratic.
Oct. 3rd, 2010 09:15 pm (UTC)
Democracy and participation
Comment in your cross post at Hive

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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