Threats to Coop Democracy

There is much public political rhetoric currently  expressed under the theme of “threats to democracy.”

But America’s democratic experiment is not just in our national or state voting processes.   Democracy is a civic practice that characterizes the governance  of the vast majority of organizations, public and private, across the country.

These more local institutions, including credit unions, are where we learn and practice what responsible citizenship means.   It can mean paying attention to leadership, organizational performance, voting when called upon, and supporting, when necessary, with our presence or money.

When money and power are at stake, especially in credit unions, those benefiting from positions of responsibility can be tempted to manipulate the democratic process for their advantage.

Lincoln’s Lyceum address before he had formally entered politics addressed the fragility of democratic design.   Parts of his speech  in the context of today’s events were quoted by Heather Cox Richardson in a recent column:

On January 27, 1838, Abraham Lincoln rose before the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, to make a speech. Just 28 years old, Lincoln had begun to practice law and had political ambitions. But he was worried that his generation might not preserve the republic that the founders had handed to it for transmission to yet another generation. He took as his topic for that January evening, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”

Lincoln saw trouble coming, but not from a foreign power, as other countries feared. The destruction of the United States, he warned, could come only from within. “If destruction be our lot,” he said, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Lincoln’s truth was that in democratic organizations, the greatest threat to sustainability is not external, but internal.

Lincoln’s last sentence above caught my attention.  The same word, suicide, was used in the final part of a blog Mike Riley wrote last summer. He was expressing concerns with specific credit union practices.  In a note of irony about his previous employer, NCUA’s role in these events, he closed with his inimitable sense of humor:

“If someone wants to commit suicide, it is a good thing if a doctor (i.e. NCUA)  is present.”

Democratic institutions survive not due to their special design, but rather because  leaders  believe and follow the values and processes required to sustain.

This week I will review events that are shaping the evolution of credit unions that are contrary to the principles implied by democratic governance.

Ignoring or overlooking our cooperative falls from grace is easy.  “It’s not my problem.”  But soon the examples of bad behavior and poor decisions become precedents for others.  These destructive events are not caused by outside competition; instead they reveal us becoming “authors” of our own finish.

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