Enough Tea Party-Style Whining -- It's Time to Take Back Our Jobs and Businesses

Imagine what would happen if we stopped blaming and started living democracy. Imagine what could change if we realized our power to remove big money from its dominance.

Headline-grabbing Tea Party slogans sure could make one think Americans have come down with a bad case of whine-flu.

They -- Big Bad government, Obama, Wall Street, or Socialists -- did it to me, and they are so scary all I can do is defend myself: Call a talk show to blast them. Join a protest. Buy a gun. Or secede.

Yes, there’s a lot of blaming going on. But fortunately, very fortunately, there is another America. It is a much bigger America. It is made up of do-ers -- of builders, not blamers.

Beneath the failing notion of democracy as something done to us or for us, something we inherited that expects virtually nothing of us except voting (optional) and shopping, is a very different view of democracy.

I call it Living Democracy. It isn’t something we have. It’s what we do. From school kids to elders, millions of Americans are coming to realize our problems are too complex and interconnected to be solved simply from the top down. They require the ingenuity, courage, commitment, and buy-in of everyday citizens. So they’re rolling up their sleeves, working with each other and with government to get beyond slogans to solutions.

Let me give you taste.

In the 1980s, milk prices dropped by a fifth in a few years. A handful of Wisconsin dairy farmers near Viroqua, watched too many neighbors’ farms fold and decided to act. They pooled their meager funds and formed CROPP, the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool, a dairy cooperative, a democratically organized business where profits are shared.

When I met them in 1988, I was pleased at the thought that CROPP might save a few hardy farmers from bankruptcy. What did I know?

Today the original clunky name is instead Organic Valley, and the handful of farmer-owners has grown to almost 1,400 spread across thirty-three states. They’re all organic operations with sales last year surpassing the half-billion mark.

Now, “cooperative” can sound quaint and marginal -- or, God forbid, socialist -- if “capitalism” is the only economic term we hear. It shouldn’t. Worldwide cooperatives have doubled in 30 years. And arguably today more people in the world are members of coops than own shares in publicly traded companies.

Cooperatives may not be capitalist -- since no outside owner of capital is in control. But they are great for the market system. Why?

They keep wealth circulating instead of funneled to the top, to those who already have everything they need. Those half a billion organic dollars go back to hundreds of rural communities where people use them to buy school clothes or build a new barn.

Neither are citizens of Cleveland, Ohio, recently number one the Forbes Misery Index, waiting and wailing. According to Gar Alperovitz and others writing in The Nation, ten major cooperative enterprises are getting underway in that city that’s lost half its population since 1950. One is the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, an industrial-size, thoroughly "green" operation to serve health care facilities. It opened last fall in a neighborhood whose median income is only about $18,000. Each of the planned worker-owned businesses, projected to offer a total of 500 jobs, will contribute 10 percent of pre-tax profits into a fund to help launch more co-ops.

Sometimes rugged individualism, these folks seem to appreciate, is best served through clever cooperation.

Beyond Wisconsin farmers or Cleveland launderers, consider the citizens of Powell, Wyoming who in 2002 created their own department store, The Mercantile. They sold 800 shares to community members. Soon the Mercantile expanded and is now paying dividends. Busloads from other towns come to see how to empower their own communities; and at least other seven towns in the heartland now have such stores.

And to these stories add the impressive entrepreneurialism of urbanites creating community gardens and farmers’ markets with no middlemen; and near-urban farmers partnering with good-food-seeking city dwellers in what’s known as “community supported agriculture” (CSAs). In a CSA families buy “shares” in the farmers’ future harvest so that they, instead of the bank, help fund their own food sources. Now at least 2,500 such are spread across the country.

These farms aren’t coops and the model isn’t “capitalist.” It’s American creativity and it’s working.

The list goes on -- including a vital “Think Local First” movement of independent businesses that now spans eighty cities. In Bellingham, Washington, six hundred businesses participate in many ingenious ways to encourage locals to buy local. Sales with no middleman between producer and eater virtually doubled in the city between 2002 and 2007, five times the state’s average increase.

Ubiquitous corporate advertising can lead us falsely to assume that they are our economy, when independent businesses like those in Bellingham provide half America’s jobs and output.

Imagine what would happen if we stopped blaming and started living democracy. Imagine what could change if we realized our power to remove big money from its dominance of our political system so that, for example, huge public subsidies now supporting mega-corporations and policies concentrating wealth were instead stimulating a democratic economy.

Imagine what could change if we directed those tax dollars to give a leg up instead to sustainable family farms, cooperatives and independent businesses, those who return wealth to our workers and our communities.

Plus, moving from powerlessness to power is a lot more fun.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Frances Moore Lappé is the author of Getting a Grip 2: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want (March 2010) and 17 other books, beginning with the three-million copy Diet for a Small Planet.