Candidate Donald Trump made a campaign stop in February 2016 hosted by South Carolina’s Broad River Electric Cooperative. After taking the auditorium stage, observing that “it’s a lot of people,” and joining the audience in a chant of his surname, Trump began by asking, “Do we love electricity, by the way, all you electricity people?” He went on: “How about life without electricity? Not so good, right? Not so good.” He then changed the subject.
Trump appeared to have been briefed on the origin story of electric co-ops, which goes something like this: By the onset of the Great Depression, few people in the rural United States had electricity at home—about 10 percent. The power companies that had lit up the cities simply didn’t see enough profit in serving far-flung farmers. But gradually some of those farmers started forming electric cooperatives—utility companies owned and governed by their customers—and strung up their own lines. Many bought cheap power from dams on federal land. Their ingenuity became a progressive New Deal program, which Franklin Roosevelt initiated in 1935 and Congress funded the following year. The Department of Agriculture began dispensing low-interest loans across the country. Farmers set up their own power lines and co-ops, even as corporate competitors tried to undermine them, building stray “spite lines” through their prospective territories. But the cooperators prevailed. They switched on their own lights.
We typically think of our democratic institutions as having to do with politicians and governments. But there are democratic businesses, too—not just these electric co-ops, but also hulking credit unions, mutual-insurance companies, and ubiquitous cooperative brands from Land O’Lakes to the Associated Press. Their democracy is fragile. When it’s not exercised or noticed, these creatures act on their own volition.
People, like Trump, who are used to paying their utility bills in cities tend not to know that 75 percent of the country’s landmass gets its electricity from such cooperatives. That amounts to about 42 million member-owners, 11 percent of the total electricity sold, and $164 billion in assets, serving 93 percent of the persistent-poverty counties in the country. Local co-ops band together to form larger co-ops of co-ops—power suppliers that run power plants, cooperatively owned mining operations, and democratic banks that finance new projects. Population growth and sprawl have brought wealthy suburbs to many of these once-rural territories. It’s a scale of cooperative enterprise unheard of for those who associate “co-op” with grocery stores, community gardens, and apartment buildings. It’s also a neglected democracy—neglected by member-owners of the co-ops, who often don’t know that they’re anything more than customers, and by a society that forgets what cooperative economic development have achieved.