Democracy is the key goal of Cooper Institute. All our work and involvement comes under the umbrella of democracy as an ideal and as a practice.

Democracy: The End and The Means

As an ideal, democracy is an end; as a practice, democracy is also the means, describing how we work. "How we do it, is what we get".

Democracy means that people are engaged together as equals in making enlightened decisions about their lives. Knowledge, whether from careful reflection on personal and community experience and/or from science-based study, is essential to democracy.

The goal of democracy and its practice is a continuous and wide-ranging project. We will likely never get to the point of saying to each other: "Now we have full democracy. We have arrived." We are constantly learning what democracy is, how we can make it happen, and how we can live it. The on-going practice of democracy involves every aspect of people’s lives. It needs to be practised in the home, in the community, in school, in church, in community organizations, in business enterprises and in government.

Democracy must, over and above all else, be about the participation of people in all sectors of our society in all stages of policy development and decision-making. In order for our participation to be meaningful, we need to take seriously our contribution, our voices, our wisdom, and our power together to make progressive change. And we should expect others at every level of life to take us seriously. Moreover, democracy is not only a most elevated human endeavour. It is also an ecological undertaking. There is no fullness of democracy without the recognition that the planet also has a voice which must be in unison with our voice.

The mark of democracy is personal and collective engagement. Our active and effective engagement is inspired by consensus around what is for our betterment, the protection of the planet, and about how we accomplish our goal.

Democracy as Community Engagement

Often the best insights are going to come from below: from people, that is, whose life experience means they understand how power works not because they exercise it but because they are subjected to it.

Bill McKibben,

The goal of most of Cooper Institute's education work is democratic engagement. This is achieved through workshops and seminars within a specific community development model. This work is based on the assumption that those who are experiencing/suffering a given situation are the key experts. The role of animators from the Institute is: to bring forth that experience from the participants; to facilitate analysis by which the participants recognize the root causes of their group's situation and the available strengths and resources at the group's disposal; and to identify concrete and feasible action which would change the situation. Therefore, when we host presentations, forums, and workshops we build on the existing knowledge of people, and their capacity to understand root causes, and to take action for positive change.

We say that community democratic engagement must be: people oriented; responsible for the land, water and the whole ecological system; inclusive of women, children and youth, old people, people of varied cultures, orientations, and abilities; small enough for the community or organization to control collectively; related to place; able to generate community-based economic plans; connected to and coordinated with other communities in the province, country, and on the global level; open to negotiating and settling differences.

Much of Cooper Institute’s work is done in coalitions with other groups and individuals who are also committed to building a fair and just society. Coalitions give us an opportunity to learn how to work with others whose world view in some areas differs from our own. We join hands around issues in which we have common interests. To make this happen we have to set aside our differences without compromising our basic principles. Working in coalitions, networks, etc, promotes cooperation around common causes and maximizes the impact of our collective energy. The ultimate outlook for collaborative work among organizations is the development of well-populated movements.

As an organization, Cooper Institute aims to live internally the spirit and practice of democracy. We are grounded in equality among our membership, the practice of inclusion, and the encouragement for all persons and sectors to speak out for themselves. Each of us, regardless of background is both teacher and learner, both leader and follower. We can encourage others to live and work for democracy only if we are inspired by this goal and if we live it ourselves.

We may not need capital-L Leaders, but we certainly need small-l leaders by the tens of thousands. You could say that, instead of a leaderless movement, we need a leader-full one. Think of each of these "leaders" as the equivalent of a pace line for a bike race: one moment someone is out front breaking the wind, only to peel away to the back of the line to rest for a while. In movement terms, when that happens you not only prevent burnout, you also get regular infusions of new ideas.

Bill McKibben,

We are not unique in our commitment to the goal and practice of democracy; with some others we realize that we are counter-cultural. The dominant culture declares that true equality is impossible; we say that it is difficult, but it is worth working for. The prevailing system says that someone or some few must take the lead; we say that all of us are leaders. They say that the smartest people will rise to the top and will take leadership; we say that the real leaders are not necessarily the smartest or glibbest. The real leaders from our perspective are those who can collect the knowledge and gifts of the members of the organization and give expression to those not as their own view but as of the collective.

This brings us to the essential relationship between power and leadership. If we accept the reality of "power-over", we will accept a vertical, pyramid style of organization, we will be comfortable with leadership that is confined to one or a few people. However, if we value "power-with", we will aim for leadership which is shared..How different organizations and communities would be if we accepted that the buck stops with all of us! A key to making this work is the equal sharing of knowledge and a horizontal view of gifts and capacities. Unfortunately, people who are most glib sometimes consider themselves to be the most capable leaders because of their "superior" knowledge, experience, and talents. This is unforgivable in a democratic organization. However, it is not only the self-identified leader who is responsible for maintaining vertical structures. Many members of organisations and societies prefer it when they can sit back and allow others "to take the lead". These leaders will often complain about the apathy, or even laziness, of the majority of their members. However, the non-activity of the membership is a result of the very vertical structure which they endorse.

Democracy in the Political Sphere

In all our considerations of democracy, what happens in the political sphere may be considered as a low form of democracy. Giving high attention to the importance of voting once every four years to elect politicians may in fact result in very weak democracies. Important as elections are, they have not been a significant measure of how well democracy is working.

Citizens over the years have entrusted to governments the role of "keepers of democracy", rarely acknowledging that the designated "keeper" concept is incompatible with democracy itself. True democracy, which is dynamic, cannot be kept; it must be continually created and re-created. This requires that as many people as possible be vigilant and active all of the time.

People are becoming more aware that they may have a government of the rich and powerful, for the rich and powerful, and by the rich and powerful, a mere handful of privileged citizens. This critical awakening can be positive. It can urge people to stand up, organize and be counted. Many civil society organizations encourage citizens to become engaged in the development of people-based democratic processes and responsible public policy. However, some people give in to cynicism.

There is a form of cynicism which is a total distrust in the integrity or motives of government and politics in general. The result is often paralysis. It is immobilizing and self-defeating and causes withdrawal from public engagement. In this frame of mind people may dismiss all politicians with the statements like: "All politicians are crooked and self-serving" and "All political parties are the same, promising but not fulfilling their promises".

Another form of cynicism is populism, which is different from the above total distrust in government. The phenomenon of populism has been expressed recently, especially in the United States and in Europe. Because general distrust of government immobilizes the populace, some social analyzers conclude that populism must be a positive influence because people are not immobilized, but engaged. The question is: how are they engaged and why? As a political force, populism is seen as a warring between a blameless "in-group" and a despised "out-group". The in-group is identified as good; the out-group as evil. A feature of populism currently is that the out-group are the traditional politicians, parties, and bureaucrats which have held power in the past. They are the ruling elites. Merely being against government is generally a fairly unproductive and undiscriminating level of protest. This populism is usually accompanied by a blaming of other such out-groups as refugees and immigrants.

Populism identifies enemies/scapegoats as a Unifying Cause - The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.This style of populism tends to be strong on slogans and weak on people-centred policy. In this context it is clear that a new language of exclusive nationalism prevails. "Make America great" is more than a slogan it represents a brand. It is a rallying cry to stir up the masses against the former political and bureaucratic elites. It offers minimal analysis on the untouched power and interests of the corporate elite. Populism often thrives under the leadership of a charismatic, self-absorbed leader.

Governments must be held responsible not only for the cynicism which their undemocratic actions have spawned, but also for the "spaces" they have created for, one-liner, slogan-driven, political ultra-right wing. Current Governments must be held responsible for legitimizing the words and actions of groups which at other times, would have been considered "crazies". The same phenomenon, of course could have happened if the "space" opened up were the ultra-left. This however, is highly unlikely since those with leanings of this sort have been under heavy surveillance as threats to democracy for most of the past century in Canada and the USA. Too bad that more care had not been taken to curb the enthusiasm of the ultra-right, whose terrifying neighbour on the spectrum is fascism.

People who see abnormalities in the political sphere often sit back and patiently wait for the next election to correct these. Some even expect elections to be to have the power to restore lost democracy, or at least lost or re-purposed laws. Free elections are the marks of formal democracy, as are freedom of speech and other individual rights. All of which are rightfully held in high regard. No one would want these lessened. However, it is becoming more and more clear that formal electoral democracy does little to maintain the "of the people, for the people, and by the people" venture. In fact, party politics in the current electoral systems are often self-serving and alienating and do not engage citizens or communities for the long run. Political parties often tend to involve citizens only in order to get their vote. So people say that politicians are "interested in them during election campaign, but it’s a different tune after election day".

The unfortunate aspect of the legitimate non-analytical "space" on the Canadian political right coupled with mass demobilization of the population is that government can do whatever it wills without much fear of reprisals from the people. Historically the further right on the spectrum government go, the less they have to explain the injustice they dispense to the people. Governments take the line of least resistance. Or worse, they convince themselves (and the people) that they are taking the only action possible. Their one-liner, non-analytical rationale may be "deficit and debt reduction" or "support for the middle class" Under these guises, programs for the people are sacrificed in order to protect the privilege of the rich and powerful. Governments have said it so often that they probably even believe it themselves.

The question for democratically-minded community groups is how can they challenge the people to take control of their cynicism, analyze it, and create positive empowering action out of it. Without analysis, this force can easily be assimilated by destructive right-wing entities. Being against government is generally a fairly unproductive and undiscriminating level of protest. Many people lack sufficient knowledge of the nature of democracy and what is just as serious is that they may even lack real life experience of democracy. In spite of the rhetoric, very few Canadians have knowledge or experience democracy as "of the people, for the people, and by the people".

We think of Proportional Representation (PR) as a first baby step in developing democracy. PR is not only about political parties. Real PR aims to create legislatures and policies which reflect the make-up and interests of the community (e.g. by gender, class, ethnic origins, age orientation, gender identity, and abilities). Political parties will be judged by how their candidates mirror the diversity of the electorate. It is interesting to hear a prominent politician claim that PR would give too much power to parties. Experience in over 90 countries tells us though that PR pressures parties be more transparent, reducing the power of the backroom.

In the 2016 plebiscite the majority of voters opted for Mixed Member Proportional Representation. Many Islanders believed that notwithstanding the low voter turnout (36.46%), the will of the majority would prevail. It didn’t happen. Some people have pointed out that if 19,418 voters were a survey sample, the outcome would have been respected. Though the will of the people did not rule following the plebiscite, Proportional Representation as a political option for PEI is still alive and will become a reality.