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 … 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.