Coffee, Tea, and Us
Policy + Politics

Coffee, Tea, and Us

New grassroots groups challenge the Washington status quo

The Fiscal Times/Sarah Stodola

It’s not really about beverage preferences at all, of course. When the Tea Party emerged in early 2009, it echoed the legendary Boston Tea Party to express its platform, aiming to minimize the government’s role and implement fiscal restraint. The Coffee Party was formed in January of this year, partly as an alternative to the Tea Party.  Its goal: to bring civil discourse to the political arena and embrace the government as a manifestation of the collective will. To Tea Party activists, the government has become an intrusive spendthrift. To the Coffee Partiers, it’s an essential vehicle for serving its citizens.

National Coffee Day
The 20-plus people assembled in the haphazardly furnished basement of the Wired Café on Bethlehem, Pa.’s Main Street last Saturday want government to work for them. The gathering was one of over 350 such meetings taking place around the country on what its organizers had dubbed National Coffee Day. The attendees eventually formed a circle around the edge of the room, and one by one took turns expressing their reasons for showing up.

The usual concerns were there: health care, the economy, jobs. But the consensus came in the feeling that what’s most wrong with the United States today is the political tone across the country. When Tara Stephenson, a music teacher and counselor, heard there would be a coffee party in Bethlehem, she knew she had to attend to protest the “bad behavior” in the Tea Party’s brand of political activism. 

“I’m interested in civil dialogue,” said Stephenson, who has always kept up with politics and has grown more involved with age. ”Putting people down is never an effective way to start a dialogue…Avoiding polarization is the way to go.” 

Alice Wright, a 69-year-old small business owner who switched her voting registration from Republican to Democrat before the last presidential election, broke down recounting the recent end of a 35-year friendship. She said she tried to have a conversation with a close friend who disagreed with Wright about what she considered important political issues.  The friend was so entrenched in her position that she threatened to end the relationship if Wright pushed for a discussion.  Other members nodded and murmured sympathetically at how political discourse has become taboo among today’s entrenched tribes. “I have to be with people I can talk to at this point,” Wright said.

Attendees expressed frustration with what they perceived as the Tea Party’s aggressive inflexibility, how it wants to dismantle big government rather than work to fix it. “It seems like they only want to be disruptive and angry,” said Wright. 

“We want to see people who are representing us move toward solutions to the problems instead of strategically obstructing any form of progress,” Annabel Park, the documentary filmmaker who founded the Coffee Party, said in a video posted on YouTube.

Park told The New York Times that while she named the Coffee Party in reaction to the Tea Party, the two share some common goals, including a push for fiscal responsibility and a frustration with Congress. She confirmed that point of view in an interview with FiveThirtyEight,”They (the Tea Party) say they are for limited government, fiscal responsibility and free markets. Well, you know–who wants unlimited government? … Fiscal responsibility is the same thing. I don’t know anybody who’d sign up for government waste.”

The Coffee Party aims to embrace the federal government and influence its policies on everything from war to taxes. But as a nascent group trying to hammer out a consensus on a variety of issues, it has a long way to go before Congress and the White House take it seriously. They are essentially pro-government, but they want a different government than the one they’re currently stuck with.

“Both parties are bought and paid for now,” said Mark Albright, a Bethlehem-area attorney who attended Saturday’s meeting. “I think it’s definitely broken.”

Why Now?
The Tea Party emerged soon after President Obama took office and pursued costly initiatives like the $787 billion economic stimulus package, health care reform, and an energy bill. Some of the members were conservative Republicans; others independent libertarians. But they all railed against more government intervention and higher taxes. 

The emergence of the Coffee Party tells another story. The euphoria and hopefulness that many people felt when Obama was elected has faded; unemployment remains exceptionally high, health care reform has faltered, and many see a continuing connection between the government and special interests. “I think this is very much a zeitgeist thing,” says Albright, who campaigned for Obama in 2008. “The Coffee Party is, first, a reaction to the Tea Party. But it’s also very timely in that it resonates with Obama supporters who are now disillusioned. Our thinking is if he can’t make a dent then clearly something is broken. I’ve ceased to believe in the system.”

So citizens are now looking to themselves to affect change. “We have squandered our credit as the defender of freedom and the leader of the world,” says Cameron Moore, a spokesperson for the Coffee Party. “We can’t go on fighting and not working together. We are serving as an example for our elected officials.”

Seeding a Grassroots Movement
The Coffee and Tea Parties are grassroots movements in the truest sense, with everyday people from around the country coming together with a common set of goals. Both parties were started not by Washington insiders or high-powered business leaders, but by ordinary citizens who want to change the way the country is managed by building a national constituency. The Tea Party took off when participants organized a campaign to send tea bags to members of Congress who voted for the bailout. The Coffee Party took shape when Annabel Park began expressing her frustration with the Tea Party – and its assertion that it represents the real America – on her Facebook page. After the overwhelming response, Park decided to build the Coffee Party into a more organized movement.

This kind of grassroots mobilization evokes the 1960’s, when the country experienced a crisis of values. The difference this time around is manifold. The 60s focused on civil rights, the draft, the Vietnam War, radical campus protests, and women’s liberation, to name a few. Young people were at the center of the change, and the term “generation gap” (a descriptor of the conflict between the young and those in power--including their parents) entered the lexicon.  

Today’s grassroots movements attract teenagers, retirees, and everyone in between. In fact, the Bethlehem meeting leaned heavily toward the gray-hair group, with roughly a 3-to-1 ratio of older to younger. A spot survey by AOL News of Saturday’s attendees finds that Coffee Partiers are mostly white and roughly 60 percent male, with an average age of 48.)

 One major difference between today’s movements and those of 50 years ago is the media.  Back then people got information at home from roughly seven different sources:  broadcast television, land-line phones, radio, snail mail, newspapers, magazines, and books.  Today, the number of media sources at home has quadrupled, including cable TV, cell phones, computers, PDAs, email, Twitter, and text messaging. 

And then, there’s Facebook.

The Facebook Factor
The Coffee Party movement that started on Facebook gained national prominence within a few weeks. When The Washington Post picked up the story, the movement was legitimized – a signal even in today’s Internet age that “this is real” and worth knowing about. “What really makes a grassroots movement gain legs is when it gets picked up in the media,” says David Kirkpatrick, author of the forthcoming book The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That is Connecting the World. “And the media have begun reporting on protests that start on Facebook.”

The Coffee Party may ultimately have been able to take root without the Internet, but its stunning rise shows the power of social networking. “The difference today is how quickly a phenomenon can occur,” says Kirkpatrick, “Before Facebook, it would have taken nine months to a year for CNN to pick up on it.”

So Facebook and Twitter are integral, but grassroots movements still need the traditional media to take notice in order to succeed. At the Bethlehem meeting, as many people were there after watching CNN’s coverage as from Facebook. And they shared the view that a Facebook presence alone does not a movement make. “These online forums need to also have something else, like this,” noted one attendee.

Will It Work?
Whether the Coffee Party can fundamentally change government is still to be seen. Cameron Moore says he is optimistic about the movement’s potential to reach members of Congress. “We expect to be fairly well received,” he says.  Others have reservations. “It’s still too new to say,” says Stephenson. “But it’s nice to have a positive example in place.”

A few politicians are taking notice. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., told U.S. News & World Report that he likes the Coffee Party’s approach. “Neither political party has a monopoly on truth or patriotism.”

Still, getting Washington politicians to reach across the aisle and commit to reforming government is a huge challenge says Albright. “Hopefully the Coffee Party will give politicians a pipeline into what the common person thinks.”