Coffee, Tea or Apathy?

New Coffee Party aims for change without all the yelling

Mar 31, 2010 at 2:06 pm
The flavor of the Tea Party is likely to be unpalatable for people looking to become politically engaged without wrapping themselves in the American flag and parading around on horseback screaming, “Revolution!” But as of late January, the newly founded Coffee Party serves as an alternative for frustrated Americans to engage their political beliefs within a group of like-minded people without fury or superfluous theatrics.

Coffee Party USA was founded by Annabel Park, a non-profit worker who studied philosophy at Boston University and political theory at the University of Oxford in Britain. She started a Facebook group called “Join the Coffee Party” in response to media coverage that she believes wrongly cast the Tea Party as a symbol of America.

Park was surprised by an overwhelming response from other Facebook users who felt similarly passionate about anti-obstructionism in Congress along with dissatisfaction toward the Tea Party’s hard-charging methods of bringing about governmental change. In the first six weeks, “Join the Coffee Party” accumulated over 100,000 fans and now has more than 185,000.

“This is not the opposite of the Tea Party,” Park explains in a Coffee Party promotional video posted on YouTube. “This is an alternative to the Tea Party. It is an alternative form of civic participation.”

The Tea Party and Coffee Party are similar in the sense that they’re grassroots organizations that serve as platforms for average, politically disengaged Americans to express their opinions and deliberate in the public sphere in an attempt to find solutions to political and economic issues.

Major issues on both sides include health care and economic stimulus.

On the other hand, the organizations are set apart by methods of operation, according to Coffee Party national spokesperson Leo Pierson.

“We’re different in the way we go about teaching the public,” Pierson says. “We’re not looking to shout people down. We’re interested in civil discourse. That’s the only way we come to sensible, creative solutions to policy problems in this country.

“We’re about bringing the excitement level down,” he adds. “We let people know that the sky is not falling and go from there.”

The Coffee Party organizes meetings appropriately held in coffee shops across the country. Roughly 370 coffee shops volunteered to host the Coffee Party’s initial national kick off on March 13, which reached as far Tokyo.

In Ohio, there are independent Coffee Party chapters in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Athens, Toledo and Mason.

“Meetings can take place anywhere — coffee shops, homes, wherever people feel comfortable,” Pierson clarifies. “Basically, it’s about getting people out of the private sphere and getting their political opinions into the public sphere. That’s what moves our democracy from a representative democracy to a participatory democracy.”

Because Park worked as a volunteer filmmaker for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, some people question the group’s independence from Democrats. Justin Jeffre, an ex-Pop performer who is a local progressive activist, believes time will tell if the Coffee Party is legitimate.

“The Cincinnati Tea Party is made up of volunteers too. I think a little healthy skepticism is in order,” Jeffre says. “If their goal is to get people to back the corporate Democrats that vote for wars, bailouts and handouts to the drug and health insurance industries, then they will be the equivalent of the Tea Parties. The name is obviously meant to be the answer to the Tea Party, not some independent movement that will really challenge the status quo.”

Mike Wilson, founder of Cincinnati’s Tea Party, recognizes and supports the Coffee Party’s initiative for civic participation but notes a fundamental difference in the two groups’ beliefs.

“There’s no affiliation (between the parties), but I’m glad to see more people get involved in the political process,” Wilson says.

“I think we probably have some disagreements about the proper role of government in society. For us, we believe the government should be as limited as possible, enough to do the job but nothing counter. Philosophically, we probably lean more Republican than anything else but for us, we’re focused on the values. We have Republicans and Democrats in our organization.”

Although some critics reduce the Coffee Party to a reactionary, left-wing response to the Tea Party movement, Pierson says the group functions independently from any political alignment.

“(The Coffee Party) is absolutely not aligned Republican or Democrat,” he says. “The Coffee Party is really about disproving this dichotomy. We see these polarities come out in the media, and everyday people buy into them. What we’re trying to show is that these are false dichotomies. We are much more complex than this picture allows the general public to see.”

Whereas most members of the Tea Party consider themselves Republican, according to a recent study conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, Coffee Party membership is more demographically broad.

As noted in the Coffee Party’s mission statement, “We see our diversity as a strength, not a weakness, because we believe that faithful deliberation from multiple vantage points is the best way to achieve the common good.”

On this note, the Coffee Party’s chief aim is to motivate civic participation among the general public in an attempt to restore our government to a representative power that functions for our interest. This means no corporate influence on decisions made by Congress and no hassle by “obstructionists” in Congress who seek independent political gain.

Along these lines, the Coffee Party is philosophically distinguished from the Tea Party when the question of governmental purpose is at hand. Whereas Tea Party members seem to condemn federal government as a whole, pushing for as limited government as possible, Coffee Party members seem to favor government involvement, but without corporate influence.

“We want to see cooperation among people in Congress and in our government,” Park says. “We want to see people who are representing us move towards solutions instead of strategically obstructing any form of progress.”