Brewing a progressive alternative to Tea Party politics

Coffee group aims to counter efforts of conservatives

By Dan Zak
Washington Post / February 28, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Furious at the tempest over the Tea Party - the scattershot citizen uprising against big government and wild spending - Annabel Park did what any American does when she feels her voice has been drowned out: She squeezed her anger into a Facebook status update.

Friends replied, and more friends replied. So last month, in her suburban Silver Spring, Md., apartment, Park started a fan page called “Join the Coffee Party Movement.’’ Within weeks, she was swamped by thousands of comments from strangers from the oil fields of West Texas to suburban Chicago.

The response made her the de facto coordinator of Coffee Party USA, with goals far loftier than its origin: promoting civility and inclusiveness in political discourse, engaging the government not as an enemy but as the collective will of the people, and pushing leaders to enact the progressive changes for which 52.9 percent of the country voted in 2008.

The ideas aren’t exactly fresh - Tea Party chapters view themselves as civil, inclusive, and fueled by collective will - but the Coffee Party is percolating in at least 30 states. Small chapters are meeting, hoping to transcend one-click activism, as the Tea Party did last year, spawning 1,200 chapters, a national conference and a march on Washington.

“It’s like trying to perform surgery in the dark,’’ says Park, 41, a documentary filmmaker. She has been swept up in this project, and so have others.

Within two weeks of forming, the Los Angeles chapter produced a five-minute video in which citizens yearn for sensible progress and lament obstructionist truth-twisting.

Progress is patriotic, they tell the camera. Wake up. Espresso yourself. Something is brewing, America.

Deep down, underneath the Tea Party’s Revolutionary War garb and the Coffee Party’s faded HOPE stickers, they seem to want the same thing: to save America. Which raises the question: “From what?’’

The easy answer is “each other,’’ when really their complaints are similar and eternal: The political system is broken, elected officials ignore the people, and the media warp truths and pit sides. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that two-thirds of Americans are “dissatisfied’’ or “angry’’ with the federal government,’’ the highest level in 14 years, and many have sought solace in social networking.

The Coffee Party is the latest effort to turn virtual disenchantment into real-world results. They’re incited by Tea Party tactics, which they believe obstruct reform and discourage thoughtful deliberation, and the Tea Party - well, the Tea Party has not heard of the Coffee Party.

Says Robert Gaudet, 40, a software designer in Shreveport, La., who administers “We don’t see cooperation with the government. We see ourselves monitoring the government. . . . As for shouting and obstructionism, absolutely not. The media is trying to define a movement and not being able to put their finger on it. There’s common-sense solutions we’re asking for: fiscal responsibility, free markets, limited government and lower taxes.’’

Says Dave Henderson, 48, an automotive service adviser in Denison, Texas, who found the Coffee Party on Facebook: “I’m extremely anti-establishment, and the thing that appealed to me about the Coffee Party is it is very grass-roots, there’s no official organization, and individuals can participate as individuals without having to see eye-to-eye on everything.’’

The Coffee Party is not so much a movement as a slow-drip ripple through online nano-politics. Within the past 10 days, its Facebook fans rose from 3,500 to more than 9,200, far more than the 5,900 fans of the central page of Organizing for America, the DNC-funded group supporting Obama’s agenda.

It is unclear what that means, though, when nearly 100,000 Facebook users have joined the Tea Party Patriots Facebook page and 1.5 million have joined a joke page titled “Can this pickle get more fans than Nickleback?’’

“I don’t really understand what they’re about other than ‘we don’t like the Tea Party’ and ‘we’re for a better process,’ ’’ says Michael Cornfield, a political scientist at 720 Strategies, a D.C. grass-roots advocacy firm. “The Tea Party has something more going for it in its name. It has a historical echo, and means these guys are self-conscious rebels objecting to a government who taxes them without representation.

“So what are we doing here? What’s the objective?’’

Alan Alborn, a retired executive and former Army officer who voted for both George W. Bush and Obama, leans back in a suburban Manassas, Va., cafe, with Park, her boyfriend, and fellow filmmaker Eric Byler, and Elena Schlossberg, who co-writes a political blog. The quartet, first united by their involvement in the county’s fiery immigration debates in 2007, discusses Coffee Party talking points.

“We need a big idea that’s separate and stands alone,’’ says Alborn, 61, who appreciates the basic tenets of the Tea Party but not what he views as its stonewall strategy and jumble of church and state. “We need to find people who will pledge to be one-term candidates, so that we get citizen politicians.’’