Coffee Time, Make It Strong

It was only a matter of time. A year after a backward-looking, reactionary movement — the anti-Obama Tea Party — announced itself as a potential political force, I received an invitation on Facebook to join something called The Coffee Party Movement in New Jersey.

The group was obviously meant as a liberal response to the Tea Partiers, one that hoped to reclaim the argument from the right-wingers and to redefine government as a potential force for good in people’s lives.

I clicked yes and left it that, knowing that Facebook groups often are nothing more than a way for people to pretend as if they are making a difference. A second invitation followed — to a national Coffee Party group, which was followed by an invitation to engage in some debate.

Maybe the group is worth keeping an eye on, I thought, but left it at that — until March 1, just a week after the movement launch. That’s when dueling stories appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post, official gatekeepers of all that is considered relevant in American political culture.

Lord knows we need such a counterweight, if for no other reason than to balance the coverage. The Tea Party movement has captured the press corps’ imagination, its appearance on the American political being credited with Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts and Republican gubernatorial wins in New Jersey and Virginia. (Contrary to the national narrative, the Tea Party had little or no impact in New Jersey; Gov. Jon Corzine was destined to go down on his own merits.)

There is a lot to like about the Coffee Party — encapsulated in this part of its mission statement:

“We recognize that the federal government is not the enemy of the people, but the expression of our collective will, and that we must participate in the democratic process in order to address the challenges that we face as Americans.”

In its simplicity, it offers the perfect rebuttal to the know-nothing, libertarian argument that attempts to posit government as some vague and malevolent other. Government, in our representative democracy, is the people and we have a responsibility to make it work on our behalf.

My concern about the Coffee Party, however, is that the movement is hanging its hat on the same kind of bloodless commitment to cooperation and efficiency that has stalled the Obama agenda and left progressives standing on the sidelines.

Annabel Park, who created the group, told the Times that the Coffee Party was “not the opposite of the Tea Party.

“We’re a different model of civic participation,” she said, “but in the end we may want some of the same things.”

She said organizers wanted to work with the Tea Party to “send a message to people in Washington that you have to learn how to work together, you have to learn how to talk about these issues without acting like you’re in an ultimate fighting session.”

A statement on the group’s Facebook page should send up flags to progressives looking for liberal counterweight:

“Our principles are to promote honest & civil discourse to solve problems, not necessarily set specific policies. When we get to specifics, we limit ourselves to who we can attract. The problem with government is the proliferation of partisanship. If we allow ourselves to get bogged down in the same mire, we lose our effectiveness just as our Senate has done. “

The group wants to “attract the middle because that is where the majority lives.”

“The entire country is now paralyzed by fringe groups who have hijacked our Congress,” it goes on to say, ignoring that there really are very few fringe lefties anywhere in our government.

The reality is that the dysfunction that plagues our elected institutions is a complicated mix of money and artifice. Our public institutions have been bought by corporations with campaign contributions and lobbying money, with congressmen, senators and state legislators all marching to the orders of the people and institutions that write the checks that fund their campaigns.

By the same token, politicians have perfected the art of playing to the camera, using their public positions and statements to play to their bases.

Partisanship is certainly a part of this mix, but not because ideology is a bad thing. Rather, it is the unthinking nature of the current partisan climate – Republicans obstructing debate because they can — that has poisoned the well.

And yet, we shouldn’t pretend that cooperation is the goal. Gridlock in Washington is terrible, but demanding cooperation for the sake of cooperation is not just content-free but potentially dangerous — as welfare reform, the USA Patriot Act, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a host of other misdeeds proves.

As John Mellencamp sang, “You have to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.”

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor living in central New Jersey. Email; blog

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2010

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