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Thursday, 04 March 2010 06:14

Is 2010 The Year of the Coffee Party? Progressives Show Tea Baggers Don't Have a Monopoly on Civic Participation

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by Meg White

Maybe it's just cabin fever, but progressives seem to be emerging from their insulated shells recently to show that tea baggers don't have a monopoly on civic participation.

For every stay-at-home mom interviewed by some cable news outlet at a tea party rally talking about how she was never really involved in politics before Glenn Beck aroused her out of her civic slumber, there's a Jessica Sharp on the other side.

Sharp, featured in the video embedded here, was a Maryland mother politically involved only in the margins. After she heard about the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited corporate donations in elections, she was worried for her child's future.

"I had Samantha in the back seat and I looked at her and I said, 'My God, what is she going to grow up to know if corporations are going to be allowed to just skim a couple million off the top of their profits to flip a couple of races that might be close?'" Sharp recalled. So, she organized her first rally, which attracted national politicians and activists from all over the country.

There are some very specific aspects of this campaign that allow me to believe that it's a true alternative to established political movements. Targeted campaigns such as this one are bound to have more longevity and cohesion than the tea party movement. It's almost as if tea party proponents use the fact that their interests are spread among so many dissatisfied factions as a replacement for true grassroots activity.

Also, the corporations-as-people issue is not necessarily a partisan one. While Republicans are more likely to defend the free speech of corporations, both parties are beholden to corporate paymasters. Both conservatives and liberals are fed up with corporate influence upon politics. Because of that, this issue has the potential to draw more interest and grassroots participation than any ideologically scattered tea party rally. Another plus is that corporate lobbyists won't touch this issue with a ten-foot pole, since it threatens to make their jobs irrelevant. So the purity of such a movement is much easier to preserve than the Freedom Works extravaganzas known as tea party rallies.

For progressives looking for a less focused campaign, there's another movement brewing as a direct reaction to the prominence of the tea party movement. Coffee Party USA embodies "a call to action" asking "ordinary citizens participate out of a sense of civic duty, civic pride, and a desire to contribute to society."

Documentary filmmaker and Coffee Party USA founder Annabel Park describes the moment she "kind of lost it and started ranting on my Facebook page about the frustration I felt listening to news coverage that made it seem like the tea party was representative of America" in this video. Park says she envisions the group as a way for frustrated people to direct their anger with congressional obstructionism, fear tactics and deliberate misinformation into positive action. 

The movement is clearly still nascent. Their Web site is cluttered with basic organizational questions, such as a proposed mission statement asking for input and a poll asking supporters to choose the political issue most important to them.

The organization's official kickoff is next Saturday, March 13, and will be realized in different ways all across the nation from rallies to intimate meetings in local coffee shops.

Tea party elements you probably won't see at these events are racist signs or screaming protesters. Nearly 1,000 people have signed the group's "civility pledge," where proponents promise to "conduct myself in a way that is civil, honest, and respectful toward people with whom I disagree. I value people from different cultures, I value people with different ideas, and I value and cherish the democratic process."

Park told The New York Times they're not positioning themselves as the antithesis of the values expressed by tea partiers: “We’re not the opposite of the Tea Party... We’re a different model of civic participation, but in the end we may want some of the same things.”

It may seem that the tea partiers still have the upper hand, at least in terms of media coverage. But for however cynical and disillusioned progressives are right now, they also have a deeper tradition of political involvement. While attending a rally is really exciting for someone who's never even voted before, that sort of surface involvement gets old fast. Such people rarely have the longevity to turn their fiery rhetoric into the sort of action that will actually make a difference.

As Sharp noted at the rally she organized, "Standing out here in the rain on a Monday is not going to get bills passed. But calling your legislators and writing your letter to the editor and things like that are."

That's the kind of realism and call to duty you won't hear at a tea party. But getting things done is not what tea party rallies are for.

Part of the reason that the tea party movement is seen as so successful is the lip service they received from the conservative media and Republican lawmakers. The thing is, tea parties did not instigate any change. They simply allowed Republicans to do exactly what they'd been doing ever since Obama was elected. They didn't have to change a single thing they were doing; they just had to publicize their obstruction in a louder and angrier manner.

Yes, the challenge to build a grassroots movement that is not solely based on anger and actually seeks to make real change in Washington is going to be much greater than the effort required to transform popular frustration into a useless slogan to be co-opted by opportunistic corporations and politicians.

Then again, the rewards extend beyond a free mini American flag. Hell, you might even get your democracy back.