Earlier this year, Annabel Park was unhappy with the antics of the political movement commonly known as the “Tea Party.” She sought an alternative: one that was cautious about, but not fearful of, the federal government; one that would be known for informed and civil dialogue, not for shouts and insults hurled at public officials during town hall meetings. And thus began a new movement, this one named after another caffeinated beverage, the “Coffee Party.”
When I first heard about it, the notion struck me as intriguing but vague: “intriguing,” because I agree that our contemporary politics lack an informed and civil character; “vague,” because – for all the feel-good language – it was unclear just how Park and her peers would achieve the changes they sought.
I was not alone in that impression. In mid-March, on the Facebook page of the Coffee Party’s St. Louis chapter, a woman asked for more details about one of the local group’s meetings. She wanted to know what was accomplished and what the next steps might be. The answers were largely esoteric and incoherent and she left the discussion with considerable frustration.
Two weeks later, I was able to attend a Coffee Party meeting in the Central West End. The event’s organizers asked the attendees to break into small groups to talk about issues of importance to them. I sat with one of those small groups and the ensuing dialogue was, again, intriguing but vague.
After the meeting, several people stayed behind to chat with me. One of them was Laurie Rounds. She had recently helped start a Coffee Party group in Kirkwood and she was the first person I found who openly acknowledged the movement’s “intriguing but vague” nature. She was also the first to offer insights into a game plan.
She told me the national Coffee Party was asking like-minded individuals around the country to get together, discuss matters of common concern, and try to reach agreement on a list of priority issues. The local groups were then to share their lists of priorities with the national group, which would review those lists to determine if there was common ground among the various chapters.
A week later, the national organization asked its chapters if they would support an initial focus on two issues: the influence of money on politics and Wall Street reform. Around 90 percent of the respondents agreed. A spokesperson with the national group told me they now plan to write and publish position papers on those two issues.
And so it seems the Coffee Party is following the well-worn path of other political movements: It started intriguing-but-vague. It evolved to clarity-and-consensus. It’s now on the door step of advocacy, of pushing for changes to public policy. The next stage is probably confrontation with those who disagree.
At that point – the point of confrontation – the true character of a movement is often defined. Fair or not, the Tea Party’s character has been defined as raucous and rude. There’s reason to hope the Coffee Party will at least try to be different. In the Central West End meeting that I attended, some of the participants clearly wanted a fight, a direct, shout-for-shout answer to the Tea Party. But the meeting organizers were quick to remind them of the Coffee Party pledge: be civil and constructive, not angry and dismissive.
Of course, that pledge is easier to keep, when your movement is intriguing but vague. The unfortunate nature of modern American politics is that, the farther we move away from feel-good platitudes and the closer we get to actual policies, the more difficult it becomes to stop ourselves from shouting down our opponents.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Pete Abel is a public affairs executive. He serves on the boards of Stages St. Louis and the Greater Missouri Chapter of the Tourette Syndrome Association. Previously, he served as managing editor of the political blog “The Moderate Voice.” His career started in 1985, first as a freelance reporter and later as a full-time staff writer for the St. Louis Suburban Journals, covering municipal politics and local businesses.