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Major grassroots movements have sprung up in the last four years to mark a tipping point from voter apathy to activism.  No, I will not include the [[DNC]]’s [[astroturfing]] front group “[[Organizing for America]]” — a massively funded glamorization of the usual suspect’s fundraising and vote-gathering process.  I am speaking specifically of the “[[Tea Party movement|Tea Party]]” and the lesser-known “[[Coffee Party USA|Coffee Party]]”.  And both of them happened, more or less, by accident.  Or more accurately, the time was right.  The void of [[Populism|populist]] leadership needed to be filled, or at least addressed.

Not Quite Right

Despite connections with [[Conservative]], [[Libertarian]], and even [[Randianism|Randian]] organizations, the Tea Party is grassroots because it was not contrived by any particular group’s agenda.  Like [[Project Chanaology]] and the [[Jasmine Revolution]], it was a natural network of everyday people with (vaguely) common desires to address issues.  In this case, the igniting spark was a short rant by news reporter [[CNBC]] Business News editor [[Rick Santelli]]. 

Although a few groups had already staged protests in a Boston Tea Party fashion, only after the concept swept the country after the broadcast did particular groups attempt to “steer” the masses and dogmatize it with their own particular ideology.  Third-Party politicians and wannabe politicians of all flavors rushed to take the lead in local events to set (and claim) the stage.  This is the origin of jokes pertaining to having copies Atlas Shrugged at any protest.  Even Islamophobic bigots like [[Pamela Geller]] gained open mic time at hate-speech events that most people affiliating themselves with the Tea Party would never attend, yet the media will identify these with the Tea Party as a whole, simply because someone claimed or even falsely implied it was a “Tea Party” event.  Such is understandable — xenophobic nationalism and conservative patriotism can and do often overlap.  The moral of the story is that such movements are not homogeneous.

Demographically {links to studies at end of article}, the Tea Party — not an actual political party in the traditional sense, but with cadidates running on such a platform nonetheless — is not wholly [[Conservative]].  It is non-partisan, comprised of large numbers of people across the political spectrum except for Liberals, who are a clear minority.  After all, the original outcries were against the [[Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008|stimulus package]] and [[Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act|proposed health care “reforms”]], the two major actions of the Democrat-dominated Congress under a Democrat President.

It could be argued that the whole movement was instigated by the media, as the first website that organized the protests was created and run by Chicago radio producer (The current “main” wesite for the movement can be found HERE).  Now, in true yellow journalist turnabout, the media seems to spend most of its time these days reporting it as a fringe group, zeroing in on the few white racist males who make a lot of noise, a half-truth at best in light of actual demographic studies. 

But whoever fired the first shot is shadowed by the actual response of everyday people, many of whom have never protested anything before.  After all, with demographics being highly middle-aged, middle-class, and educated, many never felt the full squeeze of the economy in their lifetime — until now.  And the squeeze is being seen not from the usual corporate greed, but the government’s usual response to reward it and make things worse by spending even more of the middle- and upper-class’s money.  From this point of view, King George and the West Indies Company have been replaced by Obama and Wall Street, and it’s time for a “Second Revolution”, the form of which has yet to be determined. 

A Cup of Joe

Of course all the noise of protest was mostly … well … noise.  Much heat of discontent with little light of constructive solutions.  The people want reform, and they want it NOW, but aren’t quite sure what that reform should be, or how it should be implemented.  Before conventions, discussion panels, and endorsing of candidates, the “party” lived up to its media portrayal as mostly the focused angst of those with much to shout and little to say. 

Where Tea was first poured from the right hand of the media, Coffee was served from the left hand of  existing political activists and filmmakers.  The spark this time was the [[Facebook]] rant of [[Annabel Park]], upset with what she perceived as a growing obstructionist campaign against Obama and friends.  She was particularly agitated at the notion put forth in some major media that (their charicature of) the Tea Party represented America.  Whether or not the Tea Party’s noise is disproportionate to it’s representative size (with research polls showing Park to be quite off in her assumptions), she called for a contrast to loud protestation by more “civil” discourse.

Like Santelli, she didn’t literally call for a movement to spontaneously occur, but the response is what counts.  The Tea Party clearly didn’t represent all of America — or at least the way all Americas want reform — and so the call for an alternative was answered.  Groups and meetings — of which some I have attended locally — have sprung up, organized on Facebook, Meetup.Com, and the website run by Park.

Left Behind

Because of the strong focus on bi-partisan civil dialogue, the Coffee Party also attracts people across the political spectrum, or at least is centrist enough for people of far-left persuasion to criticize it for being centrist and forming offshoots such as the [[Coffee Party Progressives]].  Even at the Coffee Party’s first national convention (a few hundred people compared to thousands at the Tea Party counterpart), there was talk of replacing Park as a “leader” for being TOO civil and cooperative with those not of card-carrying [[Progressive]] persuasion.

Perhaps the focus on dialogue is why the Coffee Party has not yet made it to candidate platform status.  But after garnering grassroots support for some time time, Annabel Park has called to task the movement, reiterating her original motives:

“Let’s clear up a misunderstanding about the Coffee Party that it started out just promoting civil discussion. This is from March 2010: {quoting herself} ‘The first step is creating a public space for open and civil dialogue. The second step is collective deliberation, considering facts and values to arrive at a decision. The third step is working toward implementing the decision.’ “

It is unclear which facts and values will take precedence in the forming of such (as of now hypothetical) decisions.  Is the Coffee Party a philosophy or a platform in the usual sense?  The social media channels run by Park have been mostly generic — the recognition of reforms we can all agree on, at least in principle.  However, unambiguously liberal stands are taken on many issues.  Ironically, the most recent example I can think of is support of the teacher’s union in Wisconsin that could be easily argued is far LESS civil than what is portrayed as a typical “Tea Party” protest.

But from her recent statements, I question if Annabel Park will allow the Coffee Party to be larger than herself.  After all, no one truly “owns” a grassroots movement, and trademark issues aside, the movement will evolve naturally according to those aspects of Park’s message that resound with the public who choose to participate, rejecting those that do not.

Do Coffee and Tea Mix?

I would describe the differences and similarities of the two movements as subtle yet profound. 

The most common denominator is an unspoken message, one that resonates with people across all party lines.  Something is inherently wrong.  We can no longer sit back and let things sort themselves out if we want real change instead of creeping disaster.   

What that means specifically may be more loss of liberty to Tea-drinkers and declining social justice to Coffee-drinkers.  The solutions may be more about a pervasive role of government to bean grinders and minimizing government to leaf-soakers.  It is the typical Left-Right banter all over again, but at least people are engaging in what is usually considered a topic forbidden from friendly conversation.

In terms of underlying belief, the difference is if the government can be reformed within the existing framework, without “revolution” of some kind.   If you don’t think so, you’re probably more suited for the Tea Party.  If you believe that “We the People” means that the government is not a separate elite but ourselves, and widespread participation and reshuffling of chairs is the answer, then get your mug ready.  But these need not be extremes or exclusive viewpoints.

Today, there is a taboo on even mentioning armed revolt being on the table, even among the most ardent gun-toting wavers of the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag.  Revolution in the modern sense seems to refer to the result and not the means — making sweeping changes however necessary to undo much of the existing structure.  Again contrasting Right and Left, more legislation is the default brew of Coffee and “Less is More” is the mantra of Tea.

Details to be debated and determined, any and all reform will require politicians without the inseparable conflicts of interest that currently come with the job.  Coffee AND Tea can be served at that party.   The difference is if we believe “We the People” still have enough power to buck the entrenched political machine to achieve this end. 

The closest thing to a consensus is that the solution will NOT be found in partisan politics as usual.  People are tired of the DNC and RNC fighting each other where they should not and cooperating behind closed doors in ways that would otherwise be considered criminal.   However, it has yet to be seen if these “parties” will be absorbed into the existing two-party paradigm, negating the potency of both.

Meanwhile, coupled with personal free speech empowerment through technology, the ubiquity of masss media and alternative viewpoints has exposed us to the dark underbelly of the political process.  What we could dismiss as shadowy conspiracy theories or exceptions to some rule is being recognized as corruption endemic to the system and not merely bad individual politicians.  It’s broken and only what tools to fix or parts to replace are in question.

Where to Stand?

I would prefer to be idealistic and believe the system can be repaired from within it’s own existing rules.  I prefer dialogue to protest, much like I prefer passive resistance to riot or revolution.  But I do not subscribe to the idea of moral superiority necessarily in the former when sometimes the latter is called for.  I do not know if the system can be fixed without replacing some parts with a sledgehammer.

The dangers of Tea is in the social chaos that would ensue if change is forced, leaving the door open for autocracy of one kind or another to fill the space.  The dangers of Coffee is that the powers of government have always been all too willing to pacify the lowest common denominator by token reforms and entitlements, taking the wind out of the usually silent majority’s sails.  After all, it is the “We The People” that brought us to a government we deserve, not by direct fault, but by the sin of participatory omission.

My position is that “We the People” is misunderstood in the same way people parrot we are a Democracy (or should be) against our Founding Father’s better judgment.  It was well-reasoned to hand us a Representative Democracy — a Republic.  Even so, at the time of the Constitution, citizen rather than career politicians were the norm.  Yes, many were influential people, and that can be argued is a natural blessing or an elitist curse.  This alone creates a ruling class of sorts, just as there are still rich people even with social mobility.  The question here is political mobility, guaranteed to us at least in principle.

But no matter how much “Of the people, for the people, by the people” we chisel into our psychosocial architecture, it does not mean the government IS us.  At best it is a reflection and tool wielded by the few chosen from and by the many.  At worst, the system is a reflection of special interest groups, who using taxpayer money funded by earmarks and pork-barreling in turn is churned into campaigns for politicians willing to continue the cycle. 

To say reform can be done without drastic changes is a matter of opinion, one based strongly on our belief that we have or have not the power to hold accountable those of us that are actually chosen by us.  I pray we do, but am not convinced.  A more realistic hope is that the answer is somewhere in the middle, and the growing pains be few and swift.

Tea Party Demographic Links: Gallup Poll | NYTimes/CBSObjective Anecdotal