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Personal Reactions to First Coffee Party Meeting, Implications for Progressives

The previous post was my “report.” This one is my personal reaction, which is a mix of enthusiasm tempered with some concern and many questions. Some people view the Coffee Party as either the liberal or centrist version of the Tea Party. Both are false comparisons. The organizers have a genuine commitment to open, respectful dialogue and democratic decision-making, no matter one’s political affiliation.

When I spoke to Ms. Park after the meeting to explore the connection between the Coffee Party and the progressive ethos, she was consistent in eschewing any labels. I can see why this effort drew praise from the Washington Post. The Coffee Party’s goals go far beyond my personal venture to democratize the progressive movement. It is much more ambitious in that it seeks to transform how Americans relate to our government and to each other about politics.

Yet there was also a clear recognition that government serves corporate interests, rather than the democratic will of the majority. And it was clear that most participants at this meeting were liberal and favored an active role for government.

So what does this all mean for progressives? From my perspective, we have two choices ahead of us. 1) We could let the opportunity to participate slip by us and stick to our current game. 2) We could see the Coffee Party as a blank slate on which we can help shape the outlines of consensus within our communities.

Obviously, I favor the second option. Remember that each Coffee Party chapter will have local autonomy to make its own decisions, and will be as progressive as its membership. The people behind the Coffee Party effort made clear that an informed, deliberative process concludes with action. The difference is that everyone feels their voices are heard, and respects the decisions made by democratic process, even if they disagree. This approach should appeal to progressives, in both its alignment with our principles and as a means to hold elected officials accountable to organized constituents.

Instead of disparaging the Coffee Party’s initial decision to be non-ideological and nonpartisan, progressives can infuse the movement with the focus it needs to be sustainable and meaningful. We can also make our case to centrists and independents more effectively if we are talking to them, rather than shouting at them as the Tea Party does. We can advance an underlying set of values that stand in stark contrast to Glenn Beck’s excitement over the “lion eating the weak.”

IMO, the values gap is important and this is one area where I have major questions about the limits of consensus. The Coffee Party wants to restore a sense that we’re all in this together for the common good. Yet the divisions between liberals and conservatives today rarely seem to be about the best approach to a shared goal. They are instead fundamental disagreements about values.

Take health care, for example – our divisive issue of the day. Progressives do not want anyone to go without health care because they cannot afford insurance. Universal coverage is the goal, government involvement is seen as the solution. Conservatives are more focused on privatizing the health insurance system as much as possible. Whether that leads to universal coverage is beside the point – full privatization is the goal. So we have one debate – but two fundamentally different, value-driven priorities. It’s hard for me to envision how we bridge such a gap in core beliefs.

So, the Coffee Party’s focus, its practical results, its ability to reconcile conflicting value systems – all will be tested in the coming months. So will progressives’ commitment to democratic local organizing. Will we choose to sit this one out and cede the grassroots movement-building playing field to the Tea Party? Will we continue to hope that top-down organizations like OFA and MoveOn – where decisions about goals and tactics are made at the upper echelons and individual members carry out orders – somehow lead us to the promised land? Will we wait for another grassroots movement to come along and revive the spirit of the Obama campaign?

Or can we put our cynicism aside, be willing to take a chance, and explore the full potential of this Coffee Party idea within our communities? Can we use it as vehicle to promote our values and policy goals? Can we let the country know whether we have an answer to the Tea Party and the extreme right-wing juggernaut? Can we rebuild the authentic grassroots movement that is needed to put this country on track? Yes. We can.

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