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Coffee Party Founder, Disappointed in OFA, Charts New Course for Grassroots Activism

Last week, Annabel Park, founder of the Coffee Party movement, was kind enough to take about a half hour to speak with fivethirtyeight. The Coffee Party has been making a lot of news and noise lately. On Saturday, the group held their first National Coffee Day event. Here is the interview:

I’d like to start by asking you to give our readers a brief history of how you, using Facebook, came up with the idea to form the Coffee Party.

It was actually a very simple idea, or a hypothetical idea. Right after the Massachusetts election, leading up to Tea Party convention in Nashville, it seemed like there was non-stop coverage of the Tea Party movement. There was a growing narrative that the Tea Party represented the real America or a majority of Americans. And I thought that was completely wrong. I know they don’t represent me and I found the narrative alienating. And I just felt that was a shared opinion among many people.

So I kind of just started ranting on my Facebook page on late January 26. “Oh, God, I’m just so sick of the Tea Party. We should just start our own party, call it the Coffee Party, or the Smoothie Party—anything but Tea.” Friends of mine online bonded immediately. Within about a half an hour of that rant I created this fan page, Join the Coffee Party Movement.

What is it about the Tea Party movement that got you so agitated? Is it their ideological orientation, or is it what you complain about on the website in terms of misinformation? Is it tactical? Or is it all of that?

If I had to pinpoint I’d say it’s their methodology for social change. I think that some of the things they’re trying to achieve actually a lot of Americans would support. But it’s the way they’re going about it and how they’re being used by obstructionists in Congress that I troubles me.

From their platform, they say they are for limited government, fiscal responsibility, and free markets. Well, if you break it down, you know, who wants unlimited government? Without limited government we have totalitarianism. No one wants that. We all buy into some version of limited government. Fiscal responsibility is the same thing. I don’t know anybody who’d sign up for government waste. We all want fiscal responsibility. And most Americans agree that we want a free market system. There are some differences over to what extent it should be regulated or what sorts of enforcements should be in place for fair play. Those are just American ideals.

I do take issue with how they are interpreting or distorting these concepts and how aggressively they’re pursuing it. It’s difficult to take their level of rhetoric, the lack of fact-checking in some cases, and how their activities embolden people in Congress to obstruct the process.

In the end, I think that’s what we have to focus on: How do we improve our political process? Because we’re seeing all sorts of vulnerabilities and loopholes.

We have a democracy, but there are loopholes. It seems that the most organized constituents have disproportionate influence over our government. Corporations pay thousands of people to spend all of their time trying to influence government, but the majority of us are too busy to spend our time influencing the government. We could go through a list of possible reforms, such as campaign finance reform, term limits, killing the filibuster, etc.

Democracy is the fundamental value that all Americans share. Yet, we have a democracy that is really fragile and inert because we don’t have a critical mass of people participating on a regular basis. We are calling on Americans, regardless of their political disposition, to participate in the political process. That is the only way we can have a government that represents the will of the people.

Regardless of what you think about Tea Partiers, from a small-d democratic standpoint, you can’t say they’ve been uninvolved. You can’t say they’ve been ineffective, right?

Right. I’d say they’ve been disproportionately effective.

Do you think because of the media narrative, with a Democratic Congress and White House, that your group will get less attention as the Tea Party movement. Is that your suspicion?

I’d say it’s kind of unpredictable. We’re in uncharted territory right now. I think the Tea Party people in a way are responding to the same frustration that Coffee Party people are responding to, which is dysfunction in our government.

They identify the solution to that differently from us. From what I understand of their rhetoric, they think that the federal government is inherently a problem. It’s as if they’ve declared war on the federal government. Our relationship to the federal government is different. We just want the federal government to do a better job representing and serving us.

We look at the federal government like it is a patient that needs care. You do not abandon the patient because it’s diseased. We have to remedy it, we have to treat it. We can ‘t abandon the federal government because it’s the only apparatus we have for collective decision-making.

Apparently, in just the past few days the number of Coffee Partiers signed up on Facebook surpassed the number of Tea Partiers. Is that right?

Yes, we have. But it’s kind of hard to interpret what that means. At least it says that people want an alternative to the Tea Party.

Speaking of alternatives, some of your Coffee Party people are showing up to counter-rally at Tea Party rallies. Is that something you’re trying to organize through the website?

Not at all. Some of the people are taking individual initiative to do that. But that is definitely not something we are organizing or encouraging. Because our mission is not to counter the Tea Party. It’s about reforming our government.

There was a rally recently on the National Mall supporting passage of health care reform. Were Coffee Partiers involved in organizing people to participate in that?

No we weren’t because we’re not ready yet. We have to practice democracy first internally and go through a deliberation process together to determine what kind of action plans we will have.

There’s some evidence that the Tea Partiers are dominated by or have a plurality of disaffected Ron Paul supporters. Do you have a sense of what the typical Coffee Party person is like?

It’s really hard to say. I’m trying to take some time to get to know people personally. So I went to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Atlanta last weekend to meet with people.

I don’t want to make assumptions and give you a profile. We do have this tool up on our website called The Sphere which gives us an overview of where people stand on political issues. It’s a great tool for seeing where we’re at, where we agree and disagree, and provide a roadmap for our dialogue. Unlike other groups that start with a platform or list of agenda items, we want to make it a bottom-up process.

Have any politicians or activists reached out to you to ask for support or encourage you to mobilize Coffee Partiers on behalf of some cause or issue, or just to encourage you?

We have had some candidates and staffers come to our meetings and reach out to our chapters.

Like state legislative candidates or US House candidates? What kind of candidates?

All kinds. Many of the chapters are getting approached because their fan numbers are going up. For a candidate it would be stupid to ignore that because it’s a pool of potential voters and volunteers.

Do you think Washington Democrats are taking you seriously?

I think last Saturday was a turning point because we had over 350 parties across the country with thousands attending. There were events in nearly every state including Wasilla, Alaska. These are real people and our movement is real. They also need to know that we are not going to just talk. We are going to fight for representation.

You’re an organizer but you’ve also been involved in Democratic politics in the past, working on Jim Webb’s Senate campaign in Virginia. That said, what’s your sense of how well the Obama White House, the Democratic National Committee and Organizing For America have fared since Obama came to the White House in terms of organizing all the people who supported him in 2008?

I really don’t know what to say. First, I want to clarify that I’ve only volunteered for campaigns, never been paid.

Secondly, I think it’s hard to turn a grassroots movement for change into an extension of the government.

Do you think they [Obama Administration, the Democratic National Committee, Organizing for America] have lost their organic touch?

Well it would be difficult to be organic when you’re part of the party machine.

I don’t know. I just know I don’t feel inspired by OFA. I don’t know why. I just don’t feel any desire to be part of their efforts.

Do you think Obama should let his inner community organizer come out a bit more?

I don’t know what Obama should do exactly other than to keep pointing out the opposition’s tactics and communicate directly to people. I personally think that he may be a good driver and I see him trying, but the fact is we are asking him to drive a broken car.

I see there’s a donor link on the Coffee Party USA web page. Can you tell me how much you’ve raised thus far online? Online or otherwise, have you received any major contributions?

No, not major. [laughs] It’s just individuals donating $20 or $50 at a time. I think we’ve raised $5,000. So far we’re a completely volunteer organization. We’d like to keep it strictly volunteer, but it’s a lot of work. A lot of people have had to quit their day jobs to do this.

There’s really no overhead right now. But we need to raise money to buy office supplies and to prepare for our convention this summer.

Long term, do you think anything permanent will come of what you’re doing?

Well, I hope so, at least at the level of cultural change. You know, we’re not trying to start a third party. We’re trying to get people to have a different relationship to our government and to one another. We want to get people to participate with the understanding that we’re a community, and that we’re all here trying to advance the common good.

We want to move away from this paradigm of politics as a football game with two teams. That’s a zero-sum game situation: one team wins, the other team loses. That’s not a democracy. We’ve kind of inherited that, but that’s not a democracy. We need to change everything about that way of understanding at politics because right now it’s not even a football game, it’s like ultimate fighting. People are acting viciously.

That’s why it was important for us to first of all call for civility and to connect each other. We’re going to enter this discourse as a community and leave as a community. Just because you and I don’t agree on something like, say, public option, that doesn’t make us enemies. We’re still part of the community. And so that experience of participating has to be positive and empowering. And that’s what we’re focusing on right now.