Tea Partiers, make room. The Coffee Party is about to steal some of your media thunder. Around for only a few weeks, it officially launches March 13th, having already attracted 109,000 Facebook fans, slightly more than the Tea Party, around about a year. The Coffee Party expects about 300 gatherings in 44 states to participate on Saturday.
On the surface, the two "parties" seem radically different. Tea Partiers are known for their shout-downs, but Coffee Partiers feature a "civility pledge" on their homepage. Coffee Partiers, don't call for a drastically shrunken government, ala the Tea Party, but for "cooperation in government." And, Coffee folks emphasize whom they will support--"those leaders working toward positive solutions"--rather than the Tea Party's practice of lampooning those they won't, like our president.
But let's not get so carried away with the new brew that we fail to read the tea leaves.
The Tea Party has so far stolen the show precisely because it's loud, occasionally outrageous, and can sometimes sound downright scary. But the Tea Party has something to tell us. So as funny as Sarah Palin's palm-reading antics and Bill Maher's jabs at Tea Partiers maybe
...we should listen before we laugh.
First of all, a lot of Tea Partiers got to their party because they're angry. And while civility is essential to democracy itself, anger is also appropriate. We should be angry that our democracy is being stolen. We can be pissed without being nasty.
Secondly, a lot of Tea Partiers understand a big part of what's gone wrong in America - and if they don't understand it, they sense it. The trouble is, they, like most of us, can't get our heads around it. When kids throw fits it's often because they can't explain what's really bothering them. Maybe it's the same for grown-ups.
The problem is, in this society we have no common language, no frame, to explain why the pain has increased so fast that: Almost half of American families have experienced a lost job, fewer hours, or a pay cut in the last year. Almost one fifth of men in their prime-earning years are unemployed. And half of our children depend on food stamps at some point in their upbringing.
So let's try to name America's root problem. It might bring some sanity and focus, perhaps telling us why the Tea Partiers are so ticked off; and best of all--suggest a practical path to get our country back.
In 2005, Citigroup researchers offered a great suggestion. They labeled our economy a Plutonomy--one driven by the wealthy, as now the richest one percent of U.S. households have as much net worth as the bottom 90 percent put together. We are no longer a middle class country. Far, far from it. We are the "rich" and the "non-rich," Citigroup explains. And the second group, the "multitudinous many" get "surprisingly small bites of the national pie."
It wasn't always this way. For 30 years or more after World War II, all of us were doing better and the poorest Americans were advancing the fastest. The huge rich-poor gap was narrowing.
So what happened?
Too many bought the idea that a fair, middle-class society of opportunity happens on its own - automatically - from what Ronald Reagan called the "magic of the market."
Trusting in the "invisible hand," we've spent years allowing the dismantling of the economic standards and rules needed for democracy to thrive; rules that keep wealth circulating so that we don't end up like the end of a Monopoly game when I was a kid--with my brother holding all the good property while I couldn't even afford Baltic Avenue.
It doesn't take a PhD in economics to get a grip on how we got here. In our real-life Monopoly, an economy driven by highest return to existing wealth, we see wealth return to wealth until one family, Wal-Mart's Waltons, are able to control almost as much as 40 percent of Americans.
And it doesn't take a PhD in political science to figure out that such concentrated wealth has political consequences--it's able to use its muscle to twist public choices to serve its private interests. Most of the $3.5 billion in lobbying money spent last year, more than double the 1998 total, came from mega-corporations.
It's telling that Tea Partiers tend to come from an older demographic. Maybe they're angry because they're old enough to recall a different America - one in which average people had a fairer chance of making it.
So Tea Party anger has a lot to teach us. Yet, tragically, their "stop government take-over of..." mantra diverts us from seeing the deeper crisis of privately-held government. To break the spell and find our power, we can ask ourselves some simple but tough questions, like:
Why, before the financial meltdown, were most Americans already making less in real dollars than in the 1970s?
Why, before the meltdown, did America spend vastly more per person than other countries but rank 37th in health care worldwide?
Why did our economy collapse? Was it really "over-reaching government" or was it what Citigroup calls "cooperative government," in the end so cooperative that it let financial-industry high-flyers game the system and do us in?
Struggling with these questions, more of us might see that to make our government "the expression of our collective will," as the Coffee Party expresses it, we need the guts to name privately held government for what it is. Only then can we see critical and immediate steps to remove money's grip from our broken democracy--by, for example, publicly funded elections via the bi-partisan-backed Fair Elections Now Act, at this moment awaiting some useful citizen anger to help push it through Congress.
To get there we need first to listen to the truths we each see. So whatever your politics, why not find a Coffee Party on Saturday and join the conversation? True, Coffee Partiers might focus more on the threat of concentrated, unaccountable corporate power, while Tea Partiers' typically target concentrated, unaccountable government power. But see a pattern?
Imagine if we realized that the problem is concentrated power itself and joined together to create a democracy accountable to us.
Now that would be a powerful brew.
Frances Moore Lappe is the author of Getting a Grip 2: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want (March 2010) and 17 other books, beginning with the three-million copy Diet for a Small Planet. Fellow Huffington Post blogger and Small Planet Institute Senior Writer Stefan Sirucek contributed editorial support. Find more on living democracy at Small Planet Institute.
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