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Jeffrey Abelson

Jeffrey Abelson

Posted: October 2, 2010 11:46 AM

The UnConvention

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They came, they talked, they listened -- to each other. They were attentive and respectful, with nary a voice raised in anger. A most unconventional political gathering. No, this wasn't a preview of Jon Stewart's Rally To Restore Sanity. It was the first national convention for the Coffee Party, held last weekend in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Coffee Party you say? Still in its infancy, it was born with a single post on Facebook in January, its founder conveying deep dismay at what passes for political discourse in this country, and wondering if it was possible to counter alienating hyper-partisanship with something different, so we might finally get on with addressing the serious problems facing our nation today. 

Tens of thousands roared their approval. By March a full fledged movement had erupted, comprised of red, blue, and purple Americans from all across the land -- united by their disgust with all forms of politics-as-usual. In the ensuing months, the movement self-organized and coalesced into Coffee Party chapters in communities nationwide. Six months later, a national convention.

One wonders what's next for this cross between a viral phenomenon and a face-to-face army of serious citizens.

The Tea Party has long been seen as self-organized to some extent, but it had the benefit (or curse) of deep pocketed funders and old political hands supporting and influencing it every step of the way. The Coffee Party is, by contrast, free of outside influence -- and funded (to the extent that it is) only by its members. And somehow, miraculously, that was enough to stage a convention for the hundreds of citizen activists who flew into Louisville, and tens of thousands more who watched the whole thing unfold online via the Coffee Party's new live Streaming Channel.

A political convention truly by and for the people.

While they rightly resist lazy media tagging them as the progressive response to the Tea Party, it is probably fair to say that a majority of Coffee Party members lean left in their personal politics. But many don't. The movement has no interest in party or ideology, seeking instead to be as big a tent as possible. To crystallize that point, a number of prominent Republicans were invited to the convention, where they were warmly welcomed and well-received as speakers and presenters.

These included former Bush and McCain strategist Mark McKinnon, who co-chaired a mock Constitutional Convention with Harvard Law professor (and HuffPost blogger) Larry Lessig. Even Tea Party Express Amy Kremer was scheduled to speak, but apparently cancelled at the last minute.

So it is an aggressively inclusive operation. And for one shining moment in American politics, one and all gladly checked their partisan passions at the door, in deference to this decaffeinated altar of reasoned reflection.

That's not to say these well-informed, highly opinionated folks didn't quibble a bit here and there, as befits such an unusually diverse political gathering. But true to their founding mission statement, they discussed a hundred and one subjects in a civil and reasoned manner.

High decibel enthusiasm. But no screaming.

So what do they stand for? Simple. Small 'd' democracy. Not democracy as a team sport -- but as an ongoing experiment in governing ourselves. One in which free individuals recognize that their own self-interest is inextricably bound up with the common good -- a delicate balance that will only remain stable with the active participation of a supermajority of citizens getting in the game, getting informed, and making their reasoned voices heard -- and acted upon.

In other words, the tiny task of revitalizing democracy from the ground up. Armed only with the logic that unless Americans get off the couch, we will never be able to truly fix broken government.

While they'll ultimately use their growing numbers and influence to support simpatico candidates, they decided to turn their attention next to helping build civic muscle in the body politic.

With midterms fast approaching, they're pulling out all the stops at their disposal to try to inspire fellow citizens not just to get out and vote, but to vote smart. Not just to choose frik or frak based on party affiliation, or snarky TV commercials, but based on where they substantively stand on issues that matter to you, issues you've done your homework on. And to help, local chapters are holding regular Coffee Vote meetings, and preparing informative voter guides, tailored to their own local communities, to help people in those communities get up to speed on the issues, and the stakes in the coming election.

And an ongoing series of local meetings will unfold after November as well, to help us stay awake once the heat of the election dies down. For as Bill Clinton said recently on the PBS Newshour, "Citizenship is a lifetime job."

Idealistic? No doubt. But rather intoxicating for those who hope to reboot the American Dream for future generations.

Other groups wave their flags and spout the names of founding fathers, along with narrowly-interpreted nostrums about our founding values and Constitutional strictures -- but these Coffee Partiers are doing the actual hard work of democracy, thinking through the issues, and finding ways to help shape outcomes. And they're doing it in a manner that would make the founders truly proud.

Increasing informed participation by alienated citizens is their overarching goal. But they also focus on certain core issues that 80-90% of their members agree upon.

One such issue they're gung ho on (along with a long list of other political groups from all sides of all aisles) is limiting the corrupting influence of big money in politics. Their current vehicle of choice is the Fair Elections Now Act, which was just voted out of committee and is awaiting word of whether it will get to the floor for a full House vote.

To underscore their commitment to this cause, several of the convention speakers and panels were devoted to this issue -- featuring leading light activists like Professor Lessig and David Donnelly.

Beyond grand goals and issue initiatives, perhaps the most impressive thing about the Coffee Party is their chapters who regularly host face-to-face meetups in their communities to engage in civil discourse on political issues.

That simple act -- of sitting down with your neighbors and having a rational conversation about issues that matter to you, helping each other learn more about them, then developing action plans to bring them to the attention of policy-makers --.and using the power of networking to link your local voices to amplify them nationally -- well, that's what true democracy is all about in the 21st century.

It puts the citizen back in the center of political decision-making, which is where we belong.

And it's only serious way to effectively practice politics in modern times.

So one can only wonder about what might happen if these self-governance role models -- born and bred online, and currently boasting nearly 300,000 Facebook members -- could somehow inspire 300 million Americans to view democracy less as a noun than a verb. Not a place or a thing -- but an aspiration of a people audacious enough to govern themselves in a productive manner.

An aspiration that we'll probably never fully realize, but an opportunity that we can and should regard as the greatest gift any generation can ever leave to the next. As such, we all have an obligation to keep it flourishing.

And the only way we can do that is through active, informed participation. For a passive or uninformed citizenry creates a power vacuum that special interests fill with glee. If we could refill that vacuum with seriously engaged citizens, we'd crowd out monied interests overnight. It's simple physics.

The downside to that equation is that if we don't, we're done.

As Coffee Party founder Annabel Park says, "Democracy is a fragile thing. It's not something to be taken for granted. It's a very fragile thing that we have to nurture and protect. So we have to get in there and be active."

Yet most Americans remain stuck in the rote repetition of the stale, false, and counter-productive belief that there's no way for us to make our voices heard, so why bother even trying. Or we justify our disengagement by asserting that we don't have time to follow the issues (as we flip channels on the evening 'reality' shows). Or "that's their job, not mine." Well, how's that attitude been serving us lately?

So how do we avoid subjecting our fragile and precious blessing of self-governance from decay or worse? There's only one way -- the true red, white, & blue American way -- which is for each of us to take our jobs as citizens more seriously. Much more seriously.

And if you already do, then turn to those in your orbit who toil in the darkness of apathy or cynicism, and help them turn the lights on.

Because each of us has a vital role in democracy, a role that is irreplaceable if we really want it to serve the needs of all of its people. Whatever your reason for tuning out, you better pick up a cup o' joe and tune back in. Cause it should be painfully obvious by now that there are no political superheros coming to save us. Not from the powerful forces that fill the power vacuum created by passive citizens -- and not from our own righteous civic cynicism, no matter how justified it feels to think that way.

This is the core value I took from three days of listening and talking with these diverse, thoughtful, and inclusive patriots -- and filming interviews with an array of convention speakers and Coffee Party activists.

Someone referred to them as the Thinking Man's Party. Sounds about right to me. But don't mistake intelligent and civil for boring or wonky. After the first 12-hour day of thought-provoking panels and presentations, the lights came down on a multi-genre concert featuring musician members from across the country -- and they rocked the house. And the house rocked back.

Bottom line is that if the Coffee Party can contribute to even a modest increase in the number of Americans who walk the walk of the serious citizen -- who shift their attitude about politics from it being a fatally flawed game rigged in favor of "them" -- to a fluid, living, productive process by and about "us" -- then it will have made an indelibe mark in the pantheon of political movements in America.

No matter how big or small their numbers in comparison to conventional parties, and no matter how long they last as a movement, this is the most refreshing version of political activism to emerge in a long long time. One that's clearly tapped a nerve. Which is why I've little doubt that we'll be hearing a lot more about them in the months and years to come.

Video interviews and concert performances to be posted shortly at Coffee Party USA and Song Of A Citizen.

 

Follow Jeffrey Abelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeffreyabelson