By Linda Killian, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
Over the weekend I attended a meeting in Haymarket, Virginia. It was one of an estimated 350 such gatherings in 44 states around the country organized by the Coffee Party, whose mission is to promote civil discourse and compromise in the political system. The two dozen people gathered at the Haymarket Town Hall on that rainy Saturday morning for coffee, donuts, and discussion were a pretty diverse group with different party affiliations and political philosophies.
What they all seemed to have in common was a frustration with the current political situation and a feeling that they are not being well served by the system. But it was a quiet frustration expressed at a simmer rather than a boil. Coffee Party rules don't allow for raised voices, name-calling, or rudeness.
Still, I heard plenty of populist frustration over a ruling class of politicians and business leaders who seem to be doing well while everyone else is struggling.
One man said, "I belong to the NRA and I love my guns. I consider myself a conservative. I'm here to deal with issues. I consider myself a Tea Partier and a Coffee Partier. I feel like our economy is going down the tubes … our economy is out of control."
Another man said he took off from work to attend the meeting. "We're working six days a week, 12 hours a day to stay afloat," he said, adding that he is sick of corporate influence over political decisions and lies from public and business leaders.
There is one set of rules for the rich with access to elected officials because of campaign contributions and high-priced lobbyists, and another for everyone else, said those at the meeting.
Annabel Park, a soft-spoken 42-year-old documentary filmmaker who was a volunteer for Barack Obama's presidential campaign, came up with the idea for the Coffee Party and launched it in January by posting a fan page on Facebook. She admits the whole thing was initially "whimsical."
She had no idea it would take off the way it has--with more than 120,000 people now signed on to that original Facebook group--but she has obviously tapped into something.
"I feel like Kevin Costner in The Field of Dreams," she told the group. "I didn't know, if I build it, will they come?"
Park says she was motivated by concern over the tactics and rhetoric of the Tea Party, as well as all of the attention that group was getting from the media. But she says what her group has in common with the Tea Partiers is dissatisfaction with the government. "Something's got to change."
"There's a consensus that our process is broken down--we've seen that with the healthcare debate."
Park says the difference between the Coffee Party and the Tea Party is that her group believes in the government and the American political system and just wants to make it work better. She wants elected officials to come together and forge compromises.
Polls over the past year have reflected the growing frustration and anger felt by Americans who are fed up with both political parties, and Congress is held in particularly low esteem.
Several members of Congress that I talked with recently expressed support for the espoused mission of the Coffee Party and many of them feel trapped in the system too.
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia says he applauds the Coffee Party's approach. "Neither political party has a monopoly on truth or patriotism," Warner says.
Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado admits, "I'm frustrated and worried as much as anybody…I do think this Coffee Party is intriguing."
Sen. Evan Bayh, the Indiana Democrat who recently announced he is leaving Congress at the end of the year, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the system.
"The political process is not delivering the outcome that most Americans want," he told me recently, adding that it verges on the "dysfunctional."
It is a time of very high public anxiety and if the political process doesn't respond, "We could be in for a period of political instability," he predicts.
"Ultimately it's going to take all of us, moderates and pragmatists in both parties, standing up and saying enough. Americans want action. We need people that are going to stand for reform of the process. The public needs to stand up and insist upon it. We need raging moderates. I think the public is ahead of the political class on this," says Bayh.
That's certainly the way Park and the Coffee Party feel about it. Their next step will be to hold organizational sessions around the country at the end of the month in preparation for meetings with their own members of Congress in early April when they are home for the congressional Easter break.
"If it would have been any other job they would have been fired because they don't know how to work as a team and they're unproductive," Park says of Congress.
It remains to be seen whether the Coffee Party can hold together, organize, and have an impact on the system. But in a very short amount of time it seems to be off to a good start. And it would appear that members of Congress are taking notice.