The Tea Party protests last week remind us that while incivility and fiery rhetoric make great headlines, they serve as a meager path to progress. The fringe element of the Tea Party undermines the movement’s message and alienates many Americans, including those who share concerns about increased taxes and spending. It fails to recognize that, unlike in 1773, government is not our enemy, but a reflection of our common will.
“Don’t tread on me” is not an answer to how to control health care costs, foster a clean energy economy or improve our education system. Solutions will be found not by demonizing government and demagoguing issues, but by engaging in honest discussion.
This idea has brewed an alternative movement known as the Coffee Party; it was founded a few months ago by Annabel Park and Eric Byler, and has since grown to over 200,000 members. “We must participate in the democratic process in order to address the challenges that we face as Americans,” reads part of the Coffee Party mission statement. The effort seeks to reinvigorate public dialogue and give “voice to Americans who want to see cooperation in government.”
Across the country, the Coffee Party has inspired hundreds of events that have brought together diverse groups of people to discuss pressing issues and find common ground. This week, organizers are enlisting college students to hold Campus Coffee events.
The surprising growth of the Coffee Party illustrates how easy it is to be deceived into thinking Americans are as polarized as our national politics and the mainstream media suggest we are. To the contrary, registered independents make up the largest and fastest-growing segment of the American electorate. Within our own Millennial Generation, a plurality of young people self-identifies as moderate. Our country stands to benefit as this group of Americans begins to flex its political muscle by challenging those on the fringes and fixing a political system that provides those on the extreme with a megaphone.
Congress is a great example. Republicans and Democrats have been unable to agree on just about any issue over the past year. Filibusters nearly doubled in the last session of Congress. In January, even a measure to create a bipartisan fiscal commission failed to garner the 60 votes necessary to pass. While the enormity of the issues facing our country should give greater motivation to our elected officials to work together, it instead has become an incentive for the opposite.
As a result, some of the most reasonable members of Congress are finding work elsewhere, like Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). “There’s just too much brain-dead partisanship,” Bayh said when he announced his retirement. At least 18 members of the House will not seek re-election. Many moderate incumbents who are sticking around for the November elections seek to remake themselves, as they are threatened by challengers who will play to the base. For example, John McCain has abandoned his “maverick” nickname while Florida’s Republican Gov. Charlie Crist is mulling an independent bid as he trails his opponent by double digits.
Politics defined by hyper-partisanship is not reflective of where the country stands currently. Don’t let Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann tell you otherwise. On campus last week, I helped to organize a forum about the national debt, co-sponsored by the College Democrats and College Republicans. Allegheny College next month will convene a meeting between both Republican and Democrat clubs from dozens of schools to conduct workshops on how to resolve contentious issues and effectively exchange ideas. Indeed, most people understand that we will get nowhere if one particular side controls the debate and the agenda and if there is no cooperation with the other.
Washington does not understand it, perhaps because it is politically advantageous not to. Although some 80 percent of Americans think Washington is broken because of the gridlock, and a recent Pew Report found there is “epic discontent with Congress and elected officials,” congressional incumbency rates remain over 90 percent. There is an obvious disconnect between public opinion and representation. Some have suggested doing away with party primaries, which tend to produce ideologically extreme candidates, and replacing them with instant runoff general elections. Redistricting reform is another timely suggestion. Both are good ideas. Both will take time.
Right now, what we need most is for citizens to re-engage at every level of government and to hold our leaders accountable. The Coffee Party provides a great mechanism for this to happen. So whether it’s at Saxby’s, Starbucks or The Midnight Mug, I hope you’ll take a moment this week to reach out to a few friends across the political spectrum, grab a cup of coffee and explore mutually agreeable ways to solve the many challenges before us. It will give you – and our country – just the jolt it needs to get going again.
Nick Troiano is a junior in the College.
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