By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010; C01
Furious at the tempest over the Tea Party -- the scattershot citizen uprising against big government and wild spending -- Annabel Park did what any American does when she feels her voice has been drowned out: She squeezed her anger into a Facebook status update.
let's start a coffee party . . . smoothie party. red bull party. anything but tea. geez. ooh how about cappuccino party? that would really piss 'em off bec it sounds elitist . . . let's get together and drink cappuccino and have real political dialogue with substance and compassion.
Friends replied, and more friends replied. So last month, in her Silver Spring apartment, Park started a fan page called "Join the Coffee Party Movement." Within weeks, her inbox and page wall were swamped by thousands of comments from strangers in diverse locales, such as the oil fields of west Texas and the suburbs of Chicago.
I have been searching for a place of refuge like this for a long while. . . . It is not Us against the Govt. It is democracy vs corporatocracy . . . I just can't believe that the Tea Party speaks for all patriotic Americans. . . . Just sent suggestions to 50 friends . . . I think it's time we start a chapter right here in Tucson . . .
The snowballing response made her the de facto coordinator of Coffee Party USA, with goals far loftier than its oopsy-daisy origin: promote civility and inclusiveness in political discourse, engage the government not as an enemy but as the collective will of the people, push leaders to enact the progressive change for which 52.9 percent of the country voted in 2008.
The ideas aren't exactly fresh -- Tea Party chapters view themselves as civil, inclusive and fueled by collective will -- but the Coffee Party is percolating in at least 30 states. Small chapters are meeting up, venting frustrations, organizing themselves, hoping to transcend one-click activism. Kind of like the Tea Party did this last year, spawning 1,200 chapters, a national conference and a march on Washington.
"It's like trying to perform surgery in the dark," says Park, 41, a documentary filmmaker. She's exhausted, overcommitted, passing whole days on Facebook, not collecting a paycheck, hopping between conference calls, sending e-mails at 4 a.m., smoothing out conflicts over strategy. She has been swept up in this project, and so have others. Within two weeks of forming, the Los Angeles chapter produced a five-minute video in which citizens yearn for sensible progress and lament obstructionist truth-twisting.
Progress is patriotic, they tell the camera. Wake up. Espresso yourself. Something is brewing, America.
* * *
Need something to wash down that heaping helping of American angst? Tea or coffee? (Must we choose?)
Deep down, underneath the Tea Party's Revolutionary War garb and the Coffee Party's faded HOPE stickers, they seem to want the same thing. To save America. Which raises the question: "From what?"
The easy answer is "each other," when really their complaints are similar and eternal: The political system is broken, elected officials ignore the people, and the media warp truths and pit sides. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that two-thirds of Americans are "dissatisfied" or "angry" with the federal government," the highest level in 14 years, and many have sought solace in social networking. The Coffee Party, whether it grows or fizzles, is the latest effort to turn virtual disenchantment into real-world results. Its members are incited by Tea Party tactics, which they believe obstruct reform and discourage thoughtful deliberation, and the Tea Party -- well, the Tea Party has not heard of the Coffee Party.
Says Robert Gaudet, 40, a software designer in Shreveport, La., who administers TeaPartyPatriots.org: "We don't see cooperation with the government. We see ourselves monitoring the government. . . . As for shouting and obstructionism, absolutely not. The media is trying to define a movement and not being able to put their finger on it. There's common-sense solutions we're asking for: fiscal responsibility, free markets, limited government and lower taxes."
Says Dave Henderson, 48, an automotive service adviser in Denison, Tex., who found the Coffee Party on Facebook: "The political mood right now is 'blame Obama for everything.' The Tea Party is overexposed but organized, and they have a poster child in Sarah Palin and Fox News. I'm extremely anti-establishment, and the thing that appealed to me about the Coffee Party is it is very grass-roots, there's no official organization, and individuals can participate as individuals without having to see eye-to-eye on everything."
The Coffee Party is not so much a party or movement as a slow-drip ripple through online nano-politics. Within the past 10 days, its Facebook fans rose from 3,500 to more than 9,200, which is far more than the 5,900 fans of the central page of Organizing for America, the DNC-funded group supporting President Obama's agenda. What does that mean, though, when nearly 100,000 Facebook users have joined the Tea Party Patriots Facebook page and 1.5 million have joined a joke page titled "Can this pickle get more fans than Nickleback?"
"I don't really understand what they're about other than 'we don't like the Tea Party' and 'we're for a better process,' " says Michael Cornfield, a political scientist at 720 Strategies, a D.C. grass-roots advocacy firm. "The Tea Party has something more going for it in its name. It has a historical echo, and means these guys are self-conscious rebels objecting to a government who taxes them without representation."
* * *
"So what are we doing here? What's the objective?"
Alan Alborn, a retired executive and former Army officer who voted for both George W. Bush and Obama, crosses his arms over his maroon sweater and leans back in a Manassas cafe last Friday. With him are Park, her boyfriend and fellow filmmaker Eric Byler, and Elena Schlossberg, who co-writes a blog focused on Prince William County politics. The quartet, first united by their involvement in the county's fiery immigration debates in 2007, discusses Coffee Party talking points, staying positive and coming up with a marketable phrase. Maybe "What does America really think?"
"And we need a big idea that's separate and stands alone," says Alborn, 61, who appreciates the basic tenets of the Tea Party but can't subscribe to what he views as its stonewall strategy and jumble of church and state. "We need to find people who will pledge to be one-term candidates, so that we get citizen politicians."
Later that night in Woodley Park, Tea Party member William Temple -- pastor, artist and historical reenactor from Brunswick, Ga. -- receives praise in the Marriott lobby for his starring role in "Tea Party: The Documentary Film," after it screened at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Temple sounds like he and Alborn have drunk the same beverage.
"There is a synergism between people who realize we've got massive corruption," says Temple, 59. "We want citizen legislators, people who know about sacrifice. Get the career politicians out of here."
The next evening, Fox News pundit Glenn Beck paces during his keynote speech at the conference. "It is still morning in America," Beck tells the crowd. "It just happens to be kind of a head-pounding, hungover, vomiting-for-four-hours kind of morning in America. . . . What is it that has caused the problem? And if you say 'Obama,' it's too simple of an answer because it's not Barack Obama." He writes "progressivism" on a chalkboard. "This is the disease."
On Sunday afternoon, Stacey Hopkins, a 46-year-old mother of five who lives in Hapeville, Ga., speaks on a conference call with a half-dozen organizers of the Atlanta Coffee Party.
"You're dealing with a nation that's jaded, paranoid, distrustful, broke, angry -- it's like they just woke up from an eight-year meth binge," Hopkins says. "We've become so polarized. Once we say our political affiliations, everyone goes to their corner and then comes out swinging. . . . A lot of people have the same goals and desires."
* * *
When Park was 9, her family emigrated from Seoul to Houston. She studied philosophy at Boston University and political theory at Oxford, was a nanny in New York until she got a job in strategic planning at the New York Times, moved to L.A. to pursue filmmaking and, in 2006, came to D.C. to work on Jim Webb's Senate campaign, which led to a documentary project on the immigration debates in Prince William. She views the Coffee Party as an extension of that desire for conversation instead of closed-mindedness, as an evolution in wiki-government, where technology enables fuller citizen participation.
"We have to relearn how to talk to each other, to deliberate," says Park, driving west on I-66 to the Coffee Party meeting in Manassas. "It's also about regaining confidence that we can come together, that we can come to the middle and agree on things."
The Coffee Party believes the middle is consensus. The Tea Party believes the middle is the Constitution.
"People are scared on both sides about the financial stability of the country," adds Temple, the Tea Party activist, on the phone from Brunswick. "There are people who get angry. I remind people, 'Hey, settle down. The sky's not gonna fall.' . . . We need to reassure them that there's hope. We're not about to launch a French Revolution here. We can vote and we can talk and we can do it civilly."
The parties continue to post videos and recruit fans of all ideological stripes. On Sunday, a handful of San Antonio Coffee Partiers joined a small MoveOn.org rally to counter a Tea Party event. Coffee meet-ups are planned for this weekend in the District and Herndon, and there's talk of a conference or march in the summer. On Saturday, there will be 50 Tea Party rallies around the country to mark the first anniversary of the movement, and hundreds more are planned for tax day on April 15.
So: Tea or coffee? While the movements are at different points in their life cycles, both view themselves as silent majorities who have found their voice, as sleeping giants who are now awake, caffeinated on activism, ready to persuade or react to the other side, if there are sides at all.