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Coffee Party brews up alternative

Born on Facebook, the Coffee Party sees itself as less extreme in its rhetoric and less hostile to the US federal government than the Tea Party.

First came the Tea Party, with its anti-tax, anti-big-government message and attention-grabbing public protests. Now comes, you guessed it, the Coffee Party, born on Facebook, which sees itself as less extreme in its rhetoric and less hostile to the federal government than the Tea Party. The Coffee Party's mission statement says it "gives voice to Americans who want to see co-operation in government. We recognise that the federal government is not the enemy of the people, but the expression of our collective will, and that we must participate in the democratic process in order to address the challenges that we face as Americans."

Annabel Park, founder of the Coffee Party, which lists about 212,000 friends on its Facebook page, said in an online interview with readers of The Washington Post's website that both the Tea and Coffee parties "feel that the government is failing us in many ways", but a key difference between the two groups is the Coffee Party's "emphasis on the democratic process, on respectful and civil engagement with one another and with our elected officials".

"The Coffee Party brings an important component that major political parties do not - we are open to all political ideological viewpoints in order to avoid the instant polarisation that being a member of the major parties often bring to discussions or debates," Stacey Hopkins, the organisation's national spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. "Members of the major political parties tend to go along party lines and are hesitant to step out of [them] ? I knew that this would resonate strongly with certain political ideologies such as liberals, Democrats and progressives, but I had no idea that it would find such appeal amongst such a diverse range of the American population that crosses age, race and sexual lines," she said. "Frankly, it's been amazing to witness and renews one's faith that America still has the essence of what made it great in the first place - our people."

As far as growing into a potentially formidable political force, a key difference between the two groups so far has been the star-power pull. The Tea Party attracted Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate, to speak at its first convention in Nashville, Tennessee, in February. "This movement is about the people. Government is supposed to be working for the people," Mrs Palin told the roaring crowd.

"The Tea Party movement has the real energy and potential influence on the elections this year. When thousands of people keep showing up at these rallies, something serious is going on at the grassroots right now," said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University in Virginia. "I don't see the Tea Party replacing a major political party or becoming the third party in US politics, but as a potential electoral force that can mobilise large segments of the population in a non-presidential election year. They could make a big difference this year."

Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, points out that the Tea Party "is not really a third party. The studies show this group is massively Republican, and so most of their impact will be within the GOP. In most places they are attempting to influence the choice of Republican primary nominees. In a few places they may sponsor independent candidacies, in which case the Republican vote will be split to a Democratic advantage."

Both political experts are not sure of the potential effect of the Coffee Party, with Mr Rozell saying "so far [it] is all decaf - a presence on social networking sites, lots of relatively small gatherings, no huge rallies and not much public recognition right now". "I don't think the Coffee Party will have nearly the impact of the Tea Party, in part because they are so obviously part of the Democratic coalition and have so much overlap with Organising for America", a community organising project of the Democratic National Committee, said Jeremy Mayer, a public policy professor at George Mason University, who is conducting a research study on the Tea Party.

Healthcare reform and taking on the insurance companies at first topped the agenda of the Coffee Party, but Ms Park said the movement will tackle other concerns, with immigration reform high on the list. "This issue is reaching uncontainable proportions not only in Arizona, but elsewhere. It's the social version of the broken valve on the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that led to a catastrophic explosion," a statement on the Coffee Party's website said.

As for the long-term effect of either group, Mr Mayer said: "The American system is structured in a way that almost forbids the emergence of a strong third-party movement of the left or right. [Ross] Perot crashed on the shoals of that structure, and the Tea Party movement will, too, if it makes the attempt. They are more likely to play a primaries game in the GOP, rather than a third-party effort in the general election."

Published: May 10, 2010 04:00 AM


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