Commentary: Coffee Party looks to change tone of political discourse

Conservative anger boiled over in response to the financial crisis, the bailouts and President Barack Obama's election. A rant on cable television by CNBC personality Rick Santelli helped focus that anger into what became the Tea Party movement.

But when some Tea Party activists began turning town hall meetings about health care reform into shouting matches, documentary filmmaker Annabel Park went on a rant of her own.

"Let's start a coffee party," she wrote on her Facebook page in February 2009, "and have real political dialogue with substance and compassion."

Like Santelli, Park inspired an anxious public, and it led her and others to start the Coffee Party movement. The loose coalition of Facebook friends now numbers more than 277,000. The Coffee Party USA's first national convention will be in Louisville, Sept. 24-26.

The Coffee Party "gives voice to Americans who want to see cooperation in government," the group's mission statement says. "We recognize 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."

In short, Park said in an interview last week, the group wants to change the tone of our national political conversation.

Park, who volunteered in Obama's campaign, said that because of the Coffee Party's origins as a reaction to the Tea Party movement, it has appealed more to liberals and moderates. But an increasingly diverse group of members is emerging, and she hopes libertarians and conservatives will attend the convention.

One daylong session will focus on the U.S. Constitution and whether it should be amended in response to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened the way for more special-interest money in politics. That session will be led by Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor, and Mark McKinnon, a former communication strategist for former President George W. Bush and John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee.

Aside from promoting civil dialogue and cooperation, the Coffee Party organizers' main concern is lessening the influence of special interests in politics and government so individual citizens have more say, Park said.

Another discussion topic will be independent voters. "Why is it that so many people are leaving both parties and registering as independents?" Park wondered. "To me, it's a statement about the two-party system itself, not just the state of the two parties."

Park said Coffee Party organizers, who promoted get-togethers in coffee shops across the country in March, wanted to hold their first convention in the Midwest. "We wanted to get away from the East Coast-West Coast mentality," she said.

Kentucky has an active Coffee Party chapter, and its members worked to put together a good convention proposal, said spokesman Trent Garrison, a college geology teacher who lives in Frankfort.

"We've found these kinds of discussions helpful," Garrison said. "Our liberal and conservative members find they have more in common than they think."

Park said she has no idea how many people will attend the convention at the Galt House. Early registrations are being taken online (CoffeePartyUSA.com) at a cost of $150 ($40 for students and $120 for seniors.) The Coffee Party has no major funding; it relies on small online donations for what little money it needs, she said.

Park doesn't know what will come out of the convention. Her vision for the Coffee Party is to rally people of all political persuasions around the idea of more effective problem-solving.

"There is a constructive way, and it requires being respectful and civil, and not impugning each others' motives and calling each other names," she said. "If citizens can learn this, hopefully it will affect the people in Washington. They've got to change their culture, because we're losing respect for them."