COFFEE PARTY: They speak their minds and mind their manners

By Joe Schaffer/The News & Observer (MCT)

RALEIGH, N.C. — To join the coffee party in Raleigh, you can’t be a screamer, a name-caller, a loud-mouthed zealot or somebody whose idea of politics translates to jabbing a sign in the air, red in the face.

All you need are some manners, a good listening ear and a caffeine jones.

Inside a month, this politeness-first political movement has jumped from one meeting at the Hillsborough Street Cup A Joe to five coffee chats scattered across the Triangle. Nationwide, Coffee Party USA has drawn nearly 200,000 supporters, sipping java and talking turkey in 47 states.

Its rise comes as the country’s political dialogue grows, to supporters’ minds, increasingly shrill among the blogosphere, anonymous online insults and TV ideologues of all stripes. They point to recent threats against congressmen who backed President Barack Obama’s health care bill, to racial taunts on Capitol Hill in the debate’s final days and to Sarah Palin urging supporters, “Don’t retreat, just reload.”

“We’re not trying to make a ruckus,” said Marques Thompson, who drove 100 miles from Williamston to attend. “We’re not mad at anyone. We’re just trying to have a substantive conversation.”

Supporters bet that ordinary voters are starving for a place where they can talk without choosing sides or pledging total allegiance to either the Democratic or Republican agenda. When coffee partyers meet, they begin with this agreement: “I pledge to conduct myself in a way that is civil, honest and respectful toward people with whom I disagree.”

But can you organize a successful political movement around polite dialogue, by demanding straight-talk from politicians, without any plans to storm the Bastille?

“In a word, no,” said Steven Greene, political science professor at North Carolina State University. “I’m skeptical. Anger, fear, these are powerful, and there’s a lot of interesting political science research on the power of emotions. Negative emotions seem to be more politically effective. It’s a shame.”

To many conservatives, the idea that politics has turned unusually nasty is just a smear. Dallas Woodhouse, who as state director for Americans for Prosperity organizes and attends dozens of tea party events, calls recent hubbub tame by historical standards. Remember that in 1856, a member of the U.S. House walked into the Senate chamber and beat another member unconscious with a cane.

“It’s easy to focus in on one person saying something inappropriate,” he said. “I’ve actually seen very little misbehavior. I occasionally see a sign I wouldn’t have made.”

Before the health care vote, Americans for Prosperity organized a national car horn-blowing event across the country, an event that targeted Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina, whose Raleigh office drew dozens honking and shouting downtown with a bullhorn and snare drum. The coffee party is looking for calmer discourse.

Obama recently described the tea partyers as built around a “core group” that questions his citizenship and deems him a socialist. But beyond that core, he said, the movement has legitimate concerns and shouldn’t be painted with broad brushes.

To the coffee partyers in Raleigh, the idea isn’t to pin extreme tactics on Republicans, or to label conservatives and their tea parties as rude and out of control.

“Even the tea party isn’t sanctioning that kind of behavior,” said Raleigh organizer Kelly McCall Branson, speaking of the more caustic political speech. “As a nation, we will fail if we continue to take this childish position that it’s my way or no way.”

The coffee parties started as a Facebook post in Silver Spring, Md., when Annabel Park casually suggested a coffee party, or maybe a cappuccino party, offering dialogue with substance and compassion. The idea spread from there, and, as of Wednesday, the coffee party’s Facebook page had 197,205 fans. The idea has grown by dribbles: 11 people in Aurora, Colo.; eight people in Titusville, Fla. But new groups keep bubbling up.

At the Raleigh group’s first meeting in March, the 30-odd supporters broke into small discussion groups to try to nail down core issues. Corporate influence over politics scored big, as did health care reform.

At the second set of chats March 27, small groups worked out what to say to members of Congress if granted a meeting during the spring recess. A suggestion hatched at The Morning Times in downtown Raleigh:

“We commit to promote a coalition of people who make rational decisions based on substantive information. In return, we expect you to keep us informed in an honest, non-manipulative, substantive way — not sound bites and hyperbole.”

What happens next for the coffee party, in action and in words, all depends on what comes of its caffeine-laden conversation.

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