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Coffee, Tea, Wall Street Welfare and Campaign Finance Reform

March 4, 2010

I wrote about the Tea Party a couple of weeks ago, remarking upon its newfound dynamism and the fact that it is attracting “regular” people in addition to those who would be considered radical right-wing extremists. Well, it looks like another social movement has sprung up in response to the Tea Partiers– we now have the Coffee Party.


In contrast to the T.E.A. Partiers (Taxed Enough Already), the Coffee Party does not believe that the solution to today’s economic problems is to dismantle the federal government. Indeed, the Coffee Party feels that the federal government has to be part of the solution. I guess I was a member of the Coffee Party and I did not even know it!

An excerpt from one of the Coffee Party’s notes:

We believe that the federal government–despite its many shortcomings–MUST get its act together, and start solving the enormous problems we face as a nation. It’s not because we LOVE the federal government. It’s just that it’s the ONLY apparatus that we have at our disposal to counter the special interests and multi-national corporations that wield way too much power over a government that was intended to be of the people, by the people, and for the people.

We cannot solve the health care crisis at the state level. If the insurance corporations’ were limited to state borders, then perhaps. But these are national and multi-national companies that have been gaming the system for decades. As consumers, we have been abused. We all know it. These corporate practices are literally making us sick and killing us. They have no shame. We cannot allow this to continue. No way. We cannot take the abuse anymore!

In terms of ideological leanings, this is definitely a centre-left/Democrats movement. There does not seem to be the  fringe elements from the extreme left– it is unlike the Tea Party in this respect. For the most part, these are frustrated Democrats who are upset about how the economic crisis has played out, but believe that the Tea Party’s approach is counterproductive. It also seems to have its roots in the Obama campaign. This is pretty clear. But where people like William Jacobson have questioned whether this is a genuine grassroots movement or just astroturf, it looks to me, on balance, to be the real deal.

A Brief Tangent: Consider briefly what grassroots stands for: emerging from the citizenry itself. Annabel Park, one of the founders of the Coffee Party, may have worked for the Obama campaign, but she did not start the Coffee Party as an outpost of the Obama campaign. As far as I can see, the Coffee Party is not receiving support of any kind– financial or otherwise– from the Democrats or anyone else.  Unless you believe in conspiracy theories (and many Tea Partiers do), it also does not look like the Coffee Party is receiving any political direction from the Democratic Party or individual Democratic politicians. Using these basic criteria– the accusation of astroturf should be thrown out.

Of course, this does not mean that the same grassroots movement that swept Obama into power will not be reinvigorated by the Coffee Party and choose to get involved again– but previous involvement in a political campaign should not preclude it from being considered a genuine grassroots movement.

On to the Similarities

What is also remarkable about the Coffee Party is the similarities that it shares with its Tea Party brethen. There are three fundamental overlapping interests.

1. Both movements are upset about how dysfunctional Congress has become– clearly, they are sick of political posturing for its own sake. Then again, it’s hard to think of anyone who wouldn’t be.

2. The federal government needs to be fiscally responsible. Spending needs to be reined in.

3. At heart, they are both anti-corporate movements. Both movements are sick of Wall Street Welfare and cannot comprehend why politicians cannot find the cojones to stand up for the public interest.

A recent Financial Times Op-Ed by William Galston speaks to the dangers posed by a lack of trust in government. One of the key statistics that jumped out at me while reading this piece was this: “78 per cent believed the government to be run by a few big interests, not for the benefit of the people.” This stat underscores how precarious the situation is. It’s easy to understand the anger– and indeed, this is how a lot of people feel about their government in some of the world’s more corrupt countries.

These three strands of thought are woven directly into the Coffee Party platform. This is an excerpt of  a Note from the Coffee Party’s pages entitled: Our Message to Congress: Get to Work or Get Out:

You work for us, not for corporations. We hired you and we get to fire you. We pay you and give you great health insurance. Now get to work serving the interests of the American people, or get out.

Anyone who wants our government to function in the interest of ordinary Americans, not corporations, is welcome to join this movement.

We believe that the majority of Americans are regular folks like us, and some of us have been misled into thinking that the federal government is the cause of our struggles, our anxiety and our fear. In short, our government has been presented to us as our enemy.

Another way of putting it is this: we have a democracy with a loophole. The most active, most well-funded, and most organized interests can dominate the process. And for many years, corporations have dominated our democratic process because they can afford to hire thousands of lobbyists to reside in Washington DC and actively influence the direction of our government. Yes, the corporations have a lot of money. But we have the power of the vote. They may attempt to influence us, but our vote belongs to us and us alone, and herein lies our power.

Also of note is a link to a clip of Elizabeth Warren in conversation with Jon Stewart, Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel created to monitor TARP (the federal bailout package for banks). From a review of that interview:

Warren has been the TARP oversight chair since November 2008, and Stewart asked her why the system hasn’t been fixed yet.

“Well, these guys really do get it.” Warren told Stewart — the CEOs, bankers, and people in power — “They get it. And they work best behind closed doors.” If the decisions are in their hands, she said, “Nothing, nothing will change. You know, I want to turn to these guys sometimes, and I want to say: what part of ‘we bailed you out’ do you not get? These are people who would not have their jobs because they would not have their companies.”

“The chips are all on the table,” Warren added. “We are going to write what the American economy looks like for 50 years going forward. And right now the CEOs have any real change bottled up in the Senate.”

If you consider the two movements in aggregate, it pretty much encompasses the entire US polity. Just about every American is  upset with the dysfunctionality of Congress and feels that the Banks and Wall Street got away with murder– at the taxpayer’s expense. Half the population thinks that since it was Congress that messed it up, the solution is to minimize the powers of Congress– to prevent further screw-ups. The other half of the population thinks that even though Congress messed it up, Congress is still the only institution that can improve the situation.

As far as I can tell then, just about everybody philsophically belongs to either the Tea Party or the Coffee Party– and they agree on 3 important things: corporate power is too great, Congress is dysfunctional, fiscal responsibility is paramount.

I think that even members of Congress would  probably agree with these fundamental problems!

Crossing Party Lines: Campaign Finance Reform

If there is agreement on these basic problems, then there is one obvious issue that both the Tea Party and the Coffee Party should be working on together: Campaign Finance Reform. This might seem like a strange thing to emphasize given the massive economic problems confronting the US right now, but it lies at the very heart of the problem.

Until American politicians stop feeling beholden to the corporate interests that are financing their campaigns, it will not be possible for them to truly act in the public interest. I have written about how recent actions by the Supreme Court have placed an albatross around the neck of American democracy. Transparency measures like the ones being put forth by Senator Schumer and Rep Van Hollen will help, but these are band-aid measures and do not address the core problem. The system is, in its own sophisticated and legalized way, absolutely and utterly corrupt.

What is clearly needed is a Campaign Finance Law that is not riddled with loopholes like the  McCain-Feingold Act— even before large chunks of it were struck down.  As unappetizing as this sounds, one way to even out the playing field is to provide public financing; another way is to set limits on how much money can be spent. Currently, the two parties have the equivalent of a nuclear arms race going on in terms of campaign expenditures. Parties spent $5.3 billion on the 2008 election. $2.4 billion of that was spent on the presidential election alone.

If Coffee Party members and Tea Party members are as genuinely fed up with the political system as they appear to be, then what they need to do is change it– from the inside out and starting with its financial structures.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. John Flynn permalink
    March 5, 2010 3:43 am

    We need the following amendments. 28th Balance Budget, 29th Term limits for congress, 30th Public Funded Elections-no one running for office can take any amount of money or benefits from anyone.31st Make easier for anyone to run for office.If your not a Democrat/Republician you have different requirements to get on the ballot like many more signatures on your petition to run for office.Lastly why not direct election of Supreme Court Justices for one twelve year term.As Lincoln put it maybe we will finally have a new birth of freedom and a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.

  2. March 5, 2010 12:16 pm

    Hi John,

    Thanks for your comments!

    Your suggestions sound reasonable to me. I would say that a balanced budget is necessary but I do think that governments need the flexibility to run deficits once in a while– but clearly, Congress does not take fiscal responsibility seriously enough. It’s like taking the car keys away from your teenager– you don’t want to entirely remove that possibility because she should be able to drive on her own, but since she hasn’t been behaving responsibility, you feel compelled to take away her right to drive. I just don’t think that this privilege should be permanently removed– for the teenager or for running deficits.

    I would also say that funding campaigns entirely from public money is not practical– I think there should be a public component to it, but I also think that the fundraising process, while it has gotten way out of hand recently– actually serves a useful purpose. The trick is to set limits and regulate this kind of engagement more carefully.

    On running for office, I think it’s quite easy to get your name on the ballot– it’s getting elected that is financially prohibitive. Realistically, this almost never happens outside of the two major parties. Public financing will make third-party candidates more viable, but I doubt that this will ever translate into real seats.

    On Supreme Court Justice terms– I think this is a good idea. But then again, I don’t know much about the courts.


  3. Bob Bonar permalink
    March 6, 2010 11:12 pm

    Terrific blog Christine. I enjoy your thoughtfulness, and your recognition of the complexity of the issues. I do believe that Campaign Finance reform is a key to bringing needed change. I would challenge John to think through term limits and how that shifts the power in the system. My fear is that we replace entrenched incumbency with entrenched bureaucrats. I don’t have an answer to this.

    On Supreme Court, yes to the 12 year limit, no to electing them. Two sets of information to study: 1) the quality of the judiciary in those jurisdictions that choose to elect their judges (on the balance, not so hot), 2) the effect of politics as it is played out in those jurisdictions. These are not mutually exclusive.

    The devil, of course, is in the details. Within the legislative process for selecting judges we have some hope of a weeding out of those who are clearly not qualified (not that I am a fan of the polarization of the current extremist discourse in the selection process). An electoral process would mirror the same political rancor we have come to know in the rep/dem divide (a pox on both their houses) save for some mechanism that would raise the level of discourse and ensure that possess a certain degree of scholarship and experience. Not an easy task, for sure.

    • March 7, 2010 10:26 pm

      Hi Bob,

      Thanks for your comments! As a Canadian, I’ve always found the idea of electing judges to be strange. I’m not entirely sure if it’s because I’m not used to it or if it’s because it’s actually bad for the system as a whole. I see problems with both systems, but it’s hard to separate out the effect of elections vs. appointments from the environment that these systems are grounded in (culture, history, way in which politics is conducted).

      What I have noticed anecdotally is that appointing judges gives the entire judiciary a degree of respect and distance that I think is helpful. Getting elected often means getting down and dirty and I think that this is harmful for the judiciary as an institution, and adds to general voter distrust of government.

      An aside: I think you could model US Politics as a prisoner’s dilemma– 2 players (Rep and Dem), payoff is measured in votes.

      Both parties would achieve the best overall resultdo better if they simply agreed to stop lying and smearing each other during the election. But individually, they do better if their side smears but the other side does not. So they both smear and the end result is that they are both worse off. But it’s the reputation of politics and politicians, and by implication, the institution of government that takes the real hit. Politicians are essentially shooting themselves in the foot with their bad behaviour.

      Even still, good outcomes are still possible because at the end of the day, it is really about implementation. If good people run for office, then you are more likely to have a civil debate over substance instead of tactical smear campaigns. Similarly, if good people are appointed to office, then the entrenched bureaucrat problem becomes less of a concern. Of course, attracting good people is easier said than done– especially given the horrible reputation that politics has.


  4. Kwan permalink
    March 6, 2011 6:02 am

    I disagree with your assertion, Christine, that the Tea Party is primarily concerned with Corporate Welfare, and I might even so far as to say that’s not something on their agenda at all.

    As far as I can tell, the group is simply a more liberitarian offshoot of the conservative branch in the United States.

    Polls by the University of Washington found Tea Partiers to be overwhelmingly anti-Muslim, nativist and disapproving in the right of gays and lesbians to marry. And again polls taken by the University of Washinton on race and racial politics found those that identified with the Tea Party to b substantially more likely to harbour resentful views of blacks than the average population. But this is not very surprising at all given the blanket statement that very conservatives white as a whole shared this tendency.

    While it is true the economy, Big Government and spending are definitely and demonstratively a big issue for Tea Partiers, they haven’t said anything about Corporate Welfare. I don’t even think it’s in their lexicon on average. They were very supportive of corporate taxcuts on Wall Street and didn’t give a hoot about Obama’s financial regulation package.

    To be honest, I think you’re dead wrong on them being “anti-corporate”, Christine.

    • March 9, 2011 1:20 am

      Hi Kwan,
      I can’t pretend to speak definitively on what the Tea Party does or doesn’t for- this was really just my interpretation of the situation at this time last year (March 2010). It was written long before Jane Mayer’s revelation in The New Yorker that the billionaire Koch brothers were quietly financing the movement. (

      Koch brothers notwithstanding, I can see other reasons why the Tea Party’s anti-corporate rhetoric might have been sidelined in the year since I put up this post: getting elected and governing is quite different from standing on the sidelines and telling those in power that they are doing everything wrong. Political campaigns require deep pockets- it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the anti-corporate rhetoric has faded because Tea Party flagbearers have been brought into the Republican fold and now have to worry about re-election. Once in power, it quickly becomes difficult to bite the hand that feeds you.

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