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"Transpartisan" is not a synonym for “neutral"

Eric Byler is an award-winning film director and a co-founder/president of Coffee Party USA. This essay was originally published July 4th, 2011.

by Eric Byler

A transpartisan approach to civic engagement steers clear of pre-packaged issue platforms.  It encourages all Americans to put the facts first, and use their own intelligence in approaching complex issues. 

Coffee Party USA is an invitation to participate in the democratic process with civility, with respect, and within a transpartisan framework.  But let me make this clear: transpartisan is not a synonym for “neutral.” It is not a barrier to participation.  It is not a constraint.  It is a liberation.

Understandably, the word "transpartisan" attracts people who want to have a voice in our political process, but are turned off by the partisanship and ugliness with which it is waged.  Often, they are conflict-averse, as most humans are.  So, they seek a non-partisan or transpartisan group with which to organize.  But they are often unable to take collective action because their desire to avoid conflict supersedes their desire to have impact. 

To silence them, all that is required is a loud, aggressive, (and usually extreme) position.  If it is repeated often enough, it is labeled “controversial” and “partisan,” and so too is anyone who challenges it.  Thus, a conflict-averse citizen or organization is barred from taking a position on anything people scream about in front of cameras.  If we allow this to govern our civic life, the result will be a political process dominated by people who thrive on conflict, who subscribe to dogmatic ideologies, and aren't able to use their intelligence to examine complex issues because they are too busy fighting.

Chasing the Middle

Another pitfall for active citizens who are conflict-averse is that they spend too much time and energy “chasing the middle.”  If your only goal is to find the "center" between two opposing arguments, you are giving up your right to define your own values.  Since the 2008 election, the Republican party has moved to the right, decrying health care and climate change policies they had once championed in order oppose President Obama.  Does that mean that a "centrist" must re-calibrate his or her beliefs on those issues in order to find the new "middle?"  As responsible citizens, we cannot allow someone else's electioneering strategy to alter who we are.  

Let's be cautious of the assumption that, "the right answer is always in the middle."  Often, the right answer simply cannot be found on the line defined by the only two options we are given.  Often, it's somewhere else entirely.

Transpartisanship and Coffee Party USA

So, how can the Coffee Party, or any transpartisan organization have impact in a deliberative process dominated by conflict-driven political entertainment? 

  1. See transpartisanship as an exploration, not a constraint.
  2. Learn to deal with criticism, and accept that conflict cannot always be avoided. 
  3. Remember that our guiding principles cannot be abandoned, even in the face of strong rhetoric.

Organizing with the Coffee Party is not going to be a refuge from criticism or unfair accusations.  Any movement, in fact any opinion that stands in the way of somebody's political agenda is sure to get a dose of that. 

But, if you are willing to transcend partisanship, and stand up to the bullying and misinformation that disguise and perpetuate the Cycle of Corruptionwithout becoming part of it — your civic life will have an authenticity and integrity that enriches our deliberative process, and sets an example that inspires others to join you. 

Lawrence Lessig tells Jon Stewart why Congress is corrupt – and how to fix it

Lawrence Lessig was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last night, and you have just got to see it! 

Lessig, a Harvard Law Professor and author of A Republic Lost (Coffee Party Book Club's current selection), is also the founder Rootstrikers which is now teaming up with Josh Silver's United Republic (listen to Annabel Park's recent interview with Josh) to fight the domination of Big Money over the political process.  Dylan Rattigan is also part of this impressive coalition.

In the television broadcast portion of the interview, Lessig and Stewart talk about how only 0.05 percent of the electorate contributing the maximum amount to political campaigns, and only .26 percent giving more than $200, Congress is beholden to less than 1% of the public (the Occupy Movement has it wrong).

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive – Lawrence Lessig Extended Interview Pt. 1
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

In the second half of the interview, available on-line only, Lessig explains some of the potential solutions to the problem: transparency, changes to funding, and a Constitutional amendment:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive – Lawrence Lessig Extended Interview Pt. 2
Daily Show Full Episodes   The Daily Show on Facebook

Lessig wrote to fellow Rootstrikers today that his favorite clip from The Daily Show is one of Stewart convincing Fox "News" host Bill O'Reilly that the underlying problem is in fact corruption.

The Rich Don't Need a Free Ride

Why should I pay no taxes while someone who gets up and goes to work every day does?

by William Rice

Despite popular fascination with the rich and famous, most working people have little understanding of the finances of the wealthy. And the rich use that unfamiliarity to their advantage as they wield their outsized influence over public policy.

Take the competing tax proposals of this year's most celebrated Republican presidential candidates. Going almost unmentioned amid all the discussion of the 9-percent federal sales tax in Herman Cain's "9-9-9" plan, or the surviving deductions in Rick Perry's 20-percent flat tax, is that under both plans capital gains wouldn't be taxed at all. Perry would also not tax dividends, and the other GOP hopefuls would largely exempt from taxation both of these kinds of passive income as well.

Now, if you're a middle-class wage earner for whom dividends and capital gains are, at most, modest entries on your annual mutual fund statement, their exemption from taxation is a minor consideration when examining the merits of a tax plan. But if you're among the independently wealthy who live almost entirely on dividends and capital gains, such a provision holds great appeal. It means you would pay no federal income tax at all. Nothing. Nada. Zero.

Of course, all the candidates would also eliminate the estate tax, meaning that rich people would never be taxed on their inherited assets or income. As in pre-revolutionary France, taxes would be left entirely to the middle-class and poor.

I'm quite familiar with these permanent passive-income tax holidays promised by the GOP presidential hopefuls, because I'm one of those independently wealthy people who would benefit so handsomely. I'm no Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, but I do have enough money that the money I make from having money is enough for me to live on. I mostly volunteer my time to worthy causes, and though I occasionally pull down a paycheck or charge a client fee, the bulk of my income comes from interest, dividends, and capital gains.

Why should I pay no taxes while someone who gets up and goes to work every day does? The reason usually offered for taxing passive income at a lower rate than wages, salaries, and small-business income is that such preferential treatment encourages investment and job creation. And that may be true of entrepreneurs who start businesses, seek investors, and then sell off their creations and start all over again.

But I don't do any of those things, and there are millions of rich people like me who don't either. Like a lot of them, I inherited stock in big companies like IBM and General Electric. I support myself primarily by going to my mailbox, picking up dividend checks, and depositing them. Occasionally I sell some shares at a profit. And conservative tax reformers believe I should be rewarded for this great exertion by exempting me entirely from taxation.

This is neither fair nor logical at a time of rising federal debt and severe budget cuts. True "job creators" could be encouraged without benefiting those like me who don't need any more economic breaks. The preferential treatment already accorded capital gains and dividends from startup companies could be increased. Those who make a majority of their money from working could be encouraged to save and invest by taxing their investment income at lower rates than those of the already independently wealthy.

Coming Out of the Money Closet

Some of you may know me from my videos parodying the notion of a “Corporate Person American.”  In them, I turn to music and to comedy to express the indignation I feel about our nation’s irrational, immoral upward redistribution of wealth. One reason I’m so familiar with our dysfunctional economic system is that I’m one of those who have gained (at least materially) from it. Though I’m not really a “Corporate Person American,” I am an American who benefits from corporate-influenced policies. The following essay — which has been syndicated in about a dozen newspapers — is my attempt to address this same issue I take on in my videos, but from another, more personal angle.

By William Rice

I recently came out of the money closet. 

It’s said that personal finances are the last taboo; if so, I and scores of others broke it by posting messages to the website “We Stand With the 99 Percent” in which we announced ourselves as wealthy supporters of the Occupy movement.  Each message ended with the statement: “I am the 1 percent. I stand with the 99 percent.”

This was in response to the claims of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other critics that the Wall Street protestors’ advocacy of the economic interest of 99 percent of the American public was somehow pitting one group of Americans against another.

The messages on the website offer a fascinating glimpse into the emotional role money plays in all our lives, and now in the raw politics of recession.  The posts vary widely: some are from trust fund babies, some from Internet millionaires, some from the simply comfortably middle class.  But all argue that it makes no sense for any Americans to suffer privation when so many have so much. 

This may be another big, welcome change that comes out of the Occupy movement.  Just as cancer and other diseases are now discussed openly, much to the benefit of personal health and public education, even though they were at one time kept strictly private; so another central element of our lives—money—may finally become a fit subject for general discussion. 

It may be a hard transition for some rich people to make. Many of those posting on the “1 Percent” website completely or partially obscure their faces, like criminals on a perp walk or protestors afraid of police surveillance.

Among the independently wealthy, such training starts early.  Many of us are told not to talk about money when we’re young, presumably for fear of kidnappers and moochers.  Plus, wealth—ironically, like poverty—is a marker of unwelcome distinction among kids just wanting to be like everyone else. 

As we grow older, the rules are internalized: we become vague and furtive when issues of personal finance arise; cover stories are carefully constructed; make-believe or lightly-compensated jobs are attended to; tight-lipped nods of sympathy are offered to the economic tales of woe offered by our friends.

For some, the secrecy comes not only from a desire to fit in but from deep sense of guilt. Many of the 1 Percent posters agonizingly admit to ancestors growing rich from slavery, colonization and child labor.  These are not easy ethical issues to resolve.

GOP's David Frum answers critics, stands up for 99 percent

by Eric Byler

Former Bush 43 speech-writer David Frum is one of the most respected thinkers in America.  He is a free-market, limited-government, low-taxes conservative who has, in a single paragraph of his recent essay in New York Magazine, encapsulated the first 10 years of the 21st century more cogently than any writer to date:

In the aughts, Republicans held more power for longer than at any time since the twenties, yet the result was the weakest and least broadly shared economic expansion since World War II, followed by an economic crash and prolonged slump. Along the way, the GOP suffered two severe election defeats in 2006 and 2008. Imagine yourself a rank-and-file Republican in 2009: If you have not lost your job or your home, your savings have been sliced and your children cannot find work. Your retirement prospects have dimmed. Most of all, your neighbors blame you for all that has gone wrong in the country. There’s one thing you know for sure: None of this is your fault! And when the new president fails to deliver rapid recovery, he can be designated the target for everyone’s accumulated disappointment and rage. In the midst of economic wreckage, what relief to thrust all blame upon Barack Obama as the wrecker-in-chief.

In When Did the GOP Lose Touch with Reality, a penetratingly candid and immeasurably important essay published on Nov. 20, Frum says he is haunted by his time in the Bush administration although his role was not large, and, the real decision-makers seem to sleep well at night. 

I appreciate Frum's writing because he criticizes the GOP, not with ridicule or disdain, but with deep concern — concern, because he identifies as a Republican, and he knows that there are many good people in the Republican party who recognize that it has lost its way.  Frum writes about America with the same type of concern, and indeed as he explains at the end of the piece, he is committed to bringing about a course corrections within the GOP because the future of our nation as a whole (the 99 percent) depends on it.

He offers a devastating critique of Fox News and Republican radio, more powerful than any of the recriminations offered from the left:

Extremism and conflict make for bad politics but great TV. Over the past two decades, conservatism has evolved from a political philosophy into a market segment. An industry has grown up to serve that segment—and its stars have become the true thought leaders of the conservative world. The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel). As a commercial proposition, this model has worked brilliantly in the Obama era. As journalism, not so much. As a tool of political mobilization, it backfires, by inciting followers to the point at which they force leaders into confrontations where everybody loses, like the summertime showdown over the debt ceiling.

Republican overreach, or both parties reaching for the wrong thing?

by Eric Byler

I was busy volunteering all day yesterday, and didn't have time to monitor all the spin.

I spent the morning of election day trying to write a non-partisan GOTV email.  It took longer than I thought. Have you ever tried it?  It's hard.  Here's what I came up with:

By helping to increase voter turnout today, we can send a message to our elected leaders: DO NOT count us out. The alienating and misleading political ads paid for by special interest groups can only have impact if too few of us vote. Our elected officials understand this equation, and they will make policy accordingly.

Before leaving the local cafe in Gainesville, VA, I had sent emails to members of the Coffee Party community in several states with the subject head: "Why America Needs (Your State) to Vote today." (My sincere apologies to my friends in Pennsylvania for the mix up, I know you do not live in New Jersey!).  Then, I voted.  Then, I drove 45 minutes across Prince William County, VA to volunteer for a friend who is also the most courageous member of my County Board of Supervisors, Frank Principi.  His district in Woodbridge, VA is one of the most diverse communities in the Commonwealth, and he has stood up for the rights of immigrants and people who appear to be immigrants even during the days when it seemed almost dangerous to do so.

Corporations Strike Back — counter protest planned for Oct. 29 Enough is Enough rally

Corporate-person American pioneer Will Rice gathers supporters for his counter-protest at the Enough is Enough rally and Citizens Intervention at the US Capitol #Oct29 2011.  The petition demands that corporations should be allowed to purchase time on stage for supporter of the "Citizens United" Supreme Court decision.

More info at www.CitizensIntervention.com

Transpartisan agreement: Congress is broken

Some Coffee Party members are attending a transpartisan conference in Boston hosted by Coffee Party "rock star" Larry Lessig and Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler [watch LIVE web cast]. I met Mr. Meckler last night at a reception and found him to be a thoughtful and open-minded person. Looking forward to being on a panel with him tomorrow.  I expected that conservatives would have only token representation, as they often do unfortunately at trans-partisan events.  But this place is crawling with them, and that's a good sign. 

I am not sure how I feel yet about calling a new Constitutional Convention under Article 5, but one thing I have learned in the past few years is that our Congress is broken. Our country is suffering from systemic, institutionalized abuse of power, and that is what our Constitution was designed to protect us against.

Eric Byler

Conference on the whether or not we need a Constitutional Convention

by Lawrence Lessig

Two hundred and twenty four years ago, people of radically different views put aside those differences long enough to save this Nation. America was on the brink of collapse. Its first constitution was an unmitigated disaster. Only a radical, and some say illegal, reform could restore the promise of the nation declared a generation before when it claimed its independence from Britain.

We forget this fact about them today. To us, they all look very much alike — white guys, some in wigs, eloquent and brave no doubt, but certainly not the picture of significant difference in either ideas or values. Yet when the men who founded this nation met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, there were fundamental differences among them. Slavery, for example: The men who founded this nation were critically divided on this fundamental question. Some thought it natural and appropriate. Some thought it the quintessential injustice. Yet they were able to put even this difference aside enough to craft a pact that would give birth to our constitution (and eventually, death to slavery).

On September 25 & 26, I will co-host a conference at Harvard with Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler, on whether it is time for a new constitutional convention. Our conference is obviously not that convention. We don't pretend to parallel that event two and a quarter centuries ago, and certainly not any of its characters.  [MORE]

Sometimes an institution, like an individual, needs an intervention

by Annabel Park

In mid September, we posted the following status on our Facebook wall:

"We love our country. We need an American Intervention. Problems in Washington have affected my life in the following ways: ___________ (fill in the blank)."

Hundreds of people responded, sharing their struggles and stories.

“Unemployment ran out and still no job.... you do the math.”

“My country is dying and I'm out here twisting in the wind, like so many.”

“My husband and I can’t sleep because his company lays off people every Friday. It is known as Black Friday.”

It's clear that Washington isn't working for us. It is time for a Citizens Intervention.

At the Enough Is Enough! Rally on October 29, our goal is to recruit 1,000 everyday Americans to exercise their First Amendment right to speak out and share stories about how government dysfunction and corruption have impacted their lives.


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