David Alpert is a political and social organizer specializing in using technology and social networks to improve democracy. He maintains the website for Drinking Liberally. He was a Google product manager from 2001 to 2007 and lives in New York City. Alpert’s Web site is http://alpie.net/.
A guy walks into a bar...
He's a lifetime progressive, but since college he hasn't been particularly involved with politics. After all, he's trying to do well at his job. He'd like to meet the woman of his dreams. And in his precious spare time, he'd rather hang out with friends, chatting over a drink or a meal, or going to a movie or show. He reads the paper and cares deeply about what's going on in our country, but life takes priority.
Today, though, as he walks into the bar, he's here to do politics. But he's also meeting his friends for a drink, because his friends are doing politics too. They're at Drinking Liberally, an organization that melds politics with everyday life and which is celebrating its fourth anniversary this week. Women and men gather in bars across America, in 212 cities in 44 states plus the District of Columbia, to share a pint as they share their opinions on the issues of the day.
How do I know this hypothetical young man really exists? Because I was him. I came to Drinking Liberally (and I'm not even a big drinker) looking to connect with people over politics and friendships. Eight months later, I was getting in a van to canvass voters right before the 2004 election, with eight friends—regular Liberal Drinkers—who were strangers to me the year before.
For the Founding Fathers, politics was a community sport. George Washington regularly stopped in to the local taverns in New York and Philadelphia as he traveled the country during the Revolution and afterward. Samuel Adams and John Hancock hatched the idea for the Boston Tea Party over an ale at the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston. Tom Paine, this site's inspiration, was active in a debating club, the Headstrong Club, at the White Hart Tavern in Lewes, England, before he moved to America, and developed many of his political beliefs there.
But in the last century, as television and long commutes and frequent moving eroded social capital, politics fell by the wayside. Dinner table discussions of politics ceased as families stopped having dinner table discussions at all. People became consumers of political ideas on TV rather than citizens in a democracy. The Internet has rekindled much of our political discourse, but remains the dominion of those with the time and dedication to devote to politics. For millions of people like my pre-2004 self, online activism would be one more task in an already full life.
To build a broad progressive movement, we must reach the men and women—young professionals, parents, and everybody else—who share our values but whose families, friends, and jobs leave little room for activism. To do that, we must make politics a part of those existing social activities.
Drinking Liberally creates welcoming, open spaces for discussions among like-minded progressives. Participants don't always talk politics, but political shared beliefs knit the group together. And then, when a few members jump in a van to go talk to voters, they bring others, people who previously would never have volunteered to walk down a suburban street in the bitter cold and speak to strangers. People like me. Knocking on doors is hard, and not much fun. But knocking on doors as a weekend with friends—it's still hard, but a lot more fun. And even just standing around in a bar and talking politics advances the progressive cause—Paine himself became a revolutionary pamphleteer by developing his voice and honing his ideas over a pint in Lewes.
Not everyone chooses to socialize in bars. Building a movement requires reaching people wherever they are. Drinking Liberally's parent organization, Living Liberally, has built programs in many such settings. Screening Liberally hosts socially conscious films, from blockbusters to documentaries. Laughing Liberally brings audiences an evening of comedy and progressive ideas at the same time. Eating Liberally draws people together over food instead of drink. Some Drinking Liberally chapters meet over coffee instead of beer. Reading Liberally book clubs tie social interaction and academic discourse. And so on.
This network has grown over the past four years. As it continues to grow, with opportunities to connect over films, books, speakers, laughs, meals and drinks in every city, imagine what that America would look like. How many new Boston Tea Parties will be hatched? How many 21st Century Tom Paines will be inspired to find their voices and become active citizens shaping America's future?
Drinking Liberally has 212 chapters in 44 states and the District of Columbia, plus Canada and Australia. A complete list of chapters, and instructions for starting one, are at http://drinkingliberally.org/.