News & Politics

Drinking Liberally: A New Strategy for Progressive Politics

Social club? Revolution? A new progressive organization takes politics into the barroom and just about everywhere else.
If you want to know what the future of the American Left looks like, the answer may be no further away than your local dive bar.

Every week, in cities and towns all over the country, thousands of the nation's progressives are coming together to drink beer. But far from drowning their despair in drink, these progressives are building networks that could form the underpinning of a new renaissance for the American Left. What do they call this movement? Drinking Liberally, naturally.

Three years after it was founded in a Hell's Kitchen dive bar, the Drinking Liberally organization has grown to include 174 chapters. And they're not just in predictable cities like New York, Washington D.C., and San Francisco, but also scattered in seemingly unlikely places like Salt Lake City, Utah; Moscow, Idaho; Amarillo, Texas; and South Bend, Indiana.

In September, the Drinking Liberally regulars gathered in Denver for their second annual national convention, and under the umbrella name of "Living Liberally," the organization is developing a national comedy tour, networks of reading groups and movie clubs, and perhaps even a dating service.

The organization's central leadership spends more of its time supporting local chapters than planning a national agenda. Local chapters don't make political endorsements, tend not to engage in issue activism, don't take attendance and don't have meeting agendas.

By and large, they just get together for some drinks once a week. But through some sort of social jujitsu, Drinking Liberally's decentralized, open-ended structure -- the fact that it doesn't require its members to do anything -- has proven to be its greatest strength. The result: Its members are doing more than anyone expected.

Drinking Liberally had its origins in 2002, when its two founders Justin Krebs and Matt O'Neill were working together on a non-partisan project called Speak-Up New York. With some funding from PBS, Krebs and O'Neill drove around the state trying to get young people engaged in politics by helping them ask questions of the gubernatorial candidates. The project was a relative success, registering a lot of young voters. But the two men, both in their mid-20s, found themselves talking about their shared frustrations with their effort.

"We found that it's really hard to connect to people by talking about non-partisan issues," O'Neill says. "When you're not taking a point of view and you're not giving people a chance to express their point of view -- especially in a partisan way -- it's difficult to get them really excited. Especially young people."

Krebs and O'Neill agreed that part of the problem was that there wasn't really any space where people could discuss politics and the issues of the day in a relaxed atmosphere that was as much about social life and fun as it was about politics.

"It was also just a strange time," Krebs remembers. "The country was about to go to war in Iraq. The people seemed powerless. The press seemed asleep. There was this sense among those of us in New York who didn't like where the country was going that there was a surplus of progressive energy but it wasn't obvious where to put it."

Both fans of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, which documents the decline of civic institutions in America, O'Neill and Krebs began to talk about creating a drinking club loosely organized around progressive politics.

On a Thursday night in May of 2003, after e-mailing an invitation to some friends, Krebs and O'Neill held the first session of Drinking Liberally at Rudy's, a popular Hell's Kitchen bar known for its hot dogs and cheap pitchers.

The group grew slowly over the summer, with some Thursday nights finding only Krebs and O'Neill holding down the Drinking Liberally fort. A west-coast chapter opened when a regular attendee at Rudy's moved to San Francisco, and the group's profile rose somewhat when it hosted some events during the 2004 Republican National Convention. But what really catapulted the group into the national awareness was a photograph in a Newsweek article about young people's political engagement that showed someone wearing one of the group's buttons, which read, "I only drink liberally."

"Over the course of that week so many people started Googling 'I only drink liberally,' finding our Yahoo group, and writing us to say, 'Hey, how can I start my own chapter?'" O'Neill recalls.

Krebs enlisted a friend, David Alpert, to build the Web infrastructure necessary to take Drinking Liberally national. Then, with the organization growing faster than they could manage themselves, Krebs and O'Neill had to find extra help. So they brought on Katrina Baker, a Drinking Liberally regular and a law student with organizing experience, to help advise new chapters and keep the increasingly far-flung groups in touch with each other.

The speed with which Drinking Liberally took root in metropolises and rural centers alike speaks to the range of liberals' needs that it satisfies. For chapters deep in red-state territory, Drinking Liberally serves as an oasis, a place for liberals to escape the dominant conservative culture and meet the comrades they suspected were out there but were hard to find.

As they have proliferated, Drinking Liberally chapters have also come to serve as welcoming committees and starter friend-circles for liberals moving to a new city. When Drinking Liberally attendees travel, they often drop in on other chapters to make new friends and learn about the local scene.

Though much of its initial momentum came from young people, Drinking Liberally today is hardly a youth movement. The average age of its chapter heads is 36, and membership ranges in age from children to octogenarians.

In many ways, the growth of Drinking Liberally mirrors the growth of the liberal blogosphere. Like blogs, Drinking Liberally creates a space for discussion and a community for like-minded people. Some of Drinking Liberally's earliest champions have been bloggers. Duncan Black, better known in the blogosphere as Atrios, was a long-time host of the Philadelphia Drinking Liberally. In Memphis, as in Drinking Liberally chapters across the country, many of the regular attendees are themselves bloggers.

"Drinking Liberally is the place where a lot of Memphis bloggers check in, compare notes, hang out and talk," says Sarah Rutledge, the Memphis chapter head. "They're all really supportive of Drinking Liberally because it's important to them to have that place where they can meet face to face with each other and some of their readers."

Ideas and conversation tend to flow easily between the online communities of local blogs and the physical ones at local chapters.

"A lot of the topics of discussion at Drinking Liberally tend to be heavily driven by what's on the blogs, and vice versa," Rutledge says. "Something that comes up randomly one night at Drinking Liberally one night may show up at a lot of Memphis blogs the next day. It's just a way to tie that community together I think."

Perhaps what most distinguishes Drinking Liberally from other progressive groups is the low threshold it sets for participation. All you have to do is show up, and once you show up, there isn't any expectation that you're going to do more than that. You don't need a working familiarity with Roberts Rules of Order, and you don't even need to show up on a regular basis.

But as places where seasoned activists rub shoulders with political novices looking for ways to become more involved, Drinking Liberally chapters have come to function as activist clearinghouses where people looking for ways to act on their convictions are sure to find many opportunities. Local campaign workers find volunteers, Planned Parenthood clinics find trainees, and people with half-formed ideas find collaborators to help knock their plans into shape. Newcomers to Drinking Liberally quickly learn that while they don't have to do anything to take part, they will be presented with a wide-ranging menu of options for becoming more politically active.

"Drinking Liberally is supposed to be the beginning, not the end," Krebs says. "The idea is to lead people down the commitment chain from awareness to engagement, and from engagement to activism. Drinking Liberally can bump everyone up one step on that chain. Whatever level you come in on, you are accepted on that level. Then as you become more informed and involved, the blogs and the direct service organizations that you get exposed to can show you what you can do at that level of participation."

Matt Stoller, a blogger who writes for MyDD.com, says Drinking Liberally and its offshoots provide the left with the social infrastructure that it has lacked in recent decades.

"It's like a fast-growing liberal church," Stoller says. "Church networks tend to provide some social structure for people who are looking for community and identity, and politics flows from that."

For Stoller, the open-ended, open-source structure of Drinking Liberally provides a solid foundation for the progressive movement upon which more specifically targeted agendas can be built.

"Politics is about trust -- who you trust and who has credibility," Stoller says. "It's not about issues, because circumstances can change and the problems that the government might have to face are difficult to predict. It's really important to have networks of people who trust each other, because then you can explain public policy, learn about public policy, and discuss it. It's these networks of trust that let people be a part of government, a part of politics, and a part of culture. Trust doesn't come from just receiving information, it comes from actually knowing people. The right does that with churches and chambers of commerce. We have it through unions, blogs, and Drinking Liberally."

Even as Drinking Liberally eschews political endorsements and direct activism, the social capital that it assembles on a weekly basis has made it an attractive destination for candidates and organizers. In the 2006 election cycle, many chapters found themselves visited by everyone from congressional hopefuls to city council candidates. But when politicians do visit, they often find that the dynamic at Drinking Liberally is different from the canned stump-speech audiences they may be used to.

Krebs tells a story about the New York City mayoral election last year, when his chapter chose to relax its restrictions and allow a pair of visiting candidates to make short speeches.

The first candidate, a lively, loud-mouthed Brooklynite, gave exactly the sort of ambitious, aggressive speech that was bound to resonate with the crowd, and when his 90 seconds were up, left the bar. Later in the evening, the other candidate showed up, and Krebs quieted the crowd a second time.

"People were already kind of irritated at having been quieted down twice, and this guy, who has a kind of restrained preppiness about him, wasn't so much the type you would expect to play well with a Drinking Liberally audience," Krebs said. "All he said was, 'Hey, here I am, I'll be drinking a beer out back if you want to talk,' and that was it. He hung around in the back of the bar for most of the evening talking to different people. And as far as Drinking Liberally was concerned, he won the night, because he understood that Drinking Liberally is more about conversation than it is about speeches."

As Drinking Liberally has grown and thrived, parallel organizations have grown up around it, in a constellation Krebs, O'Neill and Baker are calling Living Liberally. Some chapters have started book clubs under the name of Reading Liberally. Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of the Daily Kos are among the authors who have incorporated Drinking Liberally chapters into their book tours.

Other chapters show progressive-oriented films as part of Screening Liberally. In New York, that can mean scoring comps to movie openings, while for other chapters it often means DVD-watching parties.

A group in New York City has founded Eating Liberally, which offers a Drinking-Liberally-like environment for progressives who don't enjoy bar culture and are also concerned with food politics.

Perhaps the biggest departure to date is Laughing Liberally, a stand-up tour composed of comics performing political material. Where the other "Liberally" events are geared primarily towards creating a social space, Laughing Liberally is also about developing cultural material to fill that space. Organized by Krebs, Alpert, and comedian Katie Halper, Laughing Liberally debuted in early 2005 with some shows in small New York venues, but quickly grew into a national tour.

Comics who have performed on the tour include some unknowns as well as relatively well-known names like Reno, Jimmy Tingle, and James Adomian, whose uncanny channeling of President Bush has earned him a measure of YouTube celebrity.

Laughing Liberally is partly motivated by Krebs and O'Neill's belief that comedy is an important arrow in the liberal quiver.

"Unlike talk radio, where you have all this bombast and everything's black and white, comedy, by its nature, trades in nuance and shades of grey," Krebs says. "That makes comedy a better vehicle for liberals than for conservatives. Think of the success of Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert. And if you can get a young person who's aware but hasn't necessarily made their mind up to listen to a routine, repeat a joke, and suddenly it goes viral, that's a powerful tool."

Not all of the "Liberally" spin-offs have taken off -- the ill-starred Rocking Liberally never found its feet before it was retired. But with scores of chapters acting as incubators and proving grounds for new ideas, the consensus among its participants is that the Living Liberally collective can afford some duds.

Spreading these other Liberally juggernauts in the same way that Drinking Liberally has spread is one of the top goals for the Living Liberally team. Another idea popular at the group's Denver convention last fall was the creation of Living Liberally city guides, which could help new and old residents alike understand a city's political landscape, learn about its activist organizations, and find its organic markets. Many Liberal Drinkers are excited about establishing a Drinking Liberally chapter in each of the nation's 435 congressional districts.

After years of coordinating the entire project themselves for free, the New York leadership team is also looking for ways to finance a part-time position to take over some of the organizational housekeeping, freeing them to work on new initiatives.

With so many chapters already in place and an increasingly well-known and respected brand, the possibilities for Living Liberally's future are many. But whatever else they take on, the national leadership says the bedrock of the organization will always be the weekly gatherings in local bars everywhere.

"For everything else to happen, you have to have the space in which people can meet, share ideas, and spur each other on to action," Krebs said. "Maintaining that space has to be our top priority, but we're also excited to see what else we can do with it."
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