In part, the noise gap has developed because the Internet has become our new gathering space. A lot of those people ignoring their neighbors at cafés are on their computers, and some of them are surely using those machines to engage with politics. (The FBI has asked Internet café owners to report suspicious customers, defined in part as people who “always pay cash” and “are overly concerned about privacy,” as potential terrorists.) But the Web cannot play the same role as bars and cafés. It can’t match the intimacy of those physical spaces or their potential for spontaneous mass gatherings. For all the hype about social media’s role in the Arab Spring, cafés still played a role, and an important one. Al Jazeera presenter Hassan Ibrahim has said of Egyptian protestors, “Electronic media, and the Internet played a vital role, but actually, they met in coffee shops. All political movements in Egypt started in coffee shops.”
It’s also much easier for governments to tightly monitor online expression, as revelations of the NSA’s extensive Internet penetration have underscored. In 2012, the government compelled Twitter to turn over thousands of tweets from an Occupy Wall Street protestor charged with disorderly conduct. The tweets bolstered the government’s case, and the protestor pleaded guilty lest they become public at trial and incriminate other Occupiers. The Internet is not always an environment conducive to civil disobedience.
Perhaps this is why we haven’t seen a bottom-up political movement agitating to break our country’s political paralysis. Much has been made of Washington lawmakers’ changed social habits. Their short workweeks and the permanent campaign push them back to their districts on weekends. They no longer mix at Georgetown townhouses or over bourbon-fueled poker games, and so, the theory goes, across-the-aisle deal-making doesn’t happen. But the same social insulation affects average citizens as well. The rest of us sip coffee and beer right next to our neighbors without the opportunity to take each other’s confidences, shout about politics, or engage in acts of spontaneous persuasion.
In the wake of a financial crisis and in the face of a sclerotic federal government, we might have expected a political upheaval in recent years in the U.S. Instead, we got the Tea Party and Occupy. Today’s Tea Party emerged in part from the Koch Brothers’ boardrooms, not a tavern, and it’s no wonder that the putative grassroots movement has had the primary effect of contributing to more gridlock, installing obstructionist legislators, and discouraging moderates from participating in deal-making. Occupy managed to insert income inequality into the national dialogue, but the carried interest loophole still enriches hedge fund managers while Congress cuts food stamps for the poor. After the movement was pushed from the open-air spaces it occupied, it lacked another space in which to build on what momentum it had.
We’re left with a political system in which our Congress is near-universally reviled, and yet its incumbents can generally expect to remain in power. Sure, not everything that comes out of the bars and cafés is to the good. The Beer Hall Putsch, in which the Nazis tried and failed to seize control of Munich, was Hitler’s stepping-stone to power. Desmoulins, after inciting the storming of the Bastille, eventually succumbed to the guillotine in Robespierre’s reign of terror. But the guys who planned the Boston Tea Party over rum punch decided that allowing for the possibility of periodic upheaval was an important part of their democratic experiment.
The current upheaval in the Middle East, it’s worth noting, is often playing out in cafés. The first cafés in the world sprang up in the region some time between the mid-15th and early 16th centuries, and they continue to serve an important political function. As Billie Jeanne Brownlee, a scholar of Middle East politics, wrote last year, “Unlike in the West, the Internet has not turned people into antisocial creatures; quite the opposite, it has turned these cafés into places where information found on the web is shared face-to-face between friends.” The New York Times found “the spirit of the Arab Spring” alive and well last year in a buzzing café in Tunis. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the owner of Washington’s most conversation-friendly bar, Saloon proprietor Kamal Jahanbein, was born in Iran. The Washington Post has dubbed the establishment “a true chat room.”
Maybe all this country needs to deliver the periodic rebellion the founders counted on is a few more good proprietors willing to get Americans talking, confiding, and subverting again. I’d drink to that.