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Drinking Liberally - promoting democracy one pint at a time

Joseph Murtagh

Drinking Liberally – promoting democracy one pint at a time


June 14, 2007 -- Did you know that in the 1750s Colonel Benjamin Franklin used a bar in Philadelphia called Tun Tavern as a base of operations to establish the very first Pennsylvania militia?  Or that a few years later George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Continental Congress regularly met in Tun Tavern as the American colonies prepared for independence from the English crown?  Or that Tun Tavern is the birthplace of the United States Marine Corps, which was established in 1775, just one year before the Declaration of Independence?


Did you know that Interstate 95 now covers up the original location of Tun Tavern?   


No worries: the spirit of ’76 is alive and well in bars all across the land.  Drinking Liberally, a nationwide grassroots organization combining progressive politics with copious imbibing, has witnessed explosive growth since 2003, with chapters in bars in over 200 American cities.  Members meet at their local watering hole and discuss everything from the hellish price of gasoline to the Iraq war to the latest disaster in the Justice Department.


“Bars are social spaces,” says Katrina Baker, the National Organizer of Drinking Liberally.  “It seems natural that people would want to come together and talk about politics with friends in a familiar setting.”


Justin Krebs and Matthew O’Neill started Drinking Liberally in 2003 at Rudy’s bar in New York City.  Originally, they hadn’t intended to export the idea, but the organization grew legs in organic fashion, after a friend moved out west and established a chapter in San Francisco.  Chapters in Houston, Boise, and Philadelphia soon followed.


“Our eventual goal is to have a chapter in every congressional district,” says Baker.  “First we have to get one in every state, though.”


A glance at Drinking Liberally chapter locations across the country challenges the media’s red state/blue state divide, with chapters in several of what are typically considered to be conservative states.  (There are two chapters in Mississippi, and six in Idaho, for instance).  However, as Baker points out, Drinking Liberally shouldn’t be thought of as a strictly leftist enterprise. 


“We’re fully aware that the one of the main reasons this has caught on so quickly is that we have a catchy name,” she says.  “But that doesn’t mean we’re pushing any kind of agenda in terms of politics.  All we want to do is get people talking to each other and exchanging opinions.  We look at the name as more of a philosophy than anything else.”


The organization has gotten so big that it now requires two full-time staff members and has expanded to include Screening Liberally, which features films of a political nature, and Living Liberally, for non-bar-lovers.  With all the success, however, Baker says that it’s important to preserve the grassroots feel of the organization.


“We’ve really tried to steer clear of a top-down organizational paradigm,” she says.  “We try to work on a horizontal basis, empowering local chapters to do the sorts of things they want to do.”   


Several chapters have been busy organizing special events, such as meet-ups with their local representatives, or inviting guest speakers to the bar.  Last April, the Idaho Falls chapter temporarily merged their Drinking Liberally meeting with the school district’s adult education lecture series, offered by a constitutional scholar from Idaho State University, and the Denver chapter recently held “meet your legislator night,” at which seven city council members were present, three of whom were Republicans.  Al Franken showed up at the Minneapolis chapter last March, and candidates have been dropping by the chapter in Reading without advance notice.


“We’ve been very impressed with the way political candidates have responded to the idea,” says Baker.  They use it as a way to get in touch with members of their constituency.  That’s the whole point, promoting democracy, getting people in touch with their elected representatives.  It’s nice to see.”     


Check to see if there’s a Drinking Liberally in your neck of the woods – and if not, you can always start your own!     

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