“Our democracy had its origins in the local taverns of the revolutionary era.” – Ray Oldenburg
Politicos on both the right and the left quarrel stridently over the true birthplace and soul of American democracy. The right typically lifts up either the family or the church. The left commonly points to movements for social justice and equality waged throughout American history. Both sides insist, with great vigor, that if American democracy is going to endure, these particular wellsprings of democratic life need to be remembered and revived.
While I certainly agree with both sides on the considerable civic importance of families and civil rights rallies, churches and labor unions, I think both sides have tragically overlooked the value of a critical democratic institution—the neighborhood pub.
I think both sides have tragically overlooked the value of a critical democratic institution—the neighborhood pub.
I have long admired Ray Oldenburg’s classic work The Great Good Place, which excavates and explicates the surprising social benefits that local pubs, coffeehouses, hair salons, and cafes afford a civil society. As a resident of Seattle, I know the great value of a dry space where I might huddle with other drenched citizens while I enjoy the best coffee on the planet.
I did not, however, recognize the critical role these gathering spaces play in our nation’s democratic life.
Oldenburg explores how local coffeehouses and pubs have historically transformed customers into regulars, strangers into neighbors, and individuals into citizens. Over years of frequenting these spaces, “regulars” develop critical levels of solidarity and trust within their neighborhood, a growing awareness of their community’s most pressing issues and struggles, and even a sense of ownership and responsibility for their neighborhood.
Oldenburg goes on to outline how cafes, beer gardens, and tearooms have played critical roles in democratic and revolutionary movements. In fact, he argues, when one grasps the radical freedom these spaces provide, it is “not difficult to understand why coffeehouses came under attack by government leaders in England, in Scandinavia, and in Saudi Arabia at various points in history. It was in coffeehouses where people congregated and often, in their discussions, found fault with their countries’ rulers.”
Regular participants in coffeehouse and pub culture are afforded a relative freedom to explore religion, politics, economics, and family beyond the watchful eye and strictures of these communities. Moreover, the leisurely pace of “pub life” provides regulars the necessary time to listen, question, struggle, and meander through these issues at a slower pace. At their best, these spaces provide citizens a critical opportunity to play, learn, complain, bond, and tease one other about their political opinions in a manner not often found in other public spaces.
At their best, these spaces provide citizens a critical opportunity to play, learn, complain, bond, and tease one other about their political opinions in a manner not often found in other public spaces.
Beyond this, pubs and coffeehouses have the curious ability to teach citizens a few critical virtues in civil political discourse. Citizens who are boorish, patronizing, or mean are quickly scorned or isolated. The nastiness Americans commonly exhibit on television, radio, and the Internet is much more difficult to sustain when sitting across a table from one’s interlocutor. Media blowhards Rush Limbaugh and Ed Shultz would struggle to cultivate many life-long drinking buddies in my favorite watering holes.
Democratic theorists lament that too many Americans now exclusively receive their political news and analysis through ideologically narrow sources. As Americans continue to construct tighter and tighter ideological echo chambers for themselves, many wonder how a nation so divided will ever sustain a common civic discourse across their differences.
While they can’t solve the problem entirely, few public spaces in American life can bridge the growing economic, political, and religious divides like a neighborhood coffeehouse or pub.
Of course, a series of caveats to this argument are in order. Not all pubs and coffeehouses are conducive to civic discourse or neighborhood development. Some pubs are dark and foreboding, filled with drunks and ne’er-do-wells. Some coffeehouses have been overrun with atomized laptop users insulated from their fellow citizens through the strategic use of tiny earbuds. Even worse, many American citizens lack access to vibrant coffeehouses and pubs because of horrible urban design policies. Trapped in vast stretches of suburban housing, millions of Americans are miles away from a proper pint. For our democratic discourse to endure, true patriots must demand equal access to vibrant watering holes.
Years ago, my church here in Seattle decided to do a rather odd thing: we established a neighborhood coffeehouse. The driving “agenda” of “The Green Bean” was neither evangelism nor charity. It was simply the church’s attempt to cultivate an enduring relationship with the neighborhood. We needed this space to better know and love this place.
Surrounded by the starkly secular culture of Seattle, we evangelicals have a tendency to huddle up in either cultural fear or self-righteousness. Rather than preach or patronize, the Green Bean provides our little church with an informal space to serve, listen, learn, and just relax. Reflecting on the value of the coffeehouse, my pastor joked recently that it helped socially awkward Christians “become regular people again.” For, if our God commands us to be neighbors, this coffeehouse is the place where we can learn how.
So, while some clamor to restore American democracy through restoring “family values” or “marching against the man,” I would like to submit my own plea for democracy. Let’s gather together for a warm cup of chai or a cold pint of IPA. The time spent together might help us all know and care for neighborhoods and our country a little bit more.
Let’s gather together for a warm cup of chai or a cold pint of IPA. The time spent together might help us all know and care for neighborhoods and our country a little bit more.
This spring a man was murdered in our Seattle neighborhood. Members of our church invited the community to gather at the Green Bean Coffeehouse. From there, they walked together out into the night to mourn the loss of a neighbor and to stand together against violence within the neighborhood.
This encounter, along with many others, leads me to believe that those who imagine the practice of drinking together to be lazy, ineffective, or self-indulgent have not yet grappled with the democratic power of a frosty pint or a fresh pot.
This article was originally published with Capital Commentary in 2014. It is republished here with permission.