Business as usual on Wall Street may have ended this week, but it may also be over in Washington, too. And not just because Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke had to rush to Congress for a massive taxpayer bailout of the financial system. In the last few weeks of financial crisis many of us have discovered that the powers-that-be are just making it up as they go along and the emperor really doesn't have much to wear. But out of this crisis in confidence something new and potentially powerful is rising: the networked public sphere is turning its attention to how Washington actually works (or fails to work). Powered and connected by the Internet, a critical mass — in both senses of the word — is forming around what we can do to fix both our political and economic systems.
Remember, under "business as usual," the Wall Street bailout should have been a no-brainer for Congress. After all, the financial sector is the biggest contributor, by far, to the campaigns of all members for Congress, supplying more than $2 billion to them since 1990 and almost $340 million more in this cycle alone. (Go here for details.) Lobbyists for finance, insurance, real estate and other business interests pervade the capitol. But on Monday, the House of Representatives acted more like the "people's House" than the lobbyists' house, rejecting the Paulson proposal.
I can't prove this, but I think that the same rise in voter participation that we're seeing in the explosion of small donors to the presidential campaigns and in the explosion of networked bloggers watchdogging the media may also be starting to hit Congress. Ordinary people want more of a say in the process, so they're starting to pool their money and their voices, and they've learned — thanks to the Internet — that they can have an impact, certainly on the presidential campaign of the last 18 months. As Scott Heiferman, of Meetup once said, "The genie of self-organization is out of the bottle."
Critical masses of citizens are coming together around the bailout fight. As Ari Melber pointed out in The Nation, "Bailout talk dominated the blogopshere this week. References to the measure hit a staggering 14,000 per day at its peak, for the vote on Monday, according to the blog search engine Technorati.com. (By comparison, references to "Obama," an international Web sensation, average about 8,000 per day.)"
Citizens have literally overwhelmed Congress's servers, not only with incoming email messages protesting the vote, but also in searching to get the actual text of the proposed legislation. They've swarmed all over metastasizing text of the draft bill and in the process are creating a new expectation, that members actually read the full bill they are voting on, before they vote. They're networking together to rally support for alternative proposals. (see Jon Pincus's effort on the collaborative Web site MixedInk here and David Sirota's efforts on OpenLeft here and here. And they're finding and elevating a new array of economist-bloggers, who are filling an information vacuum left by the mainstream media's embrace of the basic assumptions of the Bush-Paulson-Pelosi approach to the crisis.
Whatever happens with the bailout bill, I don't think this genie can be stuffed back into the bottle. An old way of doing things is dying, and the new one being born isn't quite in place yet. As all of these newly awakened citizen activists make and spread new social connections, their networks will gain salience. We are watching, and we are learning together that we can indeed have a direct voice in the process. I don't think we're going to return to the old status quo, where moneyed interests and well-connected lobbyists comfortably call the shots, any more than we're going back to the days when Big Donors, Big-Foot Journalists and Big Name Consultants decided who could be a serious candidate for president and what they would talk about and the rest of us just watched and waited until our moment to vote.
The stakes are too high, too many of us are watching and joining in, and we've learned that when we get connected, we can make a difference.