If you believe the wisdom of the crowd, this bailout blows.
An intense and often spontaneous Internet backlash hindered bipartisan efforts to pass the $700 billion bailout. As soon as the basics of the measure were publicized, e-mail and Web discussions exposed a sharp and important divide between the public and elites on the proposal. Proponents insist the “rescue plan” is essential to shoring up credit and stabilizing the financial markets, while critics say taxpayer money should not be spent to bail out irresponsible behavior on Wall Street. A remarkably broad coalition of elites back the bailout measure, of course, from both parties’ nominees and Congressional leaders to the majority of commentators across the corporate media spectrum. Across the fuller spectrum of the Internet, however, it’s a different story.
Websites of all stripes are brimming with intense opposition to the plan. 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.) On Capitol Hill, the high volume of constituent e-mail against the bailout has computers on the brink of crashing–literally. Congress temporarily banned e-mail to representatives because its website, House.gov, was about to go down. On Tuesday, a House official told members that the unusual step was “temporarily necessary to ensure that Congressional websites are not completely disabled by the millions of e-mails flowing into the system.”
The vast majority of e-mails are against the bailout, according to politicians who have disclosed estimates. Senator Sherrod Brown said in a newspaper interview that a whopping 95 percent of his e-mail opposed the measure and “nearly all” of Senator Barbara Boxer’s e-mail was against the bill, according to her staff.
“What happened this week online has been far more spontaneous than organized,” said blogger David Sirota, author of The Uprising, a recent book about the “populist revolt” against Wall Street and Washington. “Many of the organizational players actually stayed on the sidelines, but the Internet became a real outlet for activists and the public to vent its outrage to Congress,” he told The Nation. Groups like U.S. Action tapped into that sentiment, using net and grassroots outreach to quickly organize more than 250 street protests around the country. Activists also used the web to pick apart and expose the entire bailout bill, which some members did not read in full. (The version that passed on Wednesday ran hundreds of pages, and Senator John McCain acknowledged he did not read the three-page summary circulated by the Treasury Secretary. Web transparency advocates are fighting that habit, too.)
On the popular progressive site Hullabaloo, a blogger named dday wrote that Monday’s dramatic House vote was the culmination of an uprising by average citizens, online and off, who have lost any faith that political elites are acting in their interest.
“Nobody has confidence in the political system,” dday argued, “there’s no trust and no belief, and so a popular uprising is the result…. While the support of the bill was mixed, the opposition was quite vocal and almost nobody believed that regular people would get anything out of it.” It was clearly “regular people,” in districts red and blue, who deluged the House, expressing scorn for the bailout and rejecting the crisis narrative that was unfolding on the nightly news. There is no way to determine exactly how many members of Congress were swayed, but many who opposed the vote said they were prioritizing the public’s views over intense pressure from their party, their donors and (some) experts.
“When the White House and Congress, two highly unpopular institutions at the moment, come along with a top-down, no-debate, no-transparency, save-the-fatcats bill and ask for its immediate passage,” writes TechPresident co-founder Micah Sifry, “we shouldn’t be surprised to see those same forces reflexively hit back.”
Sifry, a longtime campaign finance reform advocate (and former Nation staff writer), argues that the Internet is beginning to counter the dominance of special interests and top-down deal-making. It is “not enough to stop” the ultimate passage of the bailout bill, he says, but the backlash hints at fundamental ways to “alter the way business is done on Capitol Hill.”
Pitted against a united political and media establishment, average voters were outgunned on the bailout battle from the start. If you believed the media and experts last week, the bill was an essential measure headed for speedy passage on Monday. It was another one of those inevitable, bipartisan solutions–crafted on Wall Street, sold on K Street, purchased in the Capitol and relentlessly promoted back in the Midtown Manhattan broadcast studios–with no role for the public who would foot the bill. The web helped people storm the debate, rallying opposition to buck two branches of government and shock the markets.
Ultimately, reactive net movements are not positioned to spontaneously unite behind one alternative, and the bailout’s powerful backers are getting much of what they want. That is not, however, the only result. A different Congressional leadership might have tapped this uprising to break with the president and push a completely new plan (vesting authority in an independent body instead of the Treasury Secretary, for example, or prioritizing credit assistance, domestic spending and re-regulation instead of such a large package for Wall Street.) A significant number of politicians and candidates have been jolted by the reaction. And only the public knows if the uprising will continue after Election Day.