Last week's titanic struggles to enact a bail out bill revelaed one starting fact: Citizens have far more power in our democracy than we’ve ever given them credit for. In an environment where campaign donations and bribes are supposed to be the way to a politician’s heart, something has gone seriously awry.
While the "bail out" or "financial rescue" plan (depending on your philosophy) eventually passed, it did so only after, as pointed out in a Washington Post article this weekend, groups like AARP, the US Chamber and the National and Community Banks asked their grassroots to get involved. Only after the frantic calls in to Congressional offices switched to at least 50-50 were lawmakers willing to take the plunge.
Wall Street is in this predicament, in part, because they never cultivated the “power of constituency. They have relied on money and influence in a political environment where the authentic and personalized outrage of everyday citizens holds far more sway. You can’t blame them for trying. Conventional wisdom would dictate that these industries, which have more than doubled the level of giving to political campaigns in the last 10 years, should have been able to get this bill passed with minimal effort
Yet, if the “here’s my money, where’s my vote” approach works so well, why didn't it work earlier in the week? Clearly, there’s a backlash – and a big one: big enough to alter the entire structure of the deal.
The whole bailout debacle demonstrates that organizations with well-developed grassroots advocacy networks can have their voices heard like never before. It’s the reason we have talk of provisions to help individual homeowners, questions about whether the package should deal with credit card and auto loan debt and potential restrictions on executive pay. Where Wall Street dropped the ball, in addition to taking on questionable loans, was in not building a deep and broad network of supporters across the country willing to go to bat for them when those loans hit the fan.
Clearly, the lesson in all this (besides "don't borrow more than you can pay back") is that grassroots advocacy works. It turned around this vote -- maybe it can turn around yours!