The internet as amplifier

I think we’ll look back on the outing of Senators Ted Stevens and Robert Byrd as the fools who put a secret hold on an antipork bill as an important milestone in American politics and media — a far bigger event than the ousting of Trent Lott. And that’s not just because there are two more scalps on bloggers’ belts. No, what matters is that this Porkbusters campaign shows the power of the internet to organize, empower, and amplify.

Some still think that the internet and blogs won’t be meaningful until they’re coming into and out of every American den. But that’s the old, mass way of looking at things: you mattered (to media companies, advertisers, and politicians) only if you were part of a big clump of people who, by their mass, could not be ignored. That was mob rule. The internet came along to give voice and freedom to individuals. But more important, it allows those individuals to organize and take concerted action together, to make sure that they, too, cannot be ignored. The definition of critical mass has shrunk on a quantum scale. We are now governed by the 1 percent rule.

It’s significant that Bill Frist used — yes, used, in a good sense — bloggers and porkbusters to give him political cover in the Senate to force through this antipork bill. He didn’t have to use political capital. He didn’t have to cajole and lobby. He didn’t have to enter the smoke-filled room. The citizens did the work by pressing every senator for an answer to their simple question: Who closed the door on openness?

I don’t think we yet know our own strength. I’ve been arguing that we must give Congress cover to support the First Amendment against the so-called Parents Television Council and other self-appointed censors. If you wanted to be seen and heard in the past, you had to do what Brent Bozell did: form a fake organization, raise money, print letterheads, get PR from gullible reporters, and act like a mass even if you aren’t one. No longer. Instead, we can follow the Porkbusters model and just ask the right questions. The point is that the Porkbusters didn’t attempt to act like a mass. They merely did what reporters should be doing: They asked the right questions of the right people and kept asking until they got answers.

Is this a “netroots” movement? No, the netroots folks try to act like a movement, a mass (though it will be hard for them to claim ownership of the blogosphere and internet when every side is up to speed using the same techniques). I think the Porkbusters victory is more journalistic, fulfilling the role that news organizations should fulfill as watchdogs.

Note well that this was not a party effort; it was a bipartisan and ad hoc gathering of people — left, right, libertarian, in office and out — who banded together in a small critical mass (enough people with enough emails and phones) to take action around an issue: openness. Parties didn’t matter. Party structures were meaningless. Policy mattered.

I do think we’ll see more of that. In a Guardian column a few months ago, I wrote: “The internet is only doing to politics what it has done to other industries: it disaggregates elements and then enables these free atoms to reaggregate into new molecules; it fragments the old and unifies the new. So in the end, the internet gives us the opportunity to make more nuanced expressions of our political worldview, which makes obsolete old orthodoxies and old definitions of left and right. Thus both the Euston Manifesti and their opponents can claim the cloak of liberalism and we’ll see whether they can still band together to make a party.” Or change policy. Or possibly elect candidates. Or just keep a watchful eye on government.