Despite the repetitive refrain of “change” that animates virtually all campaigns for political office, the federal government has long been a lethargic beast that compares unfavorably to a sloth—the low-metabolism tree-hanger that moves only when necessary and even then very slowly.
To be sure, when there’s an economic crisis, or the perceived need for war, government can go on a spending splurge or mobilize armies to invade or “stabilize.” But lasting change often springs not from the brow of politicians but from the will of the people. Recall the marches, beatings and protest ralliesthat preceded adoption of civil rights laws and led to withdrawal of our huge armies in Vietnam.
In these two examples, years of protest were required before government responded. But now let us contemplate a society where citizens can organize much more easily than before to protestand to bring about change—in government itself or in institutions whose actions could be addressed by federal regulation if only government could be faster than our sloth.
That day is just dawning, as citizens discover the power of the Internet to bring about change. Two sites in particular seem to be leading the movement: Change.org and Twitter. By contrast, a government initiative to give citizens a voice on policy—the White House petition website—is not doing as well.
We the People, the White House site, has attracted several dozen petitioners who have met its threshold of 5,000, and more recently 25,000 signatures within a month of posting. These petitions are promised a response—most of which are weeks in coming and consist of pro forma White House positions on matters like legalizing marijuana.
Asked to cite an example of change, Macon Phillips, White House digital strategy director, said a petition drive helped generate an Agriculture Department initiative to strengthen regulation of dog breeders. Most recently, the site has generated some 100,000 signatures in support of renaming the Sea of Japan. A timely petition asking President Obama to meet his responsibility to nominate five people to fill open slots on the dysfunctional Federal Election Commission in this important election year gathered more than 25,000 signers, but weeks later had generated no message from the White House. “We have been disappointed by the lack of a timely response,” says Nancy Tate, executive director of the League of Women Voters, a key sponsor of the drive.
Contrast this initiative with Change.org, a site that allows people to post and sign petitions. Within days, a petition demanding the arrest of the neighborhood watch volunteer who killed black teenager Trayvon Martin garnered 2 million signatures. The site now hosts some 10,000 campaigns a month, boasts more than 10 million users and is adding a million per month. It’s proving that you don’t have to be a celebrity or a politician to generate change—more rapidly than in the past.
“After Recess: Change the World,” The New York Times headlined a column on the successful petition Brookline, Mass., fourth graders launched on Change.org to persuade Universal Studios to “let the Lorax speak for the trees” and publicize that the Dr. Seuss protagonist in its new movie is a champion for protecting nature. Campaigns originated by Molly Katchpole, a recent college graduate, persuaded Bank of America and Verizon to abandon new fees they’d recently instituted. In February, 17-year-old Katy Butler used the site to start a campaign against bullying that has generated more than 300,000 signatures, giving the issue a much higher profile. Campaigns on Change.org influenced decisions by the National Park Service to reinstate a ban on plastic bottles in the Grand Canyon, and by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to belatedly speak up for women’s driving privileges in Saudi Arabia.
And then, of course, there’s Twitter, the huge social media site whose users helped organize the overthrow of North Africa’s rulers last year and now are whipping up microcontroversies affecting our presidential politics. No less a player than President Obama has acknowledged its power with his Twitter Town Hall last summer and his appeal in late April for a Twitter campaign to persuade Congress to extend a cap on student loan interest rates.
So it is that direct democracy is changing the policies of big institutions and powerful people and teaching them lessons about generating change.