When the People Speak Is Anyone Listening?

Secession petitions point out strengths and weaknesses of We the People website.

The White House’s online petition website We the People showcased both unity and division as 2012 came to a close.

Division came first. In the weeks after President Obama’s reelection in November 2012, citizens from all 50 states took to the site to demand permission to secede from the union. Unity followed in December when 200,000 people signed a petition to urge stricter gun control laws in just five days following the deadly shooting of 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

A separate petition asking the president to designate the Westboro Baptist Church, which pledged to picket the funerals of Sandy Hook victims, as a hate group garnered more than 300,000 signatures, setting a new record for a We the People petition.

This schizophrenia is nothing new for We the People, which has played many roles during its 18-month life span. 

President Obama called the site “a direct line to the White House on the issues and concerns that matter most” to citizens when it went online in September 2011. Anyone can launch a petition on the site and promote it through social media. The White House pledged to respond formally to petitions that receive more than 25,000 signatures. It increased the threshold to 100,000 signatures in January. 

Others, however, quickly deemed We the People a haven for kooks, cranks and stoners. The first set of petitions that earned a response included eight seeking more liberal marijuana laws, one asking to phase out the penny and two demanding the government come clean about its communications with space aliens. 

We the People then went through a fallow period. Petitioners were disappointed with what they saw as rote replies from government functionaries, mostly restating existing policy. One of the most popular petitions from this period urged officials to “actually take these petitions seriously instead of just using them as an excuse to pretend you are listening.”

The string of postelection secession petitions brought We the People fully into the public eye. They were featured everywhere from Fox News to The Daily Show.

The Texas petition rapidly became one of the most popular ever posted to the site. That forced a disavowal from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has been accused of advocating secession in the past. 

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney penned a response to the petitions in January saying democracy’s goal should be to “form a more perfect union,” not to tear the current one apart.

Harvard University professor Archon Fung recommends keeping We the People’s secession flurry in perspective. The Texas petition received 125,000 signatures. That’s only a tiny fraction of politically engaged Americans online. Petitions from Louisiana received 37,000 signatures and Florida 35,000. 

A Change.org petition asking Florida officials to charge George Zimmerman in the February 2012 shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin, by comparison, received more than 2.2 million signatures. It also, arguably, helped catalyze the public outcry and media storm that led to Zimmerman being charged with second-degree murder in April.

“I think if you take the petition mechanism seriously, you have to have a view about what’s enough to take notice and say, ‘this is something people care about,’” Fung says. “Is 120,000 signatures a lot? It doesn’t strike me as very much.”

Fung says he was impressed by the velocity of signatures on the gun control petition, which was posted around the same time several members of Congress were reversing long-held opposition to any new gun regulations. That petition became the most popular ever posted to the site after just three days online. 

He criticized the White House for cutting off new signatures when it responded to that petition after only one week, saying it would have been instructive to see how high the signature count might have gone.

Fung’s research focuses on public engagement in government policy. He draws a distinction between public participation and deliberation. He gives We the People some credit for stoking participation but faults the project for not including a deliberative component, which he considers much more important.

“The nature of a petition is that people express a view they already have, and it doesn’t give them an opportunity to reflect on other views or consider alternatives,” he says.

In other words, We the People is basically about broadcasting two messages to the world. A citizen makes one statement when she writes up her petition. If that petition reaches the threshold of 100,000 signatures, someone in government will pen a response. That closes the loop. Everyone else only has the choice of signing onto the original petitioner’s statement or passing it by. 

Instead of writing a blanket reply to the secession petitions, Fung says, the White House could have invited a delegation of secessionists for a chat with administration officials. Through deliberation, he says, the group might have come up with some less fundamental conciliation the White House could make. At the very least, it would have shown the White House is seriously listening to their concerns. 

One of the chief barriers to civic discourse, Fung says, is that the more politically charged an environment is, the more likely people are to descend into hostility and refuse to compromise. As evidence he cites the discussion tabs on two Wikipedia pages: one for Hillary Clinton and the other, black holes. Though she represents a much less complex phenomenon than intergalactic physics, Hillary has generated significantly more controversy.  

Simply because it was built and promoted by the White House, We the People is bound to draw a heated crowd, Fung says. 

Those partisans aren’t limited to secessionists. A Government Executive analysis two weeks after the secession petitions began appearing on We the People found about half the newly posted nonsecession petitions advocated a strongly liberal or conservative position. The liberals and conservatives were about evenly split. A similar analysis the year before found liberals vastly outweighed conservatives on the site. 

Even during such a highly partisan period, almost one-third of new We the People petitions advocate relatively neutral causes such as creating a more standardized procedure for granting presidential pardons and better regulating the water level of Lake Huron. One petitioner who crossed the response threshold, however, asked the Obama administration to begin construction on a Star Wars-style Death Star. That would both explode the national debt and cause international friction, a tongue-in-cheek White House response noted.

If there are winners among We the People petitioners, it’s likely the nonpartisans who are seeking relatively minor changes to federal regulations and who might not otherwise be able to bend the administration’s ear. 

The administration credited We the People petitioners with helping cement its opposition to the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, a controversial but largely nonpartisan bill that would have made Web hosts such as YouTube legally liable for content posted to their sites. Another petition asking for tighter restrictions on large-scale dog breeders actually produced a proposed rule from the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that’s working its way through the regulatory process. 

“It’s an ongoing problem where people in the country feel like they can’t get their voices heard,” says Kathleen Summers, who manages the Humane Society of the United States’ Puppy Mills Campaign and authored the dog breeder petition. “To some extent it will always be that way with government. No one can expect a personal response to every letter they send. That’s why this site is really helpful, because it lets the most important issues rise to the top.”

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