A famous quote which has been attributed to everyone from Albert Einstein to Benjamin Franklin (though it most likely originated from a very different source) defines insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” The maxim has become so thoroughly entrenched in our cultural consciousness that it’s hard to imagine anyone over the age of 6 avoiding having it recited to them at some point in their lives.
And yet it looks like the authors of this WhiteHouse.gov “We the People” petition somehow managed to pull it off.
With the snappy title “Actually take these petitions seriously instead of just using them as an excuse to pretend you are listening,” the petition calls out the Obama Administration for making it “blatantly clear the White House intends to just support its current stances and explain them with responses everyone who has done any research already knows.” Pretty harsh words, but maybe they were well-deserved.
We the People was launched with moderate fanfare in September 2011 with the admirable goal of using the internet to more closely connect people with their government. They promised that any petition which could garner 5,000 signatures within 30 days would receive an official review and response from the White House.
At this point, anyone who’s ever seen the internet could probably tell you what would happen next.
Within a week, 375,000 users registered and created more than 7,800 petitions, 30 of which had already hit the 5,000 signature mark. Swamped with demand, the White House raised the threshold to 25,000 signatures in 30 days, which was pretty reasonable, given that it isn’t particularly hard to find 5,000 people on the internet who agree with something.
The initial slew of petitions included, well, exactly what you’d expect: disclosing the government’s dealings with aliens, investigating the Church of Scientology and, of course, legalizing marijuana. That’s not to say there weren’t also petitions with a better shot at succeeding (some of which actually did prompt policy changes), but you get the idea. While a lot of legitimate concerns were being raised through We the People, by virtue of the fact it was on the internet, much of what resulted ranged from the standard conspiracy fodder about UFOs to the legitimate-but-obviously-quixotic drives for drug law reform.
One of the biggest complaints about the new system wasn’t just that the responses were offering boilerplate, talking-point-like replies the petitioners’ concerns, but that in some cases policymakers weren’t even doing that. Petitions to investigate the MPAA for bribery, free Bradley Manning, prosecute Casey Anthony for perjury and a half-dozen other topics were all met with a simple “no comment” from the White House.
It was this stonewalling which prompted the meta-petition to get the administration to take their own outreach program more seriously, and while frustration with the system was understandable, it also seemed to miss the point. It’s a lot like the problems the President’s campaign is facing with rising public anger over high gas prices: a lot of the time, the American people expect the President to be able to do things which he simply can’t.
Take the examples about the MPAA, Bradley Manning and Casey Anthony. In each of these cases, petitioners were demanding that President Obama direct Federal law enforcement to either initiate or intervene in a criminal investigation/trial, something which the official responses pointed out would be an improper intervention by the President in internal Justice Department matters. Petitions on subjects like marijuana legalization and the Defense of Marriage Act have the same problem: the President can’t just unilaterally decide to change Federal law.
That’s not to let the White House off the hook, though. When confronted with public backlash against their unresponsive responses, they sought to re-establish the public’s confidence through a video with the reassuring yet not-at-all-reassuring title of “We’re Listening. Seriously.”
Maybe the most telling moment comes at the 2:00 mark, where Office of Digital Strategy director Macon Phillips discusses the White House’s responses to petitions, which apparently range from “clear articulations of where we stand” to “requests for further engagement” to “sometimes actually changing policy” [emphasis mostly his]. In the vast majority of cases, any response other than the third one is going to leave petition authors unsatisfied, something which the White House is clearly aware of.
So then what’s the point of We the People, anyway? To me, it seems a lot like any other outlet for internet activism: the vast majority of the time it won’t accomplish anything, but in some cases, maybe even just a few, it will. Sure, it might not be the big (and probably ill-advised) issues like abolishing the TSA that succeed, but those aren’t the only ones out there. Sometimes programs like this have the biggest impact on issues which don’t always dominate the headlines, but can still make a huge difference for people. The President is bound by law, precedent and politics, which means that in most cases petition-signers will come away disappointed, but at the same time you have to ask whether they thought the Patriot Act would really get repealed if enough people on the internet asked nicely.
Maybe the one petition which understood this better than any other was titled “We demand a vapid, condescending, meaningless, politically safe response to this petition.” If nothing else, had it reached the required number of signatures (it didn’t), its creators might have been the only ones guaranteed that their petition would get the response it asked for.