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What Is the Democratic Function of the White House's We The People Petition Website?

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A front page story in the Wall Street Journal, the largest daily circulation newspaper in the United States, ridicules the "we'll-take-any-question politics" of the White House's new We The People petition website. It's a chatty, clever, well-written article; the type of article one would expect to read in People magazine. It's also completely bereft of any curiosity or knowledge about the democratic function of such a website.

The democratic theory that oozes through the lines--but is never explicitly stated--is that a petition website should focus on hot-button issues that everybody reads about every day on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The reporter observes, for example:

More than 10,000 petitions have poured in since the new initiative was announced last month in a bid to bring government closer to the people. And issues like massive federal deficits, two wars and high unemployment don't appear to be on the people's minds.... Of the 202 petitions posted with at least 150 signatures, not one mentions President Barack Obama's jobs plan, something the White House talks about almost every day.

But that is exactly the point of the website. Why should people go to the extraordinary effort of getting 5,000 or 25,000 signatures -- and let me say, this is not easy to do for the vast majority of issues people care about -- when the issues they are trying to bring to the attention of the White House are already on the front page of every major media outlet in the U.S. day in and day out ad nauseam? It's quite clear that this question never occurred to the reporter.

Not only are those questions constantly in the news, but there are abundant scientific surveys commissioned by the White House, the political parties, news organizations, and others, telling politicians exactly what the public thinks about those issues.

Using a petition website to address such issues would be really rotten from a democratic theory standpoint. Why should anyone pay attention to a self-selected set of petition signers when a scientific poll of public opinion on the same subject was available (and probably shown to the President on at least a weekly basis by his political advisors)? My hunch is that this is exactly the conclusion the reporter wanted readers to make when she set up her unpopular issues bogeyman as the normative reference point for her to ridicule the "we'll-take-any-question" website. To have the petition seeking to find out if the President has hid evidence of extraterrestrial life dominant in her article, including its title (Dear White House: Please Tell Us The Truth About E.T.), tells us far more about the reporter's biases than it does about the democratic usefulness of the website.

The democratic purpose of the We The People website should not be to poll public opinion on hot button issues. It should be to help put new issues on the public agenda that aren't already there by making it easier for politically underrepresented groups to mobilize themselves. In the technical language of political science, it is to use new information technology to help solve collective action problems.

Although the reporter may be clueless about this vital democratic purpose, I think the people drafting the petitions intuitively understand it. The great majority have no desire to waste their time trying to put an issue on the public agenda that is already there. If the reporter had actually talked to and listened to petition writers, she would have quickly discovered this.

This points to another weakness in the article: her skewed sources. The reporter chose to interview petition writers and signers who she could portray in an unflattering light. The two people who she treats with most respect are a White House official and someone who thought about writing a petition (about a hot button issue) and then prudently decided against it. Since the function of the website is to enhance democracy, she should have talked to a political scientist steeped in democratic theory and at least one petition advocate who she felt had a legitimate issue that otherwise wouldn't have had a chance to be heard.

The key insight is that we judge a democratic process not by how many bad ideas are proposed but by how many good ideas actually get turned into law. That our news outlets and legislatures are full of skewed stories and harebrained proposals is not a sign of weakness but of strength. If only one of twenty petitions with the necessary signatures gets acted upon and results in a good law, I'd suggest that the White House's petition website is a wild success. The most popular issues that have gotten the most signatures will be the easiest for the President to reply to. He's got polling and lots of other research data on those issues, and he and his staff have already been forced to state their public opinions, so it will be easy to research them and, if appropriate, say no.

For good or bad, my guess is that it will take the White House a total of five minutes to figure out its answer to the half dozen marijuana petitions (assuming it recalls the President's published speeches) and maybe a few hours to draft the specific wording in the replies. In response to hundreds of thousands of signatures, that's not an unreasonable burden, despite what the reporter implies.

It's the other type of issues, the ones that have never had a chance to get a public airing, the ones that special interests have squashed in their cribs but that hit a public nerve, that reporters about the new We The People website should be focusing on.

Perhaps the deepest problem with the We The People website from a political perspective is that the benchmark of its success, giving minorities the opportunity to put their issues on the agenda and thus win over a majority, is inherently risky. Politicians have to get elected every few years. They don't have time for minority viewpoints to turn themselves into majority viewpoints, which may take many years and sometimes decades. On many of these issues, they cannot even consult a poll because the people don't know enough about them to have an opinion. A petition website is analogous to corporate R&D. It may take years to result in an enhanced democratic outcome. For those with a short-term horizon, like the next election, it is rarely worth it, especially when that election is less than 13 months away.

The protection of minority speech, assembly, and petition rights (that is, our First Amendment rights) is typically done in spite of the wishes of political elites, not because of them. The reporter's we'll-take-any-question ridicule of the petition website expresses contempt for not only petition writers but the capacities of the democratic public more generally. To the credit of President Obama, this website reflects a genuine and costly commitment to the democratic process.

Yes, democracy is a mess, and the petition website reflects that mess. But that's also democracy's greatest strength. If to suppress the crazies we suppress the mobilized energy and vital speech necessary for a healthy democracy, that would be a much greater tragedy.

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