Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How White House Petitions Changed National Politics

Engagement is key to political success.  Any elected leader knows this, although they may have compartmentalized it in some way. 

"Sally, my constituent services assistant, is the most important person in my office." 
"I personally respond to every e-mail I receive." 
"I haven't missed a bake sale in my district for over twenty years and have the spare tire to prove it (guffaw guffaw)!"

The middling politico believes this is for appeasement.  The ones who get it know that there is much more here.  Engagement is about ideas, critique, and correction.  No one politician, or political team, knows the answers to all of the problems they will face in a year.  Their opportunities to educate themselves are often limited to the self-interested advocate looking for their vote and the hundreds of e-mails, letters, and phone calls they may get in a given day.  The right decision is somewhere in amongst all of that.

"We The People" was launched by the Obama Administration on September 22, 2011.  For the uninitiated, this site is a web-based petition system through which any citizen can post an idea that they wish to have addressed by the Obama Administration.  If the petition reaches 100,000 online signatures, it will receive a response from the President or his Staff.  Every time, no matter what.  This can range from funding a high speed rail system across the United States (one I signed, but expired at 55,000 signatures) or creating a Death Star (find the response here).

Here's why I think this represents a critical change in national politics:

1) It supercedes critics.  One of the more interesting uses of We The People has been an effort to deport Piers Morgan after he made statements critical of the Second Amendment.  A conservative radio show host initiated this effort and, with the bite of national media, collected over 109,000 signatures to prompt a response from President Obama.  Presumably, this little mucky muck was pushed on some intern to write up a terse two sentence response, right?  Wrong.  Not only did the President's Press Secretary draft a response entitled "When Discussing the Second Amendment, Keep the First in Mind too", but the President himself was able to position himself in front of 100,000 Second Amendment advocates to say "I believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms" in direct contradiction to his critics.  This is on top of the fact that a staunch opponent of the President's just sent 100,000 people to his website.

2) It quantifies the noise.  President Obama's strongest supporters want to know why he has not done more.  Why hasn't he done more on immigration, gay rights, and climate change?  It doesn't take too long on the We The People site to see all of the petitions, meritorious and otherwise, crammed into one space, and think "there are more priorities than time."

3) It filters the noise.  What better way to get beyond the "special interests" (i.e., monied interests) than a petition system that creates value in popular support alone?  Sure, money can help promote a petition to reach the 100,000 mark, but each one of those signatures is about five minutes of someone's day that they have donated to a cause.  It pops the "policy bubble" of Washington, D.C., and brings the President's attention to matters that are of significant importance to large groups of regular people.

4) It captures an audience.  The cynic in me wouldn't let me leave the post without noting that We The People is a tremendous data mine as well.  The Administration has my e-mail address, home address, and a list of the policies that are most important to me as a citizen.  That's valuable information for a politician.  Let's say mass transit ever finds itself as a national priority.  The President can e-mail me to encourage me to contact my representatives, send a letter to the editor, or appear somewhere nearby to show physical support.  It is a political machine left in its box.

Here's what's most interesting - any politician, budding or actual, that wants to replicate the President's petition system can take the open-access code and incorporate it into your website.  The link is right here.  You may want to lessen the signature requirement (1,000?), but the benefits noted above would presumably be automatic to whomever wields this new technology most effectively.  How awesome would it be if the four Dem Gubernatorial candidates got into an arms race to see who can engage us most effectively?

Engagement is key to political success.  The Internet provides opportunities foreign to the regular business of politics.  That makes innovation such a game-changer and a big reason why a first term Senator was elected to be President of the United States.  It can make the impossible possible. 

That's all for today.  Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!