We the People Demand…

Allia Calkins

Every fourth grader in America knows that he lives in a democracy. He learns from an early age that democracy means, “Rule by the people,” and that he cannot use his first amendment right to insult his teacher. He learns that the United States broke away from Great Britain because of a lack of representation in decisions pertaining to itself, and that citizens in the U.S. have the unique opportunity to voice their opinions to their government. And, while it may not live up to the standards of Democracy set by ancient Greece, Democracy in America does allow its citizens a plethora of opportunities to have their voices heard. Any citizen can go through his Congressional representative, a lobbying firm, or a local party committee to let Washington know what he thinks on a certain issue. And, thanks to a new initiative by the Obama administration, any citizen can now go online, attach his name to a petition on a subject he cares about, and, assuming the petition gets more than 100,000 signatures within 30 days, he is guaranteed a response from the White House.

We the People was started in September 2011. Since then, the requirements for a White House response have increased from just 5,000 signatures, to 25,000, to the current 100,000 [1]. According to the White House blog, the increased number of participants online is a “good problem to have,” and they are increasing the threshold so that the most popular ideas are given the time and attention they deserve [2]. In the past, the petitions with the most signatures included serious issues such as Wall Street reform, the legalization of marijuana, gun reform, and social security. However, as the Internet is an entirely open forum, the website has attracted some less serious petitions including those to secede from the union, impeach the president, and build a death star. So, while We the People is an excellent tool to help Americans voice their opinions and allow the Obama administration to gauge public interest on certain issues, it also reveals perhaps why the Founding Fathers set up a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy in the vein of ancient Greece.

Although We the People is certainly no scientific measure, the White House’s endeavor provides an interesting insight into American public opinion. It is important to remember that the person who creates an account and takes the time to sign a petition either has a lot of time on his hands, or cares very deeply about the issue he is signing (or thinks the issue is humorous and wants to see how the White House will respond). So, it is interesting to note that the same amount of people who logged in and signed the Create a Death Star petition (34,435) also signed a petition to create stricter gun control laws (36,143) [3]. Also interesting to note is that the petitions created on the website do not blatantly lean just left or just right; there is a healthy mix of people demanding responses on issues ranging across the political spectrum These petitions are also not just long rants given by people with limited knowledge on a certain subject. Sure, anyone can sign, and there are many petitions on the site that are full of errors and many that are frivolous, but, for the most part, the petitions that have the highest number of responses are well-thought out, researched, and civilly phrased. Even the petition asking for a Death Star was written in a well-researched way that showed genuine benefits, such as job creation and defense, of devoting upwards of $850 quadrillion on a piece of machinery with a single flaw that could be exploited by a one-man spacecraft.

As the number of participants on We the People is steadily increasing, the White House continues to increase the minimum number of signatures required for a response; one has to wonder at the message that is being sent. Does the White House only care about issues that the loudest, most outspoken people care about, or do Americans only get involved in government when it is easily done in three short steps over a computer? The White House’s attempt at more direct democracy is nothing new, but what is new is how we the people  are handling it.

[1] http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/01/16/169564305/white-house-death-star-petition-wouldnt-pass-new-threshold

[2] http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/01/15/why-we-re-raising-signature-threshold-we-people

[3] https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/response/message-president-obama-about-your-petition-reducing-gun-violence

[Image credit: http://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/news/?id=7afc6d2c-7c24-4cb6-80c3-74cdf7e383a3]