New tactics emerge on We the People

Some White House petitioners may not be interested in an official response.

Is We the People an organizing tool or a communication tool?

That’s a question I’m still trying to figure out more than 16 months after the White House petition site launched and in the wake of a number of high profile petitions and responses (read: secession and gun control) in the past couple of months.

According to the White House it’s both. Here’s what an official told NPR earlier this month: “The goal of We The People is not to change policy based on reaching a petition threshold, but to create opportunities to organize around issues of common interest; and if successful, get the White House to engage through an official response, including on issues that might not otherwise be the subject of conversation in Washington.”

The result is the site has advantages and limitations on both fronts.

On the plus side for organizing, the promise of getting a hearing before White House officials surely ramps up excitement for We the People petitions and draws some signers that would eschew private sector petition sites such as Change.org.

But once that petition has succeeded or failed to win a government response -- and presuming it’s not the one response in 162 that actually produces a minor policy change -- that’s the ballgame. Because of White House security concerns, petition writers can’t collect the email addresses of signers, as they could from private sector e-petitions, to organize and raise money for marches, letter writing campaigns and discussion groups -- the sort of things that actually do change policy and public opinion over a matter of years and decades rather than in a few months.

We the People is clearly a boon for communications. If a few hundred thousand people had asked to secede from the union on a non-government website it wouldn’t have generated nearly as much media attention.

For the reasons stated above, though, the finality of a White House response -- or the failure to secure one -- makes it difficult for an issue to maintain much traction after that response is posted.

I’ve been pondering the question of We the People’s role in political organizing recently because of this string of petitions opposing racial assimilation from Albert D, no location given.  The petitions were all posted in the past few days. A note on two of them states: “Signers: Please look for our three petitions each month that oppose White Genocide!”

Albert may not expect to be able to rally 25,000 people behind his unpleasant position -- the threshold until Tuesday for an official White House response. Or he may not care. His goal, it seems, is to maintain a heavy presence on the site whether his petitions meet We the People’s stated purpose -- getting a hearing with the White House -- or not.

I asked Harvard Professor Archon Fung about the “white genocide” petitions on Monday when I interviewed him about the White House’s secession response. Fung’s research focuses on democracy and citizenship. Somewhat to my surprise, he saw Albert’s gambit as a positive use of the site rather than a perversion of it.

Fung, by the way, is the model of a dispassionate academic, concerned with the structure of political communication rather than its content. He talks about secession and racial separation about the same way he talks about gun control, funeral protests and other more mainstream debates.

“The whole petition system itself is properly understood as a political game,” he said. “In the good sense. To me this is partially an act of political entrepreneurship. I don’t consider it gaming the system. It’s like going out and using other websites and Twitter feeds to direct people to his petition. That’s not bending the rules; that’s what the site is for or ought to be understood to be for.”

Following Tuesday’s announcement that the threshold for a We the People response going forward will be 100,000 rather than 25,000 signatures, it will be interesting to see if other petitioners follow Albert’s lead, using the site as a platform for agitation rather than dialogue with the White House.

Note: It’s not clear how many people will see the three “white genocide” petitions per month because it’s not clear how many people are reaching We the People by actually skimming petitions on the site as opposed to, say, linking to a single petition through social media. I asked White House Digital Director Macon Phillips if he had those particular traffic figures on Tuesday but haven’t heard back yet. 

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