Same same but different?

I had a moment of deja vu when I saw the White House’s announcement of their (impending) platform, We The People, to directly petition the government.  Hadn’t I seen this before? Turns out I had. Rewind to Netroots Nation this past June, where MoveOn.org’s Adam Quinn showed off SignOn.org–their new platform for, you guessed it, citizens to create and circulate petitions about any issue of their choosing.

Immediately, I had two questions: 1) How similar are these two platforms, and what do their differences mean (in terms true grassroots-ness, in terms of efficacy, in terms of who’s being petitioned and how, etc.)? 2)What does the fact that multiple groups (that have pretty different priorities) are seeing citizen-produced petitions as the answer mean for participation and ideas about how politics should work?

For the first, there are some pretty substantive differences. We The People is framed as a way to petition (“engage” in their terms) the White house specifically. Phillips’ blog post about the platform says that WH staffers will read the petition (and then route it to proper places within the Administration), and that it’s the WH that will generate an on-the-record response.  On the other side of things, during Quinn’s Netroots pitch, SignOn was posited as Moveon’s way to better get at local issues. Indeed, most of the petitions I see (which is only 5 “fast-growing” petitions) are locally-oriented and directed toward congress members, mayors, governors (although one is directed to President Obama). It seems likely that there will be We The People petitions directed toward the legislative branch, and that there will be SignOn petitions that extend far beyond one’s own turf, but the difference in emphasis is still interesting. Another difference is the fact that We The People has very hard and fast rules for when Administration staffers will review a petition (5,000 signers in 30 days) and the threshold for the petition to be publicly displayed on the site (150 signers). Signon, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have many (any?) petitions that are available to search. When you go to the site, it provides 5 “fast-growing” petitions and invites you to sign them, but I can’t seem to search or seek out petitions. Instead, you HAVE to be reached out to. The sorts of relationships that this implies important and the seeming dedication to true, grassroots, citizen-to-citizen contact this seems to privilege seems both really idealistic and impressive, but also potentially limiting to the numbers petitions can get (although Moveon has stepped in and used their list to grow some of these petitions in the past, so, there’s a workaround?). I’d pontificate on what that means more, but I have a dissertation to get back to soon…

So, as to why both of these groups–one of which holds making change happen as their overwhelming goal, and one of which seriously needs to worry about public opinion and maintaining an element of control over talking points and messages–turn to the same medium of encouraging citizens to participate. Roughly translated: Why on earth would the White House ask people to petition them? The rah-rah answer that the Administration just loves transparency and healthy democratic debate so much that it wants to hear from all of the people. Their less snarky reason seems to be: “Our Constitution guarantees your right to petition our government.  Now, with We the People, we’re offering a new way to submit an online petition on a range of issues — and get an official response.” Laudable? Yes. Better than previous administrations have done in terms of engaging potentially disagreeable voices? By a long shot.  Deserving of less cynicism from me? Most definitely. Still, petitions seem like a pretty manageable choice because they only ask for very specific actions to be undertaken. And although the fact that citizens are deciding which actions those might be, they still likely have to be specific, limited, and achievable in order to get the necessary support. Moreover, precisely because they call for specific action to be articulated, they seem very likely be spaces for voicing disagreement or concerns on much more rational terms. Petitions can’t really become spaces for yelling about how Obama’s a secret muslim who should be impeached (caveat: I’m like 95% sure this will still happen–it just won’t really be an petition).  Petitions require some logical semblance of steps toward an action  that’s justifiable–they need what PCCC’s Adam Green calls a “theory of change.” Even if it’s a poorly executed one, petitions necessitate a logical format of “We want X to happen because of Y problem. And we think Z is the way to do this,” and thereby bring some level of reasoned argument making to the table. Some reasonableness can do nothing but help Obama and the Administration (and their approval ratings), so it does seem like an impressive tactic on multiple accounts. Hmmm, I think I quelled the cynic in me who started writing this by thinking of it as a way to control the conversation…

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