Death Star White House Petition Another Sign of Broken "We the People" System


Forget Darth Vader: it’s time for Darth Obama. 

More than 32,800 people have signed a petition urging the White House to begin construction of a Death Star by 2016. The petition claims that by focusing our defense resources into that project, the government can “spur job creation in the fields of construction, engineering, space exploration, and more, and strengthen our national defense.”

There are many compelling reasons to sign the petition, but the efficacy of the Obama administration’s “We the People” program is not one of them. Recent prominent calls for action on the site have ranged from the ludicrous (deport Piers Morgan for his support of gun control: 87,000+ signatures) to the angry (allow Texas to secede: 123,000+ signatures) to the nonsensical (petitioning Obama for Obama’s impeachment: 45,000+ signatures).

It hardly helps that the White House’s responses to these petitions are essentially boilerplate. When the program was first introduced in 2011, within a month people were questioning whether We the People was necessary or desirable. PoliticOlogy criticized the process, stating “when you’re forced to look non-responsive to citizens’ concerns, I can’t imagine the net public relations gain is positive.” A year later and the petition process has both failed to generate any appreciable momentum behind actual programs, and the site frankly appears to have been hijacked by Obama’s worst detractors.

Some responses have been worse than lackluster: they have been blatantly disinterested or hostile. Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, wrote the Obama administration’s tepid response to a petition to legalize marijuana, in which he stated “legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use.” Fine – the Obama administration is not going to legalize marijuana; a legitimate response. What makes it disingenuous is that Mr. Kerlikowske is legally bound to “oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance (in any form) that ... is listed in schedule 1.” That is not a conversation – that is a putdown.

Most of the other responses are merely summaries of the administration’s previously extant actions on the matter, rather than concessions or commitments to re-evaluate or study policy. These may or may not be useful clarifications, but they are not in the originally proposed spirit of “[review] by policy experts.”

Of course, the system is a work in progress. It has been noted to have lingering technical issues, and the number of submitted petitions which actually make it to the front page is probably under 4%. And as J.H. Snider stated, “why should anyone pay attention to a self-selected set of petition signers when a scientific poll of public opinion was available (and probably shown to the president on at least a weekly basis by his political advisers?).”

While Snider calls it a “genuine and costly commitment to the democratic process,” I suspect that realistically the system could only be used by any president – not just Obama – as a public relations tool, not an actual attempt at engagement. It may well be intended to have highlighted critical yet under-highlighted public policy issues, yet it mostly serves three purposes: criticizing the president on his own web page, enabling the White House to distribute form letter responses to petitions, and jokes.

The system should be overhauled to reflect actual democratic values. For one, responses to legitimate petitions – those asking the president to work towards an issue of genuine concern – should be required to critically engage with the petitioners. Furthermore, it needs to move to highlight the petitions relating to the least prominent but still important issues. Otherwise, the petition process merely becomes a sideshow to media discussion of whatever is happening that week.

Petitions should be moderated within guidelines that eliminate the worst submissions but accept those of appreciable quality, even if (or especially if) they are critical of administration policy.

The White House needs to address issues of access: It should implement local versions of the process which allow citizens to electronically or physically gather signatures about city and state concerns and submit them to the relevant federal official, who can then theoretically actually move to address those issues on a more effective level. Imagine if you could actually have a voice in the discussion about federal policy that affects your local community: You could, for example, challenge the state EPA director about their lack of action on a corporate polluter, or prove that the majority of citizens in your community disapprove of the way federal funds are disbursed to local government.

Finally, I know it sounds creepy – but there should be some form of verification process to signing up. Otherwise, these petitions mean as much as the TIME poll which declared Kim Jong-un Man of the Year.

Right now We the People does little, but it can become a compelling force for democratization of policy discussion if these continued problems with the system are addressed and improved upon.