Obama's Online Suggestion Box
An email from David Plouffe, senior advisor to President Obama, announced a new internet initiative called We the People. Actually, the website isn't quite up and running -- sort of like Obama's jobs plan -- but the White House wants to give us advance warning so we'd put on our thinking caps and be ready to participate in this "new way to have your voice heard in government."
Whitehouse.gov/wethepeople (which might be misread as Wet He-People) explains the "3 easy steps" to get "your voice in our government":
STEP #1: Create or Sign a Petition
Anyone 13 or older can create or sign a petition on WhiteHouse.gov asking the Obama Administration to take action on a range of important issues facing our country.
STEP #2: Build Support and Gather Signatures
STEP #3: The White House Reviews and Responds
If a petition meets the signature threshold, it will be reviewed by the Administration and an official response will be issued. And we'll make sure that the petition is sent to, the appropriate policy makers in the Administration. The initial threshold to get a response from the Administration is 5,000 signatures.
The White House even appears to have newfound respect for what I thought was a seriously flawed document, taking the program's name from the Preamble to the Constitution and reminding us that:
The right to petition our government is guaranteed in the First Amendment to our Constitution. Throughout our nation's history, petitions have served as a way for Americans to organize around issues that matter to them, and tell their representatives in government where they stand. Petitions have played an important role in many of the changes throughout our history, from ending slavery to guaranteeing women the right to vote.
At first glance, it seems like pretty innocuous stuff -- perhaps a little gimmicky and lame-o. There is however something unsettling about We the People. On a trivial level, you have to ask if the White House really needs a suggestion box. Doesn't the president already have his hands full with all the policy-making being done through his czars and agencies? And do we really want the president taking advice from 13-year-olds? There's a reason why the voting age is 18. Giving a voice to young people who are fluent in the social media will skew the petitions; a teenager with a thousand Facebook friends and time on his hands will find it much easier to get signatures for an EPA ban on coal mining than the owner of an auto body shop concerned about excessive regulation of his business.
More fundamentally, We the People is an example of direct democracy that is at odds with our representative form of government. Granted, an obscure government website isn't going to fundamentally transform the country, but it's revealing of the way the president sees his job.
Compare the language of the First Amendment with Obama's. The Constitution reads: "Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting ... the right of the people ... to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Obama on the other hand describes the right to petition as a community organizing tool: "a way for Americans to organize around issues that matter to them." The former is an emergency mechanism to be used when the normal avenues of representative democracy fail; the latter is a means to shortcut the laborious process of crafting legislation.
Obama does mention our "representatives in government," but by this he means the "appropriate policy makers in the Administration" -- also referred to by Plouffe as "Obama Administration policy experts." Since when is it the role of policy experts in the Executive Branch to "take action on a range of important issues facing our country"?
Our elected representatives are expected to be responsive to the wishes of their constituents. Our voice in government is our vote, not a suggestion box at the White House. Citizens of course do not have to wait for the next election to contact their legislators with their concerns and opinions, but the president has no power to initiate legislation. Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution reads, "All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States." The responsibility of the president is to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" (Section 3, Clause 4).
The two examples cited by Plouffe above, the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage, were enacted into law by the 13th and 19th Amendments passed by the Congress. It is true that both were pushed forward by many decades of public protests, but these petitions by abolitionists and suffragettes were directed at legislative bodies, not the Executive. In the case of slavery, Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation under martial law, a power that our imperial president no doubt envies.
We the People is part of a larger movement toward direct action in politics, which is often praised with phrases like "grassroots participation in the political process." Our legislators seem unresponsive to the concerns of voters on both the right and left, and our confidence in Congress is at historic lows. In frustration, many turn to citizen activism.
Leftist organizations like ActBlue, Daily Kos, MoveOn, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (winner of The Nation magazine's 2010 "Most Valuable Online Activism" award -- website: boldprogressives.org) have instituted direct action campaigns like the Wisconsin recalls that are referred to as "Democratic action."
The left has had decades of practice in community organizing, protest marches, political activism, and agitation. John Hawkins of Right Wing News commented on the 2011 Netroots convention in Minneapolis: "[Republicans are] trying to compete with ActBlue but they're way, way ahead of us. We're playing catch-up ... Their panels are for advanced activism."
Note that the Tea Party, although it is a grassroots movement that encourages citizens to join the political process, does not occupy state houses and threaten legislators. Rather it seeks to nominate candidates and influence elected representatives.
James Madison cautioned in Federalist 10 against these efforts of what he called "pure democracy," in opposition to the representative democracy of our small-R republican government: "such [direct] democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property." Consider the thuggish mob-rule occupation of the Wisconsin State House, and the destruction of property at anti-globalization protests, or even the recent London riots, which were interpreted by the left as a petition to government by those without a voice.
Similarly, the direct action offered by the White House's We the People could potentially lead to flash-mob mentality: unreasonable petitions demanding federal subsidies -- from Obama's stash -- going viral and getting millions of signatures, eroding the property rights of those who have to pay for it. How long might it take to get 5,000 signatures for a petition to give free iPads to all junior high school students?