We The People: A Direct Line To The White House?

On: September 14, 2011
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About Floris Spronk
I am a 24-year-old Dutch New Media MA student living in the city centre of Amsterdam. I completed the New Media BA course back in 2010, also at the University of Amsterdam. Besides following the MA program, I work as a New Media communications assistant for a political party.

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The White House recently announced the development of a new platform: We The People. Obama is quoted in the introduction explaining why: “I pledged to make government more open and accountable to its citizens. That’s what the new We the People feature on WhiteHouse.gov is all about”. It is an appealing project in several ways, and especially for a New Media MA student with a major interest in (American) politics. That would be me. I’ll try to explain why I think it is interesting.

We The People is a petitioning platform that allows any citizen to create a petition, asking government to take action on a certain subject. To open the petition to the general public and make it searchable on the site, they first have to collect 150 signatures within their own network. And if a public petition successfully collects 5,000 signatures the Administration promises to deliver it to the appropriate policy experts and reply with an official on-the-record response.

This is not a revolutionary concept, and similar initiatives already existed. The government of British Prime Minister David Cameron actually launched a platform for e-petitions a few months ago. The main difference is in the required number of signatures: an e-petition needs at least 100,000 signatures to be eligible for debate in the House of Commons. Only two petitions have reached that magic number so far, including one that demands that “convicted London rioters should loose [sic] all benefits”.

Back in the US, a similar platform was created by Republican members of the House of Representatives, called YouCut, which allows people to vote online on suggested spending cuts. Each week the House Republicans will bring the winning proposal to the floor for a direct vote. And there are several other online platforms that allow people to vote on a wide range of issues. Sites like SignOn.org, Change.org or VisibleVote already try to bring petitions to government’s attention.

But this is where the main difference lies with the We The People project. Here it is the Administration itself that provides the opportunity to petition government, and guaranteeing a serious response from experts within the Administration. In the introduction Obama calls this a “direct line to the White House”. That’s quite a promise.

Of course we shouldn’t forget that the White House is steaming into campaign mode. This is also part of the election rhetoric, and that’s why Obama is presenting this as fulfilling a campaign promise. Elections will be november next year, so this project is launched just in time: early enough to let people test the system, get some answers, and show that the Obama Administration truly tries to be different, but probably too late to actually generate legislation or cause major dilemmas in Obama’s first term.

And that’s only if his Administration seriously considers to use major petitions as the basis for legislation proposals. You might consider the platform nothing more than an elaborate contact form, designed to keep activists temporary satisfied while politely rejecting big ideas. Or a platform only to start a meaningful conversation between a government and its citizens. But if the White House seriously promises actual influence on policy, it could create some dilemmas if Obama gets his second term. Petitions about the legalization of marijuana, gay marriage, abortion or immigration are always difficult terrain for Democrats. Tread carefully. They will have to come up with a lot of satisfactory responses, without offending or disappointing too much voters. That’s going to be a challenge.

We don’t know yet how this platform is going to develop, and if it will have any major influence on American politics. I don’t believe it to be that ‘direct line to the White House’, but it’s an promising start. At least it is another development in the interplay between new media and democracy. And what’s next?

Here we touch on a subject that I find particularly interesting: new media and democracy. And the questions that derive from it. What role will new media play in our democracies? How can government use new media? How do we connect voters with their political representatives? Will we ever vote directly on legislation? Is that a smart thing to do? If so, do we still need politcal parties? Among the many other things we’ll be doing this year, those are the kind of questions I hope to explore during this New Media MA program.


Introduction video the White House produced for We The People.

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