Why the White House Loves Your Death Star Petition

The White House petition drive offers a big megaphone for quirky causes. It’s also helping Obama advance his political agenda.

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Illustrations by Peter Arkle for TIME

Jones is pleased as well. It was never about deporting Morgan anyway. “It’s about the spectacle,” he says. “What we have done with the petition is simply use it as a way to get our issues out and hack and hijack Joseph Goebbels’ operation.” He means the White House. Just look at all the press coverage the Morgan petition generated. Viral sharing on Facebook. Newspaper headlines. This magazine right now. Morgan, as yet undeported, even invited Jones onto his show. The White House petition system, it turns out, can be a launching pad, a new public square. So Jones is pushing new petitions, like the one to try Feinstein for treason. Vote the public debate into existence. Just sign a petition.

And we are still in the early stages. Chances are, this thing keeps growing. The trend lines look like a rocket launch. The European Union has started its own online petition system. The British Parliament has one as well. The White House has released the source code for its software, so any government anywhere can use it now. Look for your members of Congress, mayors, governors and city councils to embrace the technology. The cost is negligible, and the rewards are clear. In exchange for promising a response to popular petitions—not a position change, a response—a politician gets the chance to communicate directly with constituents. Both sides win.

In fact, both sides have been winning for centuries. “It’s old wine in new bottles,” says David Zaret, a professor at Indiana University who wrote a book on the history of petitions. In ancient Mesopotamia they were known as “letter prayers” and written on clay tablets. In Imperial China and early modern Japan, leaders kept petition boxes to receive complaints. The great codes of Roman law were compilations of petition responses. Then, with the introduction of the printing press, petitions became something else: not just a deferential request to authorities but a tool for amassing and shaping public opinion. Think of the Declaration of Independence, signed by 56 guys and addressed to King George III because “Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” It was printed in a broadside and widely distributed among the 13 colonies, uniting a nascent nation. The Internet is Gutenberg on steroids, a printing press without ink, overhead or delivery costs.

(MORE: What Are American Values These Days?)

A New Role
This is the thing Obama wants to figure out in his second term. The old community organizer already knows how to harness online groups to get elected. “We now need to translate that more to how our government works,” he told Time back in August. In his Inaugural Address, he sent the message. “You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time,” he said, “not only with the votes we cast but the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideas.” One route for doing that is his new political operation, Organizing for Action. It’s a nonprofit controlled by former Obama staffers who have inherited his campaign’s vast field operation. It aims to bring campaign-style tactics to the fights over governing. That means door knocks, phone calls and paid media targeting vulnerable members of both parties who get in the way of the Obama agenda.

Petitions play a role here as well. Consider the friendly petition and the openings it creates. In 2011 the White House received multiple petitions demanding immigration reform, a priority for Obama. So the White House organized a conference call between petitioners and policy folks to show engagement. It will keep sending updates as the fight over reform continues. After the Humane Society pushed its supporters to petition for new regulations on breeders who sell dogs online, a move Obama supports, the White House was able to direct petitioners to an ongoing rulemaking process at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Petitions have sometimes forced the White House to respond when it otherwise might have stayed silent. Activists upset over a Hollywood effort to increase copyright rules online petitioned the White House in 2011 to issue a veto threat. As a result of the petition, the White House issued a statement laying out concerns about the Hollywood approach, contributing to the bill’s defeat in the Senate. Even the Build the Death Star petition drove huge traffic spikes on federal websites, not just to the response but to all the space-science programs it linked to. Nearly 100,000 people clicked to find out more about how to spot the International Space Station when it flies over their neighborhood.

With traffic growing, the White House raised the limit this year on the number of signatures required for a response, from 25,000 to 100,000. It still doesn’t matter how silly or challenging the request. All that matters is that it is on a subject federal government can do something about. All that matters is that it motivates multitudes.

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45 comments
rdbuelow
rdbuelow

The WH petitions aren't that much crazier than the e-mails my friends in the GOP are CONSTANTLY forwarding to me without as much as one visit to PolitiFact, Snopes or FactCheck.org. The point of Scherer's article is that the WH is crazy like a den of Mensa foxes. They're using the internet tool to target specific audiences with arguments based on facts and data (something we'll never see on FOX) in hopes of correcting the limitless number of whacky ideas, rumors and extremist positions perpetuated by the ill-informed on both sides of any issue. When I first heard of the site, I thought it would be foolish because it would allow an official forum for all the  crazies out there. After reading the article, I see I was wrong. TheWH staffers know exactly what they're doing.

TheDisclosure
TheDisclosure

Disclose the Extra-Terrestrials! We all know the truth!

BorisIII
BorisIII

I don't care about a death star, but I think all developed countries should bring back the Star Wars program. Enough satellites to shot down any nuclear missiles no matter what country its shot at.

GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray

I can't believe your are criticizing the President for giving the people a voice.

You think it's a joke.

Exactly who is it the news media work for, it sure as Hell isn't us.

This isn't the President laughing at us, this is YOU laughing at us, "The People of the United States!"

raidx259
raidx259

I didn't vote for him, but so the Pres has a sense of humor. What's wrong with that?


TheDisclosure
TheDisclosure

Disclose the alien presence Obama. You can't hold out much longer.

ChicaJones
ChicaJones

The association between serial murder and homosexuality isn’t recent. Two gays compete for the spot of “world’s worst murderer.” During the Nazi reign of terror, Auschwitz executioner Ludwig Tiene strangled, crushed, and gnawed boys and young men to death while he raped them. Though his grand total is uncertain, he often murdered as many as 100 a day. Gilles de Rais (Bluebeard) brutally destroyed the lives of 800 boys. Each lad was lured to his home, bathed and fed. Just as the poor boy thought “this is my lucky day,” he was raped, then killed by being ripped or cut apart and either burned or eaten.

A study of 518 sexually-tinged mass murders in the U.S. from 1966 to 1983 determined that 350 (68%) of the victims were killed by those who practiced homosexuality and that 19 (44%) of the 43 murderers were bisexuals or homosexuals.(2)

Though probably less than a majority of mass murderers are homosexual, given that no more than 3% of the populace is gay, homosexual murderers show up much more frequently than one would expect (even Richard Speck engaged in homosexuality). Along with serial murder, there appears to be a connection between homosexuality and murder. Evidence from before the gay rights movement is limited. Of 444 homicides in one jurisdiction from 1955-1973, investigators noted 5 clear “sexual motivation” murders. Three of the 5 involved homosexuality and 2 involved heterosexuality. (3)

Probing more deeply into the connection between murder and homosexuality, Jim Warren, who worked as a counselor at the Washington State Corrections Center, did the intake interview for almost all the younger murderers (i.e., under age 36) in the state of Washington from 1971-82 (during the growth of the gay rights movement). He was “probably the only one who examined the entirety of each of their case files.” Warren testified (4) that he was struck with how frequently homosexuality turned up in the cases.

Starting with a trickle of 2 or 3 murders/year in 1972 until dozens/year by the 1980s, he noted a recurrent pattern: Although the motive listed in the report was often robbery or theft, “about 50% of the time” it was also associated with homosexuality. Typically, a homosexual would meet someone at a bar or park and invite him to his home. Before the morning, an argument would ensue and he or his visitor would be dead.

MistStilipec
MistStilipec

Excuse me?  You think the petitions are a way to feed Nobama's ego and for him to tell us that what is important to the people is not what he wants?  Isn't it interesting that he works for us but can't be fired.  Last thing you need to do as an author is write a condescending piece of dribble bragging about how the president is using Americans to feed his own ideals while ignoring what We the People hired him to do.

Sue_N
Sue_N

Anything that encourages citizens to take an active interest and active role in their government is good.

Look at the Tea Party (hear me out before you start throwing things). As much as I despise what the Tea Party says and has done to political discourse in this country, the idea of the Tea Party – getting citizens engaged and involved – is a good one. Making a government respond, holding our elected officials accountable, making our voices heard, is good. It's how this system is supposed to work.

It also gives an administration an insight into the people it governs. If we're not so hung up anymore on the evils of demon marijuana (or other things) any more, then maybe, just maybe, an administration will decide it can move on that issue, too.

kbanginmotown
kbanginmotown

While I enjoy your snark immensely, Michael, you pour it onto the Executive Branch rather thickly, even though it all works out in the end.  

If you need fodder for your rapier wit, look no further than the 112th Congress, which managed to pass a paltry 220 laws, of which:

  • "At least 40 bills, including ones awaiting Obama's signature, concerned the renaming of post offices or other public buildings. Another six dealt with commemorative coins."

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/28/congress-unproductive_n_2371387.html

Not *there's* a target for you...


destor23
destor23

I wonder why you classify some petitions as fringe.  Legalizing marijuana?  Two states have gone there already.  Creating a new federal holiday?  Why not?  We could all use another day off.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

As with most systems, once the jokes are done, the sane ones will be all that's left.  Oh, sure, you'll still have the crazy ones, but their strength will diminish.

Plus, petitions like the Death Star are just plain fun and give us a reason to want to check out the site even if we're otherwise indifferent to the idea.  The fact that there was even a response just heightens the cool factor.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

The petitions tend to be silly, outlandish or sometimes even hateful, but I think it's a cool way to get the average citizen with a computer more involved with the Oval Office, or at least take more interest in what they think should happen.

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Petitions to secede and deport British TV hosts aside, this direct communication will do more good than harm, especially when real change happen like the copyright issue mentioned. More of this is needed. Can we have a smaller scale system installed here too? If we complain enough, etc., can the reporters here be forced to reply once in awhile? Notice some recent themes in swamp posts: might the R's split into two parties? (Klein), what's wrong with the R's is content, not delivery (MG), etc. Heck, WE have been noticing these way ahead of the reporters, so if they'd bother to check in more often, they might catch up too (though JNS does reply more than her peers). Direct communication is always good.

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

I had one of those Homer Simpson Doh! moments reading this. How ironic that the loons concerned about the government taking their guns and spying on them hand over their e-mail addresses to the White House.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

Indeed, this has the one hallmark of a good article. It's central insight is one that wouldn't have occurred to me without reading it.


Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

Good piece MS. 

I think it taps into the difference between the goals of the administration and its opponents. 

For the Rush wannabes “It’s about the spectacle,”.

 For the administration it is about actually moving people towards the administration's positions "nearly half the respondents (the right wing radio host's listeners) say Obama’s answer was helpful. One in four say they learned something new."

AfGuy
AfGuy

@BorisIII 

Problem is... modern attacks are likely to come packed in the back of a moving van or rented truck.... or a small plane... or a boat. Something a terrorist can actually afford. All the satellites in the world won't catch those.

Goldindemhills
Goldindemhills

@ChicaJones Not only that, Marcus, hiding the shame for 10-20-30 years of your homosexuality could cause someone to crack under the pressure. Also, they could end up having morphed views, since they are repeatedly called not only a sinner, but even worse things. 


marcusman22
marcusman22

@ChicaJones hmm.. I wonder why this is. Maybe it's because they are picked on everyday by homophobes like you? Nah, doesn't make any sense. They must have some sort of generic defect or something.

*end of sarcasm*

That's like conducting a study on why people who are bullied are more likely to commit mass murder than bullies. Doesn't need to be explained. But thanks for giving me my daily dose of intolerent bs in an article that's totally unrelated to homosexuality.

BrentHarrelson
BrentHarrelson

@MistStilipec Any president can be fired. That's what elections are for. And "Nobama" indicates a disrespect for the President of the United States of America AND for the majority of American voters that GAVE him the job. His re-election would indicate that he IS doing what the majority of Americans want him to do. 

heliocracy
heliocracy

@MistStilipec Please...have you read the petitions on there?  Most of them were written by people that have no idea how law and government work, or why things are the way there are.  I wish they would put a comment section on each petition so that intelligent people can educate these fools on why what they think is "important to the people" is actually a crackpot idea that will never work, violates people's rights, is unconstitutional, or is based on a complete misunderstanding of what has been done in the past, and what is planned (and not planned) for the future.  This is mostly tinfoil hat stuff.

juniusgallio
juniusgallio

@Sue_N Sue, you hit the nail on the head. While I disagree with both the aims and tactics of the TP, civic involvement is good.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@Sue_N 

Say what you will about the direction they ended up on, the Tea Party did change the direction of the Republican Party.  They wanted their voice heard, they wanted their position to be considered, they organized a massive organization and they convinced a major political party to follow it.  That is good for democracy - and the fact that it was so huge and successful has made me wonder about the nature of the United States' citizens and unity and what can be done about it.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@kbanginmotown 

I think those 46 bills for post offices and coins are kinda misunderstood by most people.  Really, their importance is more in that they shouldn't be included in the 220 count when you consider the productivity of Congress but they are still, to some degree, the responsibility of Congress - a minor one, but even the minor tasks you still should make a bit of time for.  They weren't a *waste* of time, just not something you should consider "productive".

Compare that to the 30 times they tried to repeal Obamacare which was a waste of time.  Sure, once makes sense.  State your objection, get it passed, get it killed in the Senate, go home, whack off, and come to work the next day ready to deal with the next issue.  But 30 times....it's dead, Jim.  You don't need to keep flogging.

Sue_N
Sue_N

@kbanginmotown The 112th made the 80th, the original "do-nothing" Congress, look like a bunch of overachievers.

tom.litton
tom.litton

@forgottenlord The response was awesome: "Why would we spend countless tax payer dollars for a station that can be destroyed by a one man starship?"

I hope he had as much fun writing that response as i had reading it.  

Sue_N
Sue_N

@S_Deemer I kinda wish Michael hadn't pointed that out. The paranoia is thick enough already.

(Seriously, would an edit function kill us?)

MistStilipec
MistStilipec

Since when is the American public the opponent of the president?

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@heliocracy@MistStilipec Helio, whether you like it or not, those tinfoil hat folks have the SAME right to VOTE, to be heard, to express their views, to engage in the religion of their choice, to keep and bear arms, to be secure in their persons and possessions from unreasonable search and seizure and all the other wonderful guarantees the constitution gives us as YOU do.  You, on the other hand have the right to NOT READ THE PETITIONS and not sign them.  Funny how freedom works, huh?

No one goes around peeing on your dreams and ridiculing your delusions (Elitism being one of them), until, perhaps, now.  But I do find it rather amusing when someone flaunting their alleged intellectual superiority over their fellow American does it in such a way that proves a lack of insight and critical thinking in the first place.  Maybe you didn't get it, but this petition site is an excellent psychological tool for the release of tensions that could otherwise fester and potentially cause a great deal of social and/or civil unrest, as well as a means by which people can express views and ideas that DO have merit.

I'm not saying all of the petitions have merit, and those that do not don't receive enough signers to get a response from the White House.  But perhaps a lot less pretense from you with a little more critical thinking on the part of someone who alleges some kind of intellectual superiority would help you realize that your idea to "put a comment section on each petition so that intelligent people can educate these fools on why what they think is "important to the people" is actually a crackpot idea that will never work, violates people's rights, is unconstitutional, or is based on a complete misunderstanding of what has been done in the past, and what is planned (and not planned) for the future" is a WONDERFUL way to increase tensions and bring about the very things the site is designed, in part, to prevent.  The White House does respond in a far less insulting manner in the event the petition actually gains enough signatures to merit a response in the first place without necessarily inciting MORE anger in those who signed the petition.  Most people respond badly to insults, in case you hadn't noticed.

In short, you didn't think very carefully about the merits or purpose of the site in the first place like an intelligent person would do.  Nor did you do the OBVIOUS - which is to put up a petition to have them do as you suggest.

Wow...  Exactly what kind of intellectual superiority do you allegedly have again?

heliocracy
heliocracy

@DeweySayenoff I never claimed any "intellectual superiority," and in fact I referred to "intelligent people" without ever including myself among them...that was all in your imagination.  The poster to which I was responding implied that Obama was stroking his ego and putting his own desires ahead of those of the people, as expressed in these petitions.  I was pointing out that most of the petitions are without merit (and you seem to agree...does that also make you an elitist intellectual?), so the idea that they are rejected due to the whim of the president is not correct...they get rejected because they're bad ideas.  Your supposition that ideas without merit do not get the required signatures is incorrect.  The White House recently had to respond to why they won't start building a Death Star in 2016.  For those who don't get a response, no explanation is provided and they do go away mad.

You also seem to imply in your response that everyone's opinion is equally valid when it comes to government.  In what other subject of knowledge is that true?  When you get sick, is your opinion of the cause of your illness as valid as the doctor's?  Does taking World History in high school make you a historian?  Is your opinion on how a rocket engine should be designed as valid as that of a rocket scientist?  When he rejects your opinion on how to build that rocket, is he just "flaunting his alleged intellectual superiority over his fellow Americans?"  Politics, government, and political philosophy are deep, complicated subjects.  Taking a high school civics class doesn't make you an expert on how government should be run any more than taking high school biology makes you a doctor.  It is not elitism to say this, it's a fact.

As for being insulting, you should take a look in the mirror.  I contend that people who create stupid petitions are fools...I think even you agree that there's something to that.  However, your response to my having this quite reasonable opinion is to insult be with charges of "elitism" and "intellectual superiority."  Since you seem so keen to know, I will respond in kind:  I hold an advanced degree in Political Science, so forgive me if I've mistakenly assumed that you don't know as much as I do about this subject...after all, you did have to memorize the preamble to the Constitution in high school, which pretty much means we're right there on the same level of understanding, right?

HenryMiller
HenryMiller

@BrentHarrelson@HenryMiller@MistStilipec

"The rich" don't "benefit the most from the american system," they benefit from their own skill. courage, and willingness to work hard, while the envious whiners just sit around complaining and demanding ever more freebies.

BrentHarrelson
BrentHarrelson

@HenryMiller @MistStilipec class warfare is when the republicans pass laws to help their rich supporters while the rest of us work harder and get nowhere. a perfect example is their initial refusal to make the rich, those who benefit the most from the american system, pay more more to actually support that system. one of the only impressive things i've seen the republicans do lately is spread nonsense about the democrat's class warfare while totally deflecting attention from the fact that republicans have mastered it.

DebMoschkin
DebMoschkin

Oh give me a break. The only "class warfare" is from people like Romney talking about the other 47%.