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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