Here is something amazing that the federal government is doing right now: if you put together a petition with 5,000 signatures, the White House will respond to whatever that petition asks. It’s like praying, if god actually existed and/or cared what people thought about him. At a time when a lot of people think the United States has strayed from Constitutional principles, this program is an unprecedented realization of the First Amendment. The people have the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances—something that almost never works when you do it via an actual petition, which is to contemporary politics what asking for a snack machine in the cafeteria is to student council. Nobody with a letter after his name has given a rat’s ass about petitions since the Sherman Act, until now. The good news is that this new program is very well-timed, since the internet has made the logistics of petitioning easier than ever. The bad news is that the two petitions answered thus far have 1) asked the President to legalize marijuana and 2) demanded that the federal government acknowledge the existence of extraterrestrial life.
The second federally-acknowledged petition of 2011 asked the White House:
to disclose to the American people the long-withheld knowledge of government interactions with extraterrestrial beings and call for open congressional hearings to allow the people to become aware of this subject through those whose voices have been silenced by unconstitutional secrecy oaths.
There is more than one assumption at work here: that “extraterrestrial beings” exist, that they have participated in “government interactions” that a lot of people know about, that these people have known about it for a long time and that their silence has been ensured with “secrecy oaths.” What’s worse, these oaths are unconstitutional! Any one of those claims would seem patently absurd to most people, and together they amount to a document of an especially ridiculous subculture. That subculture evidently contains 5,000 people—less several hundred presumable smartasses—which brings us to an interesting point about how American democracy works.
If the White House produced a list of 10 petitioned issues and asked the American people to vote on which one they would like to see answered, there’s no way “acknowledge the existence of extraterrestrial life” would win. “Legalize marijuana” would stand a better chance, but I bet it wouldn’t get 20%. Maybe I’m putting too much faith in the American people, but in a broad national referendum on which issues we wanted the federal government to address, financial reform or top-rate income taxes or Pell grants would surely beat out Area 51. Yet, in an open program where any petition of more than 5,000 signatures will be treated as serious, the first two requests put forward by the American people are so unrealistic and stupid as to be embarrassing.
It’s a reminder of an important aspect of the American system. United States democracy is not referendum-based; it is initiative-based. It’s easy to forget in an age of perpetual polling and circus elections, but the American government does not do stuff based on what everybody thinks. It does stuff based on what a few people manage to put forward and convince other people to support. That’s how laws are made and party platforms are built and debate questions are formulated. It’s why issues like gay marriage can continue to dominate our national political conversation even when most people don’t consider them very important.
A few people do, and those few feel strongly enough to press the issue—to keep proposing ballot initiatives and hassling representatives until the question of whether two dudes can be on the same health insurance policy appears to be the most important problem facing the United States. A lot more people probably care about separating investment and consumer banking, but they do not care about it is as fervently as the ones who believe there’s a dissected alien corpse in Roswell. All the popular opinion in the country couldn’t beat Aliens Are Among Us to the President’s desk because, like the Lord, the American government helps those who help themselves.
There are two lessons here. The first is that the stupid are better represented now than at any time in our nation’s history, thanks to the internet. The second is that it’s not enough to care about things. A committed 1% is more effective than a passive majority, and they will get what they want. The good news is that, by the same principle, we can take it back at any time. The bad news is that we have to actually do it. If you could ask the President one question, would it be about aliens?