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January 2013
February 2013

2013-01-13 »

In which the White House outshines Canadian Politics

People who are aware of my political view template know that I try to follow a simple process, which is to try to reject low-quality arguments that resort to rhetoric and personal attacks. The result is I sometimes sound like I'm in favour of some policy or motion that I actually disagree with (or vice versa) because I tend to end up arguing about the presentation, and noting the complexity of the problem, rather than just choosing a side and joining the fray. Since I complain that you're being stupid, you assume that I think the opposite point of view is less stupid, but that's missing the point.

In short, I want to see politicians (and politically interested citizens) raising the level of discourse. Having written off American politics long ago, I'm still disappointed when Canadians result to meaningless sludge instead of stopping to understand what's going on.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered an actual U.S. political web site with actual facts and opinions and policy statements from an actual political party, responding to questions from actual citizens in the hope of raising the level of discourse.

The web site I'm referring to is the whitehouse.gov online petition system. In short, they promise to have some senior policymaker respond to your petition, no matter how stupid, if you can get at least 25,000 people to online-sign it. (25,000 is roughly 0.008% of the population of the United States, so that seems reasonable to me to get the attention of a high-level executive.)

Note what they promise: not that they'll change anything, or that the president itself will read your message, or that the response will be useful. Just that they'll respond, and the response will come from some actual person that matters. The content of the response, well, you'll have to judge that for yourself.

(This reminds me of the rules for petitioning the Government of Canada, except doing that only needs 25 signatures instead of 25,000. On the other hand, you're only guaranteed your petition will be read in parliament, and you probably won't get any response at all, other than the hope they might be thinking about it.)

So, how does it turn out? Well, I read through a few of the responses. Apparently there are 96 existing responses, which seems like a good number to me: it means the filter is blocking out the idiotic petitions (and oh boy, idiotic ones exist) but not just silencing everybody (the total number of responses is bigger than I want to read). Moreover, they sometimes combine multiple related petitions into one response (even if each one has less than 25,000 votes) and sometimes respond to petitions with less than 25,000 even though they didn't promise to do so. That tells me real people are actually reading all the petitions and looking for input, even though they don't have to. Moreover, there are less than 40 petitions open right now with more than 25,000 votes and no responses. Since that's less than half the total responses, that suggests to me that there's simply a time delay to answer them (which I'd expect), not that they don't take it seriously. And I doubt they're just deleting petitions they don't like, since anything that managed to get 25,000 signatures would obviously generate a major internet fuss if the signees found it missing.

So yes, the 25,000 signature threshold works, the accountability works, the promises are being kept, and there are actual answers up there.

Are the answers partisan? Of course, they're written by a political party. Are they all satisfying? No, sometimes they just avoid the question and don't bother to back up their claims, like the Transportation Security Administration one. (On the other hand, the petition itself wasn't so hot either.)

But what I do see is a real effort to respond in a way that really represents what the administration believes. You might not like the TSA response, but after reading it, you know exactly what their policy is about it. There are also things like the several immigration reform responses that are ultra-clear about the policy and beliefs - while admitting that, well, you kinda came to the wrong place, because the President isn't the one who sets the immigration policy.

Even the ones with a "blame the republicans" section, like the NASA funding response, do it pretty respectfully. They say "unfortunately, not everyone is supportive" and explain some problems of the alternative policy, but they do it with a tone that it encourages you to think about, and maybe talk to, your representatives to see if you can change their minds. They don't start from the assumption that the alternative viewpoint is idiotic and the only solution is the vote them the hell out. I can respect that.

Canada should have this (maybe with a different threshold). The U.S. House and Senate should have this, or at least the Democrats and the Republicans. You know what would be cool? If every party, not just the one in power, submitted a response to every petition that got 25,000 votes, to make their position clear, and we could read them side by side and decide what we believe. And if they could refrain from personal attacks and stick to the issues, like the current site does, and campaigns and TV debates generally don't.

That would be progress.

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