When I was a kid, the running joke was that dad always stole our black magic markers. We had every other color in our art kits, except for black. Why? Because dad used them to make protest signs. And then he would round up the three of us to march around in a circle with other people protesting something or another.
Before he was a marker-stealing dad, he attended civil rights marches and anti-war rallies in DC. He even had a confrontation with Dan Rather, because Rather chose to interview the long haired hippies at the rallies instead of the clean cut college kids, who were the majority of the protesters. Later, after we arrived, he got involved in local politics in Rockland County. He stopped Reynolds Aluminum from building a factory next to Congers Lake and ran for office on a third party.
All those fights, especially his run for office, required a lot of signatures. Dad enlisted my help. We would walk up and down blocks with clip boards. I was only five or six, so I would ring the doorbell and thrust a clipboard in the face of the person answering the door. The person would usually read the petition and sign it. If not, I would have to call over my dad who was working the other side of the street to explain what we needed.
Each one of those signatures took a lot of leg work and discussions. People often had to be convinced to sign the petition either by reading the paragraph on the clip board or by my dad talking to them for five or even ten minutes. One page of signatures took an hour of work. And petitions signers learned something from talking to my dad about the issues. They met him and sized him up. There were handshakes and chitchat about local issues.
Last week, an article in the New York Times directed me to a website to sign a petition for those two young, women reporters who are being held by North Korea and in labor prison camps. I've read about North Korean's labor camps, so I clicked on the link to sign the petition. After I did, I poked around the website to see what it was about.
It was a website that created petitions for various political causes. Their slogan is "start a petition, change the world." They claim to have gotten 37 million signatures. It champions several issues and provides templates to create your own petitions.
But the causes that they championed were so Politics Lite. They had one that asked you to "Save the Polar Bears." The petition consisted of a large picture of mama polar bear and her cub. It had one sentence on global warming, but didn't provide any information about particular policies. It didn't have any links to reputable sources for other political or scientific studies on this issue. Other issues that are hot are animal cruelty and school bullying. The school bullying petition shows a video of sad kids.
This website owes more to Angelina Jolie than Saul Alinsky. It's Politics Lite. On the one hand, these websites might bring in people who are traditionally afraid of politics. By signing their first petition, it would become a stepping stone to other activities.
On the other hand, there is something really offensive about these projects. It cheapens the process. Petitions no longer mean anything if someone with next to no effort can gather 1,000 signatures, just by posting a picture of a sad polar bear. Nobody learns anything from signing this petition, because there is no content on the web page and no real live person to talk to about it.
Also, Stuart Shulman did an excellent paper a few years back about how bureaucracies get weighed down by these online petitions and form e-mail letters. Each signature and letter must printed out on real paper, even the global warming letters. It uses up enormous resources to sort, categorize, and read all these letters and petitions, which they are required to do by law. And they are essentially meaningless, because they were generated and signed too effortlessly.
This isn't to say that all online petitions are crap. The good ones are backed by interest groups with a particular expertise on a subject. They direct these petitions to the correct political officials or bureaucracies. They have other tools at their disposal besides cheap online petition signatures. Their petitions provide real facts on scientific or policy matters, so that the signatories learn something from the process.
Meanwhile, I'm going back to the petition website to create my own an online petition. I'm going to demand that this website actually provide links to proper content and are aimed at changing particular policies or practices.
(Slightly different version at Everyday Politics.)