Part 3 in "The MoveOn Effect at 10" series
In a way, this is the underside of the point that Clay Shirky made ages ago in Here Comes Everybody, which is that by decreasing the costs of coordinating activities via the affordances of online infrastructures meant that coordinated activities became vastly less impressive demonstrations of popular will and sociopolitical mobilization in and of themselves--nobody had to do any real work in putting them together. But your point here is crucial--that this shift did not cause other changes to retail politics which have just generally made political officials and political systems unresponsive to any demonstration of popular mobilization, whatever it might be or however much labor went into it.
In that respect, another piece of this is that politics-adjacent elites (academics, political appointees, lobbyists, community affairs representatives in corporations, etc.) have become deeply enraptured with cognitivist/behavioral theories of political action. Many of them just fundamentally do not believe in a conception of politics which involves people with knowledge making proposals for policies which are then sagely evaluated by elected representatives and the wider public, in which politics is a persuasive exercise that depends in some way on reason, however bounded or culturally particular it might be. Instead, they now think of publics as being inside a giant skinner-box, as something to condition, manipulate or nudge into doing what the experts believe they should do. So it's not just the GOP; there are plenty of ostensibly liberal-progressive figures who are inside the circuits of power who think that *anything* that particular publics say they want or demand is valueless, not only because it's been produced by information technology/online coordination, but because publics don't know and can't know what's good for them.
Way back in the heady days of petition power, Jake Brewer wrote The Tragedy of Advocacy and Stefan Hankin and I published “The Advocacy Gap” - both raised flags about the limitations of the left’s plunge into petitions at the expense of almost everything else as a tactic (or strategy) for meaningful political power. They were great for list building, and your point about the transfer of that from organizers to platforms with the death of petitions is a hard truth, but I think the examples of progressive orgs leveraging their big lists for much more than small dollar fundraising are few and far between. Forcing us to do more organizing and less quick list building isn’t a bad thing for power, I think/hope.
That's a great description of the book: descriptively accurate, evaluatively wrong.
It's definitely true that petitionary activity also got yoked to highly partisan "working the ref" kinds of activism and thus stopped indicating that there were a lot of people riled up about something in a genuine, situated way. There was a piece in the NYT in the past week about the turmoil in a small Bay Area city over the past few years due to an Instagram account by a high school student that was intensely racist that shows how really situated, localized political feelings now express (or don't express but drive sociopolitical activity anyway), and it's not at all through petitions or even in a simple sense the kind of coordination that Shirky was describing back then.
A very interesting post, thank you. This line helps crystalize something that I'd been thinking about, but hadn't been able to articulate as clearly, "But it at least means that, if a thousand high school students express interest in protecting a local forest, or a half-million Americans-with-modems call for an end to the impeachment hearings, legislators are expected to put on a show of taking their input seriously. "
Hmmm. As a person who works in local government and has seen a few petitions over the years, my perspective is that petitions themselves do not carry particular meaning. They may be a sign of a brewing advocacy effort, but they don’t tend to make much discrete impact.
I guess broad-based national petition efforts are different, but I would be curious to hear from veteran legislative staffers as to how they perceive them and whether that view has evolved.
To a first approximation, I'd believe your point about petitions being more viable in a democracy, but have you ever talked to a specialist in Chinese politics about this? Petitions have had, at least in the national myth, at least some role there going back to Imperial times. Even today people do petitioning and various institutions act like they matter: the modal prominent case is where rural citizens try to petition the central government about abuses by their local leadership and the local government takes pains to prevent that by arresting the petitioners. Yet still people persist in attempting petitions! I don't know how common that is in other authoritarian societies, and the workings of China and other non-democratic governments are too opaque to have a good sense of the prevalence, but it may suggest the point merits further attention.
The only thing that politicos consider seriously is the numbers that show how and where voter support can be found for their candidacy. There are very FEW leader mentalities anymore - if there ever were any. It seems that CRISIS is the only truly levelling experience that can bring about leadership in problem solving. We are seeing crises developing all around the world right now. Stay tuned.