This could well prove accurate. But it's worth remembering, for all the spottiness, that these digital petitions are a relatively new platform -- the familiar petition, under the power of network effects -- and, like any new technology, they'll inevitably have their growing pains before they mature into a (relatively) finalized form. Much of that maturing, in this case, will have less to do with the technology itself and more to do with its users -- with people, essentially, figuring out how to make productive use of it. And with those people becoming more and more acclimated to a digitally networked world. Though the Administration certainly has some interest in being evasive or coy or otherwise engaging in transparency theater -- and though it will certainly, at times, act on that interest -- "We the People" offers at least the potential for nuanced dialogue. In politics as in most things, good faith begets good faith. We get -- even, and especially, in the digital world -- the government we deserve.
The White House's digital petitions, for better or for worse, represent something rare in a republican democracy: direct interaction with the federal government. Even -- and, again, especially -- in a networked communications environment, that kind of explicit engagement is implicitly valuable. We have had, for the most part, two primary ways of making our opinions known, en masse, to the government that makes decisions on our behalf: voting and polling. Both are blunt instruments, and both are, for various obvious reasons, unsatisfactory as mechanisms of interaction with the government. We have had analog petitions, of course, but much of the actual, day-to-day, one-to-many communications between citizens and their government ends up mediated by, yes, the media. Which is unsatisfactory for a host of similarly obvious reasons.
But the online petition -- the petition that swells up, for the most part, from the greenest of the grassroots -- is a new and relatively efficient mechanism for interaction. Like voting, it offers citizens an explicit and active way to communicate their political desires. Unlike voting, it focuses on issues rather than representatives, and is unconstrained by mandated schedules. Like polling, it assesses public opinion. Unlike polling, it puts the onus on citizens to determine which issues and ideas are worthy of that assessment. The historian and media theorist Michael Schudson argues, convincingly, that one of the most significant inventions in the course of American democracy was the Australian ballot -- the secret ballot. That single, technological improvement, he says, by transforming voting from a public act to a private one, "shifted the center of political gravity from party to voter." It "elevated the individual, educated, rational voter as the model citizen."