Petitions are not democracy

Just lately I seem to have received a series of increasingly hysterical requests to sign petitions. I can’t easily reply to these emails other than to sign their petition, so since I’m sure that the entire world listens to every word I say from my little soapbox here, I thought I’d use it to tell these people that I really wish they’d think of a better solution. I don’t mind writing letters that put forward actual arguments, or even occasionally showing solidarity towards people who otherwise might think they’re acting alone, but in general petitions are pretty meaningless.

So fifty thousand people think X. But so what? How many think the opposite to X? It doesn’t say. It could be millions. And why should anyone suppose that a popular idea is a good idea, on the basis of its popularity alone? What’s more, if you’re going to form petitions, for heaven’s sake save them for Big Deal matters, or you’ll end up crying wolf too often. The latest petition request in my inbox concerns a Republican deputy attorney general who apparently Tweeted an opinion that the protesters in Madison, WI, should be shot. The petition is to call for his resignation. The claim seems legit (although this is Twitter we’re talking about), so it’s pretty pathetic and reprehensible behavior for a lawyer, but even so. Next I’ll be getting a request to sign a petition because somebody tweeted to say someone else stole their lunch money.

Demonstrations are important. Petitions are sometimes important but don’t constitute good evidence, not least because signing one costs and risks nothing. Compared to walking into Tahrir Square and facing up to mercenaries, let alone Green Square in Tripoli, they’re a bit embarrassing. And petitioning about absolutely everything is going to get us nowhere.

The scary thing is, democracy in the US is completely broken. Utterly destroyed. Made a mockery of. And petitions seem to be about the best anyone can think of to do about it (you’ll already have noted that I don’t have a solution either). But petitions are not democracy. Democracy has to involve debate and simultaneous representation from both (or all) sides. And the logic behind it is that We the People shouldn’t have to go around making decisions about every single issue under the Sun – we employ representatives to do that and then we vote for them.

That clearly doesn’t work any more – the representatives on one side of the US political scene think they have a mandate to do just about anything they please (entirely in their own interests or the interests of those who, thanks to the Citizens United judgment, can simply pay them to do it), while those on the other side are wandering around in stunned and numbed circles, like some of the poor citizens of Christchurch, New Zealand, not knowing what the hell to do next as the buildings of government fall about their ears.

The right wing is hell-bent on oligarchy, and the only antidote currently seems to be mob rule. That’s an unhealthy situation. International politics is now being decided by Wikileaks and flash mobs, which is completely understandable, given the level of corruption and self-interest in high places. It’s even quite admirable, up to a point, just as long as it’s being done for the right reasons and with due care by people who understand the potential consequences. But there has to be a better way.

The Internet and mobile communications are dramatically altering the political landscape. For the first time ever, “The People” is a truly meaningful concept. Intermediaries to act on our behalf and “incorporate” the voices of many, are no longer the only way for people to be heard. Democracy is changing. Decisions are being devolved. But let’s try not to descend into pettiness or anarchy en route. There may come a day when almost everything is decided by referendum, but if that happens then we’d better make sure we’re educated enough to make sensible decisions on complex issues, and we’d better make sure that we have methods in place to guarantee an adequate quality of debate and trust, because we human beings are pretty closely related to lemmings.

Time will tell what the current unrest around the world is going to crystallize into. But in the meantime, just cool it with the petitions, will you? They’re a bit, well, adolescent. They don’t really mean much, and they mean less and less as they get used more and more.

Please sign the comments section if you agree…


About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

13 Responses to Petitions are not democracy

  1. Matt Griffith says:

    You got my vote and signature! 😉

    Joking aside, I agree with you that our “Democracy” is a joke. The only true voice is that of market share and stock options — oh and the qualms of idle religious infrastructure. When are we gonna realize there’s more to life than the “American dream”? I have no hopes or dreams in the 9 to 5 cubicle servitude in my near future.

    • Bob Mottram says:

      The “market share and stock options” are only the main regulator because they’re able to more effectively and more frequently inject variety into the system. As I see it the calls for greater transparency (Wikileaks et al) and accountability (, etc) are really an attempt by voters to catch up with the other more tightly integrated groups (typically big companies and institutions). The current ways in which voters participate in democracies provides too weak and infrequent a signal for effective governance.

  2. Bob Mottram says:

    If there is a rising tide of petitions then this indicates that the current way of doing things lacks enough variety for effective governance, and that the petitioning is an attempt to recover from lag error. One problem with current systems of governance is that some groups who have become highly expert at lobbying decision makers are able to inject more variety than the much weaker and less frequent signals from voters. I’m thinking of examples like the Digital Economy Bill of 2010.

  3. dranorter says:

    I sort if forgot to reply to this in the excitement, and also because my reply requires me to dig up a link I dint know where to find, but here it is without said link for now.

    I’ve seen an article examining methods of making social-upvote-style news sites ‘hack-proof’ or somesuch, which amongst other conclusions stated that upvotes of people who deliberately go to the article shouldn’t actually count for anything, because those people are not randomly sampled from the site’s population. I think the article gave an example of a site which did this, ignoring actual upvotes for the purpose of ranking, and instead showing the article to randomly selected visitors and counting their upvotes.

    Voluntary voting is not democracy. A random system wouldnwork better. Use petitions and elections to decide what to put to a real vote, but after that use something more universal like social security numbers to obtain an actual random sample of the population.

    • stevegrand says:

      That makes sense, at least as far as sampling opinions goes.

      > A random system would work better.

      Heh! Maybe we should cut out people altogether. Sometimes tossing a coin would fare better than politics!

  4. Logan says:

    I think one of the big things that can be looked at in modern politics is related to your article about chimps and bonobos. When people percieve god as their alpha male, they feel the need to make other obey the alpha. When you think about it, if every one disobeyed the alpha, then those societies would die off due to internal struggle. So the need to make others submit to their alpha slips into politics and creates entities like the tea party.

    Now I don’t know how this theory could be used to fix the current situation. But maybe knowing that this could be a factor in right-wing politics could help direct the fix in the right direction.

    Any input on this idea would be great since I don’t know alot of people who look at culture with biology in mind. 🙂

    • stevegrand says:

      That’s interesting. Do you know if medium-status chimpanzees make lower chimps obey the alpha? It makes sense – people who believe in an alpha male god (i.e. fundamentalist evangelicals, not ordinary Christians) tend to show both kinds of authoritarianism – they’re authoritarian leaders and like to push “lesser” people around, and they’re authoritarian followers and like to pledge their allegiance to god. It does seem like they’ve decided their rank is neither at the top nor the bottom, and they maintain it at that level. Presumably the decision to challenge a higher-ranking male is a risky one, and most of the time chimps know their place and stick to it. But so far that’s just saying “you are beneath me and He is above me”, whereas what I think you’re suggesting is that politicians and preachers are saying “you are beneath HIM and I’m going to do my bit to keep you there”. A kind of status policing. I’d be interested to know if that happens in chimps. I haven’t finished the book I was reading about chimps and bonobos yet – maybe it’ll tell me. Thanks for the insight!

    • Bob Mottram says:

      Fictional leadership could arise quite naturally. If each creature keeps track of who it believes to be its leader (the highest status individual within its social network), and if social network links are permitted to remain even after the death of individuals, then it’s easy to see how a form of ancestor worship could develop. As deceased ancestors of high status become increasingly distant from the present they could naturally be transformed via the mutations of language into mythical beings with supernatural powers.

      • Logan says:

        That’s a really good theory. I would have never thought of that. I would recommend researching asian sociology and biologists if you wanted to look into this idea further, since most asian cultures focus on ancestor worship.

        And I’m glad to hear you’re making progress on your project Steve. I can’t offer financial support since i’m a poor college student. 🙂 but i’ve been telling every programmer I know about your work. So I can at least give you emotional support. 🙂

  5. Erin says:

    While I agree that there’s way too many petitions for useless things (does that lawyer need to consult a PR guy every time he tweets something? It may have been stupid but how much does it really matter? I say stupid things all the time!) but they’re far from useless. If you can get a statistically significant number of people signing the petition, your politicians WILL pay attention (especially if its getting close to an election). Now of course figuring out what “statistically significant” is is a bit of an art form, but if you can pull together 1-2% of the relevant population, it will garner at least a look.

    Of course getting 1-2% of the entire population of the US is a fairly large challenge. Up here in Canada we’ve got a current petition fighting “usage based billing” (an attempt by our “big 3” ISPs to legislatively force their pricing models on smaller competitors). Its up to almost half a million people. Even in a country of 35 million (~1.5% population signed), people stop and take note of a petition that large!

    Of course, that was a petition to prevent (effectively) higher internet prices, targeted at internet users and spread primarily via internet-based mediums (twitter, facebook, etc). That’s basically about the easiest setup you possibly could imagine for a petition (its not hard to click an “I Agree” link), but still, half a million people is half a million people.

    Likewise if you get 200 people to sign something in a town of 10,000, people will stop and take note. Now presumably those people taking note will put the effort into making sure that the other 9800 people aren’t against it before making any decisions, but they’ll at least look into the matter.

    Us average people only have a few ways of speaking with our leaders once we start talking about societies larger than a couple hundred people. Petitions are on the bottom of the totem, followed by peaceful protests, violent protests and finally all out revolt. Each stage up that ladder may have a better chance of changing things, but they also require more effort and risk. And by the time you get to all out revolt, the resulting changes will be large enough that the “risk” involved includes the new government structure being worse than the one you overthrew!

    Writing a letter to your favorite politician is all fine and good, but really its a petition with one signature on it. You might get some bonus points for effort, but a petition had to be written by someone as well, AND they went to the effort of convincing other people that the petition was worthwhile. Of course if you can get a statistically significant number of people to write actual letters (not form letters that again, only require a signature) then you might get some extra points, but good luck finding a large enough percentage of the population who both a) believe in your cause and b) can be bothered.

    Through all that rambling though, “statistically significant” is the important concept. Like any statistics it can lie, but for the most part you can extrapolate useful information (particularly in combination with other statistics.) For example if one person writes a letter, you can statistically assume say, 50 people think the same thing. Likewise if one person signs a petition, you might be able to assume 20 people would think the same thing. And you can assume a certain percentage just don’t care enough to get involved on either side. So if we take your 50,000 above and follow that extrapolation, you’ve got yourself a theoretical million people interested. If your sample size is 5 million and you assume 3 million of those people don’t care, then you’ve effectively got an even balance (and at that number of people you’re probably looking at a referendum to resolve it more accurately than “50/50”!) Now of course I pulled all those numbers out of thin air but the concept is valid as a first approximation.

    Of course none of that matters if you have the money or influence behind you to get one-on-one face time with politicians. But in these days of corporate-backed lobbying firms, even the richest amongst us can’t get access via the money route. Anyone can gain influence (theoretically) but it generally requires having the motivation and charisma to get yourself into the media (and a bit of luck that Paris Hilton didn’t do anything stupid that day and steal all the spotlight).

    • stevegrand says:

      Very nicely argued and I take your point! I’ve never been the recipient of a petition but I wonder how much attention they actually get? Does one with ten thousand signatures get taken ten times as seriously as one with only a thousand? Do politicians sit down and work out the statistics? I wonder if anyone’s researched the effectiveness of petitions.

      • Erin says:

        I’m sure someone somewhere has done some research on them!

        But as for effectiveness, I really doubt that it would be linear like that. If you brought in two petitions related to the exact same matter at the exact same time, then the one with 10x the signatures would certainly get more attention (though I would still doubt its 10x the attention — just because a politician can afford to spend an hour a day dealing with a certain topic doesn’t imply he could spend 10 hours a day on it if 10 times the people cared! He might bump up his time to 2-3 hours though if it was that important).

        Other factors would be the “hotness” of the topic — does the media care and what spin are they putting on it? Legalizing marijuana has been a huge topic where I live for years and years, and I’m sure there’s been dozens if not hundreds of petitions created for it over that period of time. And a large portion of the population would likely fall into the “don’t care” category. Yet its something that will be a long time in the coming because a) it will never be cast in a good light in mainstream media. The best you can hope for is an objective middle ground. b) very few politicians would risk their careers for the sake of a mind-altering substance. c) If did take it to a referendum and simply gave the voters the choice of “yes” or “no”, all of those previous abstainers (at least the ones who bother voting at all!) would be forced to make a choice and chances are most of them would err on the side of the status quo.

        The UBB topic is a whole other beast though. Its been widely publicized (thanks primarily to the efforts of a small group called, its breaking the status quo rather than keeping it, and it has only negative consequences for both the consumer and for the ideal of a competitive marketplace. The only people it benefits are the major shareholders of the big 3. Needless to say when those facts are put together, it was fairly easy to come up with a petition fast enough and large enough to warrant our top politicians getting involved.

        And of course there are other factors involved as well. I’ve already mentioned the possibility of an election coming up. Politicians are far more apt to listen to the public’s actual concerns during that period rather than just perceived concerns, and the easiest way to find out what the public is interested in is simply read the letters and petitions that come in.

        If your petition is related to a topic that the politician actually cares about, you have a greater chance of him paying attention.

        Conversely if the politician (or the staffer that happens to read a particular petition) is having a bad day and just tossing everything, your petition might not be read at all no matter how well it its written or how many signatures is on it.

        I’m sure there’s dozens and dozens of other factors, and most of them won’t be nearly as mathematical as “more signatures => more attention”. I suspect that if someone could find one of those studies on petitions that you’d likely find a relatively low percentage that actually accomplished their goal — but it only takes a couple of good ones to keep the hope in democracy alive, and we have few other options for directly influencing our governing bodies.

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