Even as I was asking the Tea Party to occupy the White House’s petition website a year ago, I didn’t actually think it would happen. But people are smarter, and better, and bigger than we ever imagine.
That is of course, not how I’m supposed to describe the idea of seceding from the United States, as someone who loves his country. And to be clear: I think talk of secession is a foolish, self-defeating, petulant response to an election, in addition to being unfeasible. I’m enormously glad the conversation is happening, though.
The fact is, if even citizens who hate the United States of America (as secessionists must) find it valuable to engage in an online petition platform maintained by the White House, then that platform is working. There have been many successes for the We The People platform, from stopping puppy mills and no longer using monkeys in military training to coming out against SOPA and PIPA’s threats to the Internet to pushing for patent reform. But the people involved in the neo-secessionist movement represent a unique opportunity.
President Obama should sit down for a “beer summit” with representatives chosen by petitioners who’ve signed the calls for secession, and listen to the grievances which they think require the dissolution of the Union.
Why A Beer Summit?
It’s pretty clear that there are a few hundred thousand people involved in signing the secession petitions, based on a reasonable academic assessment of the signatures. For perspective, that’s about the same number of people as work for CVS, or about half as many people as voted for Jill Stein as the the Green Party candidate for President. Even if we assume that the number of people participating has increased a bit as the petitions gain more press attention in the days since that study was done, this is definitely an extreme fringe of the country, and most of them aren’t from the states for which they’ve signed petitions. It isn’t an obvious choice for the President to make time to sit down with such fringe interests.
But the teams at the White House responsible for We The People, like the New Media team that built it, or more broadly the Office of Public Engagement which handles the President’s interaction with citizens, have put so much effort into making these petitions effective and available that it’s clear they want to honor the spirit of the lofty name they’ve given the platform. They want to do the right thing. They’re the ones who got the White House’s homebrew beer recipe released in response to a petition in the first place. It’s only appropriate that they put that beer to good use.
And the ostensible secessionists would benefit from the clarity that comes with the seriousness of having this discussion at the highest levels. When ordinary Americans (or soon-to-be-former Americans) engage with matters of policy and the Constitution in a serious manner, they almost always step up to the challenge with extraordinary thoughtfulness. That’s only an option if a good leader asks them to do so, and I think our President is that good a leader.
Though I disagree with their stated intentions, I also don’t resent my fellow citizens who’ve signed these petitions. I have a soft spot for extremist views in general, and an appreciation for old-fashioned approaches to questioning the way our government works. But more importantly, I think they’ll benefit most from seeing that government can work the way we all imagine that it might: People with different opinions can come together in conversation, those with unpopular or unusual views can be heard, and the contrast of perspectives can leave both parties wiser for having engaged.
Ascending The Summit
I’m not a pollyanna about this suggestion. I’m sure communications experts within the White House will say “Why on earth would we want to take a political risk like this right after an election when there are so many other problems to focus on?” And the secession sympathizers will ask “Why would we want to talk to the guy that we resent so much that we’re talking about leaving the country?”
To those in the White House, I’d say, this is exactly how you show leadership, but engaging in a productive way with those who most oppose you. If you want to phrase it in the odious tactical language of the political class, you can see this as an outflanking move for your political opponents. But on a more human level, it’s just an act of empathy that might actually result in a productive discussion.
To the nominal secessionists, it’s important to understand this is the only way to take what seems like a petulant, irrational response and elevate it into something more akin to a principled objection. The rigor you’ll have to introduce amongst your nascent movement in order to simply pick the representatives to participate in such a summit will do wonders to clarify whether there’s real substance to the idea, or if it’s just the reactionary and ridiculous response that it seems to those of us who disagree.
In short, both sides benefit, even though the conventional wisdom on both sides will be to avoid seriously engaging. I think those who make a platform like We The People do so because they believe in the principles it epitomizes, and I believe those who use such a petition platform do so because they believe the people should be able to exercise those principles.
So, go forth and do it. I’ll happily send along some pretzels to go with the beers.