Analyzing the American Political Sphere with “We the People”: Part 2

DASIL’s “We the People” data explorer allows users to search petitions based on subject—civil rights, economics, and defense, to name a few. My previous post about “We the People” briefly examined government responses to petitions but did not consider their subject. This analysis expands on that post by grouping together petitions with similar subjects into three broad categories: Government, Science, and Sociology. The government category includes subjects like “Budget and Taxes” and “Defense,” science includes “Technology and Telecommunication,” “Environment,” and sociology includes “Disabilities,” “Education” and “Poverty.”  I only included petitions with over 5,000 signatures in my analysis to limit the number of results.

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A frequency analysis for each category reveals an interesting trend when compared with the analysis of the petitions with 100,000+ signatures.  The petitions in each category lobby for a plethora of minority issues ranging from the environment to finance. In contrast, petitions with 100,000+ signatures are primarily concerned with international relations or pressing political concerns.

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What do petitions usually ask the government to do about their chosen issue?  I considered three types of action: “negative”, “positive,” and “amendment,” classifying verbs that ask the government to remove something as “negative” and verbs that ask the government to grant something as “positive.” Frequent negative actions are: abolish, ban, and remove.  In contrast, frequent positive actions include: allow, grant, and create.  Because amendments involve a more lasting change to the government than do laws or bans, calls for amendments are a separate category. These include both petitions to “Repeal the Second Amendment” as well as to enact “Project Amendment 28-Require Firearms Ownership.”

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Comparison of the verbs in petition titles reveals that every category favors positive government actions.  The prevalence of positive verbs is most obvious in petitions with 100,000+ signatures. Nearly 81% of the references included in this category are positive calls to action. Some of the most popular include:

  • “Allow Tesla Motors to sell directly to consumers in all 50 states” and
  • “Peacefully grant the State of Texas to withdraw from the United States of America and create its own government.

For comparison, popular calls to negative action include:

  • “Enact Leelah’s Law and Ban All LGBTQ+ Conversion Therapy” and
  • “Demand Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson to withdraw indictment against Asian minority Officer Peter Liang.”

The predominance of petitions involving positive actions signals that the Americans utilizing “We the People” prefer government actions that broaden the sphere of actions available to them rather than those that directly narrow actions available to others.  Though this conclusion holds true for all three categories, the trend is weaker in the science category, which includes a large number of petitions to ban certain environmental practices or energy extraction methods, like fracking.

The analysis of “We the People” petitions based on category reveals two trends. First, the 100,000 signature threshold filters out niche interests and indicates that complex political issues garner the most popular support. Secondly, the types of verbs in petition titles suggest that Americans prefer a government that serves them by providing services rather than banning undesirable actions.

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