The Public Sphere and the State

Public Sphere

Jürgen Habermas is known for his conception of the public sphere. It is the foundation of his political theories related to democracy. The reflection below is based upon his book The Inclusion of the Other. Justin Kempf is the author. 

The Political Philosophy of Habermas

Jürgen Habermas occupies a place somewhere between philosophy and social science. He does not offer the methodological rigor of contemporary social scientists who rely on a combination of field work and statistical analysis of their data. Rather Habermas offers the framework many social scientists have used to give their work a broader context. So, Habermas is in many ways the political philosopher of social scientists rather than a philosopher of social science itself.

Liberal democracy has had surprisingly few philosophers to offer a grand theory or justification. Political philosophers are too often preoccupied with what does not yet exist to consider what the world is in the present moment. Hence, no major philosopher constructed a grand defense of monarchical government. Even Hobbes failed to justify monarchy as it existed. His liberalism was a radical departure from the way monarchs behaved or governed. It often falls to the jurists to explain the present system in its intricacies, but jurists struggle to offer an explanation or defense of the purpose for a regime. Indeed, legal scholarship has an element of sophism at its core. It detaches the moral question from the legal one. It leaves the foundation of the state to float on a basis of tradition without any firm foundation.

Habermas is the closest liberal democracy has come to a champion of its political legitimacy. Most theorists begin from the normative position that democracy is desirable. But history has shown the strong inclination of many to undermine democratic governance. Habermas offers a foundation not simply for democracy, but liberal democracy. His ideas work to weave together liberalism into democracy. So, any understanding of Habermas does not focus on democracy alone but must also include liberalism into what has become known as liberal democracy.

Liberal Democracy and German Thought

Liberal democracy, for Habermas, begins with the need to reconcile minorities in the confines of the nation-state. It helps to recognize the historical context of his philosophy. Habermas begins his career in the aftermath of the collapse of the Nazi Regime and the rebirth of democracy in Germany. Carl Schmitt had unraveled liberalism from democracy based on an assumption that democratic governance was only possible among a homogeneous population. Schmitt, of course, was not the first to believe democratic governance was only possible among a people with common interests. The alliance between nationalism and democracy arose in the nineteenth century. But Schmitt argued liberalism was incompatible because it encouraged heterogeneity. The irony is the split between liberalism and democracy did not strengthen democratic governance but undermined it. Schmitt asked scholars to choose between liberalism and democracy, but found for himself that without liberalism, democracy was no longer necessary.

Habermas comes of age in the German tradition where political unity is a priority. The union of various principalities into a German state in the nineteenth century made the common good a part of their political vision. German philosophers had long searched for universality in their vision despite the legacy of political heterogeneity throughout German history. Even to this day there remains a strong federalist system in Germany that empowers local governments. Nonetheless, nationalism had brought about a dead end in fascism. It was necessary to reconstruct an aspirational sense of commonality based on inclusion.

The Public Sphere in the State

The public sphere offers a space for the construction of the state outside the confines of the nation. Where Schmitt unraveled liberalism from democracy, Habermas unravels the nation from the state. The nation-state was designed as an alternative to the multi-ethnic empire. The power of nationalism was its capacity to extinguish empire. But Habermas forces a reevaluation of geopolitics. The problem of empire was never its multi-ethnic dimension, but its reliance on autocracy. Of course, empire naturally depended on autocratic governance because of its scale. The nation-state reduced the political entity to a size where republican government was possible.

Nonetheless, the nation was an arbitrary unit used for the boundaries for the territory of the state. Habermas offers the public sphere as an alternative to the nation for the territorial boundaries of the state. The public sphere is the area where ideas are possible for deliberation and discussion. Language and culture may offer hard boundaries to the extent of the public sphere, but its limits are often self-imposed. Technology allows for the transmission of ideas around the world so a case may allow for a global public sphere on some issues such as global warming and armaments control.

The Public Sphere and Participation

Still, the public sphere for many issues remains small and limited. Few will care to learn about the issues relevant for Carmel, Indiana, or the exploits of its mayor Jim Brainard. The decision to close Orchard Park Elementary and open a school on the west side of town has little relevance for those outside the Carmel-Clay School District. In this way, the public sphere offers a flexible approach to understand governance. Public spheres can overlap each other so local governance becomes compatible with national and even international organizations. The European Union becomes a reasonable proposition in a Habermasian construction because it allows for the construction of a space to make decisions relevant for all Europeans.

The key for success in the public sphere is not commonality, but freedom to participate within it. Habermas reconnects the link between liberalism and democracy in his requirement for freedom of participation within democracy. Liberal rights are no longer corollaries for democracy to persist, but rather necessary elements for the realization of democratic governance. The imprisonment of political adversaries becomes detrimental to the health of the public sphere. Minorities find their rights are protected not as limitations on democracy, but as the necessary foundations for democracy to exist.

Liberal Democracy

Too many theorists have defined liberal democracy as though it is a type of democracy. ‘Liberal’ for them behaves as an adjective which denotes the form of democracy as though illiberal democracy were a realistic possibility. But adjectives can also confer an intensification of the noun. Liberal does not define a form of democracy but indicates a thicker sense of democracy. Democratic governance cannot permit the state to undermine the rights necessary to allow for participation in the democracy. The problem in this statement is it imposes a limitation on democratic behavior. Indeed, it imposes a limit or boundary for political freedom. It is a paradox when political freedom must have limitations for it to exist. This is what I have called the Democracy Paradox. And it is where my philosophy of democracy both begins and eventually ends.

The Public Sphere Beyond the State

The problem for the public sphere is it breaks down whenever it extends beyond the limits of the state. The public sphere has no definite boundaries. It may expand as conversations are elevated beyond their original boundaries. They begin as local or regional issues, but the national press gravitates toward their stories because of its sensationalism or because it fits into a larger conversation already begun.

For example, the murder of Emmett Till moved beyond a local crime in Mississippi motivated by racism into a national conversation after the acquittal of his murderers by an all-white jury. Over time, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders redefined racial segregation in the South into a national conversation. It is easy to forget that political theorists as late as Joseph Schumpeter had tolerated and excused racial segregation as a matter of self-determination. The Civil Rights Movement brought an end to Jim Crowe through an expansion of the public sphere that made racial segregation part of a national conversation.

But more mundane issues offer subtle challenges to resolve. The decisions of city governments may affect its suburbs and conversely the suburbs may affect neighboring municipalities. Some of these issues may find resolution at a higher level of governance or even in the judicial system. Certainly, different municipalities negotiate amongst each other and have regular lines of communication. Nonetheless, the constituents are not always the only ones impacted by their government. Indeed, the modern age has allowed for people to live and work in different municipalities with increasing frequency. People may belong to the public discussion on issues related to both areas, but they only have a right to vote in the place where they reside.

The Challenge  of Representation

Habermas may argue the public sphere makes it possible to participate even when the right to vote does not exist. Yet this interpretation undermines the idea of democracy. It permits the presence of a liberal autocracy where people have the right to express themselves, but power is constrained to a powerful few. Formal political power is a necessary condition for democracy. It is not enough to offer liberal rights of expression unless they are accompanied with some means to participate in actual governance. The public sphere loses its force in political theory when its bounds expand beyond a defined political entity.

The United States offers a complex case for the public sphere, because of its power and role in international affairs. People around the world participate in the public debate that surrounds American Presidential Elections. Citizens in many countries are just as likely to recognize the American President as their own political leaders. Their interest extends beyond intellectual curiosity. People around the world recognize American foreign policy heavily influences world affairs. And yet, they have no influence on the direction of American foreign policy because they are not American citizens.

Complications of American Hegemony

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 horrified people around the world, because American leadership has become important for international cooperation on a range of issues such as trade and environmental protections. International law is largely based on rules and norms established through American standards and traditions. The Southern District of New York has taken it upon itself to enforce American law into nearly any jurisdiction in nearly any country. Large international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank establish norms for fiscal policy largely based on American rules and standards. Advocates for reform or defenders of the status quo around the world have an interest in the outcome of American Presidential elections.

So as American policy has become consequential for people around the world, American citizens retain the sole source of democratic influence upon policy in the United States. The complaints about democracy within America miss the complicated theoretical problem for American democracy beyond the United States. It remains inconceivable to extend the franchise to noncitizens who are nonresidents from other nations. Yet globalization has left many powerless on a range of issues even as their own governments have become more democratic.

A Democratic Dilemma

Radical Islamic Terrorism is a horrific response to this democratic dilemma. Residents of Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia have no influence on American behavior in their own countries. Of course, the fact they have few democratic rights in their own countries compounds the problem. Nonetheless, their anger has been directed toward the United States and Europe because they felt foreign governments had a larger impact on their lives than their own government.

Terrorism is never excusable, nonetheless it is always political. The attacks on 9/11 had political motivations. Indeed, it was the politics of the attack which made a response possible. The attack itself was inconceivable in its horror, but the reasons were obvious. But terrorism has become a concern for democracies not because of its pervasiveness, but its almost total absence for so long.

Terrorism is a political tool for those who are powerless. Democracies empower citizens through political rights and civil liberties to influence their governments. The Civil Rights Movement was an important moment for American democratization because it utilized the political process to overcome its own failures. African Americans had every reason to use violence throughout American history, but found they were able to make progress through the available channels of the American political system. It is not clear what channels are available for the citizens of the Middle East or other third world countries where their political future is shaped more by decisions made in America rather than in their own countries.

Globalization and the Public Sphere

Globalization has accelerated the need for cosmopolitan political institutions to resolve concerns like global warming and the influence of multi-national corporations. Nonetheless, the development of democratic international institutions is unlikely because many parts of the world remain undemocratic. So long as powerful nations like China remain authoritarian, any effort to transfer substantial power to international institutions risks empowering the forces of autocracy rather than democracy.

In the end, the public sphere remains a framework or model for democratic theory. Its limitations mean it is a step towards a better understanding of democratic governance. But something remains beyond it if only we can comprehend it. Chantal Mouffe has offered an even more forceful critique of Habermas in her calls for radical democracy. She believes the public sphere is too willing to force a consensus when democracy demands heterogeneity. But her critique is sometimes unfair because Habermas begins his sense of the public sphere with the other.

Habermas begins his theory with the presence of minorities. The public sphere does not squeeze out alternative views but offers them space to develop and influence governance. The problem is the advantage of the public sphere is fungible. The territory of the state, on the other hand, is clearly defined. The challenge is whether the public sphere can remain confined to the limits of the state.


Hélène Landemore on Democracy without Elections

Yael Tamir on Nationalism

Thoughts on Chantal Mouffe’s On the Political

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