After we finished a chapter of Jurgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, I thought I would never come back to it. I really disagreed with his points and I really really hated reading his jargon. Maybe it’s the translation, but there has got to be a better way to communicate what he was trying to say.
And yet, this is the second blog post in which I have argued that he might be correct. So here’s to you, Habermas.
I got to this conclusion after having yet another argument with a friend about the events in Ferguson. I was getting very emotional, annoyed, and angry while talking to this individual – which Habermas would have probably hated – and the individual responded by saying that I needed to calm down because nothing was going to change anyway. He did not understand why I am a political science major, because it is a “waste of time,” and that I will become so disheartened by the entire system once I actually work in the field. He went on to say that he does not vote because he does not see the point.
I never thought that a student at UNC could have such apathy, bordering on antagonism, towards our government. Unfortunately, however, he is not an outlier when looking at our country as a whole. I could list many statistics on low voter turnout rate and opinion polls that say most people distrust our government – though I won’t because you have probably seen them all over the media anyway. The American political landscape looks bleak – and worse is the fact that the American public does not seem to care. My parents, for example, could not care less about the happenings in Washington because, as they put it, what has the government done for them recently? Why waste the energy on an institution that cannot seem to produce results?
This sentiment is displayed throughout the media. It’s increasingly negative, filled with outrage correspondents, and rarely unbiased.
This all might be slightly dramatic, but this is not even the entire point. What does all of it have to do with Habermas, you ask? Let me explain.
Habermas’ bourgeoisie public sphere, put simply, is an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through this, they may influence political action. As public opinion, it could be seen as a regulatory institution against the authority of the State.
In his view, the public sphere should be limited to only those people who can make rational decisions to influence public opinion. These people were able to separate themselves from emotion, and could make the best decision for society as a whole. And, originally, this is where I started to disagree with him. I did not like the idea that rationality was the only way to approach issues of public concern. His dismissal of emotion seemed harsh and unrealistic. In my opinion, true passion is really found in believing in a candidate so much that you want to discuss their policies, canvass the neighborhood on their behalf, and vote come Election Day.
From here, however, I saw a connection between Habermas and Morris Fiorinia’s “A Dark Side of Civic Engagement,” which I read for another course. He argues that one of the reasons Americans distrust our government is because of the rise of participatory democracy. This honestly surprised me, but I think it is fascinating because Habermas argues that the decline of the public sphere is because, in part, of the rise of organizations like political parties, social movements and interest groups. For Habermas, individuals needed to come together on their own accord and this no longer happens. He also argued that because of the rise in organized interests, the state started to handle more private issues. The separation of state and society was lost.
In a similar way, Fiorina argues that the transition to a more open government, with sunset laws and the media commenting on the government’s every move, has increasingly put politics into the hands of unrepresentative participators – extreme voices in the larger political debate. People are able to directly communicate with the government on an easier level – but who is actually doing this? Party activism today is ideologically motivated to a much greater extent than in the past. The person who is going to vote in the primary, canvass a neighborhood, contact their representative and attend town hall meetings is arguably more ideologically extreme than just the average voter. These purists usually care about somewhat different issues than nonpartisans and seem to reject the idea of finding the best answer, as Habermas would have suggested, to party loyalty and the labeling of those who disagree with them as enemies.
Furthermore, at one time, interest groups were viewed as moderating influences in politics because people had multiple memberships that acted as cross-pressures. Now, these groups represent single industries, not large sectors. These groups, such as the NRA and AARP, hold substantial influence over our representatives.
Americans have far more opportunities to influence their government directly than did Americans of the midcentury. Sessions of congress can be watched on TV, citizens can converse with their representatives over social media, and public pressure can severely direct a course of action. However, contemporary Americans are far more distrustful of, cynical about, and hostile towards government than ever before, like my parents. So what is the problem?
Thus, as the public sphere declined, what took its place was a realm in which only outrage seems to motivate public policy. Specified interests are the voices the public hears in political discussion.
The media thus depicts this situation, albeit probably more negatively than necessary, as partisan conflict – a government rife with shutdowns and filibusters because no one can seem to agree. Ordinary people are by and large moderate in their views – relatively unconcerned and uninformed about politics most of the time and comfortable with the language of compromise. Meanwhile, politics is extremely polarized right now, the participants self-righteous and intolerant, their rhetoric emotional and excessive. The moderate center is not well represented in contemporary national politics – and citizens see this gap between their own beliefs and the beliefs of the people in Washington played out on the national media.
This is an interesting, and plausible, idea to explain the general apathy that the general public, including my friend, seem to have towards politics. It can explain why the media holds such a negative view towards politics, and the only way most people watch the media’s commentary is during ‘outrage’ shows.
Is there anything we can do?
Habermas would argue that the public sphere should return to those people who can make rational decisions, excluding those who cannot separate their personal interests from the bigger picture, and can use this to influence public policy. This might be a bit unrealistic, because I probably would not be included in this elite group and I still really love talking about politics. So…no. Fiorina’s suggestion is, ironically, for more participatory democracy. With more people participating, she argues, it will drown out the extreme voices. Or… it could just lead to more extreme voices.
I do not know how to get our citizenry more invested in politics. But I want to. So maybe this is why I decided to get involved in public affairs in the first place.