The Public Sphere in Dark Times

By Noëlle McAfeeAugust 11, 2019

The Public Sphere in Dark Times
IN THE WEE MORNING hours after Trump was elected to the US presidency, protesters poured into the streets across the country, some chanting, “No Trump. No KKK. No Fascist USA.” In the days after the election, newspaper opinion pages began filling with missives from survivors of authoritarian regimes around the world with advice on how the United States might survive too. Over the ensuing months, the news media’s language began changing from its usual bland admonishments about Trump’s “falsehoods” to saying outright that he was lying. In the midterms the public showed its displeasure with Trump by tipping the House back to the Democrats. For the New Year of 2019, The New York Times printed a two-page spread in tiny font of the thousands of lies that Trump has told during his presidency. During the past two years, Trump’s approval rating has hovered mostly below 40 percent, and during the government shutdown, approval from his base plummeted.

Some might ask, so what? How much can public opinion matter in comparison to the massive power of the US presidency? No matter how loathed, a president can do irrevocable harm: canceling climate change accords; tearing apart families on the border, leaving children traumatized; colluding with foreign powers; appointing biased Supreme Court judges; and leaving a trail of lies for all his followers to feed upon. For Jürgen Habermas’s political theory, “So what?” is the million-dollar question. So what if public opinion weighs heavily against formal political power? Does public opinion make any difference, especially as the public fragments and polarizes into silos and media bubbles? Or, even more bleakly, might the power of the highest office encourage the worst elements of public opinion, emboldening racist and nationalist sympathies? What if public opinion is just a puppet of power, shoring up demagoguery, eroding democratic institutions?

To my mind, the big question hovering over Trump’s presidency is whether a democratic public sphere can check the power of an authoritarian president and his administration or, conversely, whether an authoritarian administration dismissive of fundamental principles of justice can turn the entire country into a fascist state. So far it seems that, yes, this administration can cause great suffering and hardship, it can reverse decades of progress on environmental and social justice issues; but it seems that it cannot, under current conditions, muzzle public opinion or its power. These current conditions include a free press, spaces for public opinion to form and be shared, strong habits of public expression and contestation, and means for those who have been silenced or marginalized to enter the public fray.


I am attuned to these phenomena largely because of a personal experience: I was a sophomore having lunch with a graduate student and a young professor who were energetically arguing about something having to do with the Reagan administration. Never before had I found myself at a table with people arguing about politics in a way that showed that they thought that what they thought mattered. It honestly had never occurred to me that there was any point in discussing matters that it seemed I had no chance of affecting. Growing up I had occasionally paid attention to politics, especially the women’s movement, but there seemed to be an insurmountable gulf between my views and what happened politically. All anyone could do was vote once every four years or so. In none of my circles in conservative Texas did anyone much talk about politics. I barely knew what I thought. But around that lunch table in college, these two guys carried on as if what they said really mattered. That fascinated me and led to my subsequent interest in Habermas and kindred philosophers such as John Dewey and Hannah Arendt, who saw a deep connection between the will of the people and the work of politics. I remain fascinated not only by this political phenomenon but also by the ways in which so many don’t see themselves having anything to do with it, either out of ignorance or by design.

Through all his powerful social theory and philosophy, Jürgen Habermas has wagered that, under the right conditions, public opinion can hold power accountable. Foremost there needs to be a public sphere in which public opinion can emerge. By “public sphere” Habermas means “first of all a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed.” In principle the public sphere is open to all and takes place whenever people without coercion come together to talk about matters of general concern. Their opinion is not idle; it is aimed at criticizing and controlling “organized state authority.” The public exercises this function both informally on an everyday basis and in periodic elections.

Habermas began exploring the idea and the history of the public sphere in one of his very first works, his 1962 book Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, translated into English in 1989 as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. There he charted how the new media of newspapers in the 18th century coincided with the growth of an educated, somewhat-moneyed class which had the means and leisure to gather to discuss and debate the news of the day. Where the political state had grown into an impersonal apparatus for administering public matters, the new bourgeois public sphere became a counterpart to the state, a space in which what the state did could be taken up and — rationally and critically — argued over at the pub or the coffeehouse. This new chattering class brought about something new: a public sphere that weighs in on public matters. In Habermas’s post-Marxist political imaginary, the public, rather than the working class, becomes the new world-historical actor that just might be able to hold power accountable.

In the 50-some years since the publication of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas has continued to work out that theory. It now looks something like this: there are roughly three realms. At the center is the formal political system of the state, a tightly clustered arena of legislation and administration. It has the formal power to make decisions and execute policies. Just along the edge of this is a second arena of elite public opinion, the influence of “opinion leaders,” the editorial and front pages of the “leading media,” the pronouncements by other leaders in the non-governmental, but highly visible, public world: heads of corporation, public intellectuals, scientists, and those with reputation and standing in other arenas of civil society from universities to medicine. Along the periphery of this arena is the informal public sphere, which might be captured by public opinion polls or glimpsed in public mass demonstrations. Today it bubbles up through social media.

The informal public sphere serves three important functions. One is to serve as a sensor, identifying new social problems, just as the environmental movement began doing in the mid-20th century. Recall Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, which begins with an eerie fable of the birds not singing anymore, driven away by an environmental disaster. It was from the public sphere of concerned scientists and citizens that a clarion call came about threats to the natural environment. A social movement in the public sphere sensed the problem, thematized it, articulated it. The movement created “earth days” and made the problem a public issue that was, because of public pressure, eventually taken up by formal political bodies, which created an Environmental Protection Agency and passed laws for clean air and water. It was not the government that first noticed this problem and pressed for action, it was the public.

The public sphere’s second important function is to deliberate on the soundness and legitimacy of public policies made by the formal political system (along with the legitimacy of the system itself). While the formal political system has the authority to make laws and policies, these must pass the scrutiny of a deliberative public. Are the policies fair, equitable, sound, and wise? Do they properly address public problems or, to the contrary, do they create new ones? From a democratic and normative point of view, only the public can decide.

The public sphere’s third function, according to Habermas, is to hold governments “under siege,” or at least accountable, when they fail to live up to the demands of public opinion. This can be in response to either of the above situations — when a public sounds an alarm over a problem that is not being addressed, or when the public deems a policy illegitimate and the political system fails to correct it. In either case, publics can mobilize, threatening to disrupt business as usual or throw officials out of office.

The middle realm of leading media and elite opinion mediates between the first and third. While journalists and “opinion leaders” in this more influential part of the public sphere may have visibility and presence, they make up “just one link in a chain,” mediating between “state arenas […] and the episodic and informal everyday conversations of potential voters.” They take up policies and informal public opinion — reflecting, deliberating, and ultimately judging them — so as to bounce them back into the other realms of the political world.

At least in the domain of political communication — in other words, for the readers as citizens — the quality press plays the role of “leading media.” Even radio and television, as well as to the remainder of the press, depend to a large extent on the issues and reports fed to them by the “reasoning” newspapers in their political reporting and commentary.

With all these clearly delineated functions, the public sphere is hard to pin down. One might turn to Twitter and other social media to get the pulse of public opinion, but locating the will of the people is just as elusive as it was in previous centuries. The public sphere is sometimes difficult to locate because it is not a place; it is an occurrence. It occurs whenever two or more people come together to discuss matters of public concern. It may take place in a private living room, at a public lunch table, or in a public square so long as people are gathered there in conversation. It vanishes when those gathered together disperse.

The public sphere is more like a network or a web than a town hall. It has no center. It runs along and connects one node to another. One may traverse a tiny piece of it in a day, from conversation at breakfast to listening to the news in the car to taking part in a social media thread in the evening. All the while, the public sphere’s web branches out across the political landscape, from the informal world of members of society in their neighborhoods and workplaces, to more formal settings of “opinion leaders” and the halls of Congress, where representatives fret over poll results.

The public sphere emerges most pointedly in the news media, where some issues are selected for attention, sometimes because political elites made the issues salient, other times because unrest on the street brought them to the fore. But even here it fractures: one take is offered by the opinion pages of The New York Times, another by those of The Wall Street Journal; one by MSNBC, yet another by Fox News. One view blasts from A.M. talk radio and another cordially comes to you from PBS’s NewsHour. Yet even in such a vast and decentered public sphere, these conversations are connected through the informal discussions that arise whenever people come together, especially when they disagree and are hell bent on convincing each other of the truth of the matter. All these links in a chain, all these discrete and interconnected conversations, take up issues and revisit old ones, sift through them, chew them over, producing insights, and public opinion.

Habermas’s book on the public sphere was not translated into English until the late ’80s of the last century, but those who knew his work well saw traces of his interest in the public sphere in his works in the intervening years on political legitimacy and communicative action. In the late 1980s, leftist intellectuals were still more interested in the state than civil society. The Cold War was viewed as a battle between competing visions of the ideal state — communist or capitalist — and intellectuals too often saw political power as situated squarely within whatever form of government and economy the state supported. No one but Habermas (and previously Dewey and Arendt) paid much mind to the amorphous realm known as the people. Yes, sometimes they took to the streets, but those people seemed to be dissidents and leftists, not the mainstream masses, whom most political scientists wrote off as apathetic and irrational.

The year that surely vindicated Habermas’s vision of the public sphere was 1989, when popular movements throughout Eastern Europe rose up and denounced the illegitimacy of their countries’ ruling parties. Within days, those regimes fell. At the end of 1989, The New Republic reported on how swiftly and decisively a popular movement rose up against Czechoslovakia’s ruling Communist Party. Prior to November 1989, opposition demonstrations were relatively small and quickly quelled, but something changed suddenly when in November “throngs of hundreds of thousands of people,” mostly students, joined the demonstrations in Wenceslas Square. The security services turned zealous and violent, bloodying students and horrifying the nation, reminding them of the Soviet tanks of 21 years earlier that had steamrolled the Prague Spring. The demonstrators, including leading intellectuals, called themselves the Civic Forum, echoing East Germany’s New Forum. “In a matter of days they brought down the Communist leadership and dispatched the Party toward permanent oblivion,” Thomas Omestad reported at the time. The regime had overstepped any semblance of legitimate authority — and now there was a public space through which the opposition was willing to call it out. I recall watching the news and hearing a Civic Forum leader saying that the Communist People’s Party “was not our party,” clearly delegitimizing the country’s formal political power. Omestad wrote that, at that very moment, one man prophetically shouted, “This is the start of the finish of this government.” Sure enough, within 10 days Civic Forum “achieved what Poland's Solidarity took nine years to extract: a commitment by Communists accustomed to jailing their critics to abandon the Party's monopoly on power.”

To the example of Civic Forum and other social movements that toppled regimes in 1989, a critic could say that all this was only possible because the formal power of the Soviet Union was already disintegrating. So, the question returns: what real power does the public sphere have? Habermas borrowed his answer from Hannah Arendt, invoking her notion of the power of the “space of appearance,” the power that emerges when people come together to take up issues of common concern, but disperses the moment they step away. In a rather obscure essay from 1977, Habermas argued that Arendt was articulating a concept of “communicative power.” Arendt had discovered the horizontal power created by webs of people associating with each other.

The public sphere is not merely a theoretical construct. It is a phenomenon that dictators instinctively understand, which is why one of their first acts in dark times is usually to shut down public space, to roll tanks over demonstrators in public squares, to ban public associations, to disallow any organization that lacks official approval. Throughout history, around the world, authoritarian leaders shudder in the face of the communicative power of an informal public sphere. Shutting it down is one way to avoid scrutiny and proclamations of illegitimacy.

Governments that seek real legitimacy — not just the absence of criticism — need a democratic public sphere to support them. This is why leaders sometimes claim they have “a mandate” to do as they see fit: they are invoking the public’s (supposed) support. It is also why formal politics often has a dimension of public relations: “spin,” punditry, the general business of manufacturing public opinion. This is all the more real in complex liberal democracies, which Habermas knows are rife with what he calls strategic action — that is, actions oriented to success, to getting what one’s group wants, even absent real support or contrary to the public interest in some cases. Strategic action might well involve outright lying, with which Trump has much practice. Hannah Arendt had noted how vital truth was in politics, and how absent or distorted it often was in the antithesis of democracy, totalitarianism. While Trump surely never has read Arendt, he seems instinctively to understand the power he has to use lies to create an alternative reality.

Habermas’s response to these challenges is that a robust public sphere has the power to sift through the distortions and lies to get to “more or less reasonable results,” so long as public deliberative conversations are of a sufficiently high caliber. They need to be reasonable and critical, especially when dealing with lies; they need to have an epistemic dimension, which “involves criticism of false assertions and value judgments.” This power to call out lies comes from the way that the public sphere, including the news media, works; filtering information through argumentation, not simply mouthing opinions, but testing them in the back-and-forth of conversation and contestation. Conversations in the public sphere need to be open, uncoerced, and inclusive. It won’t do if only some of the population takes part and others are systematically excluded. Habermas’s wager is that if speech situations are free, open, fair, reasonable, and inclusive then a public opinion will emerge that is both democratic and powerful, vested with a communicative power that can hold the political system accountable.

But we might wonder how far these laudable criteria go, especially given historic exclusions, given cultures of marginalization, including, for example, the one in which I grew up, where few saw any point in talking about politics. The cultures of marginalization at work when I grew up in the 1960s are still at work today, teaching women to “be nice” and punishing them when they’re not; demanding that people of color stay in their place but still killing them for being there. There are also profound, often unconscious obstacles to “reasonable” public discourse, including generations-old traumas that have never been properly mourned or worked through.

For all these challenges, there is still ample reason to be optimistic about the power of the public sphere. Recall the three functions of the public sphere: acting as a sensor of public problems; deliberating on the merits of public policies; and holding governments accountable. In these past two years that surely have put Habermas’s theory to the test, the public sphere is doing pretty well. As a sensor, it (and “it” stands for that sprawling network of conversations) has sounded alarms with new hashtags — such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo — putting long-neglected issues on the public agenda. In the role of scrutinizing public policies, it is consciously and critically grappling with the lived facts of climate change as Trumpian anti-science founders in the tribunal of public judgment, as fires rage and hurricanes demolish whole cities. In terms of holding governments accountable, the public sphere has sent the Republican leadership of the United States House of Representatives packing.

To my mind, Habermas’s theory of the public sphere contributes immensely to our understanding of politics and, as Habermas turns 90 years old, is a profound cause for celebration. We can use it as a companion to understanding global political events of the past half century. It helps explain the steely determination of authoritarian regimes to shut down public spaces and the resolve of the people to keep such spaces for public expression and deliberation open. What happens in the public sphere is of great consequence. Whether it has the power to thwart authoritarian regimes has much to do with how inclusive, critical, and fearless it is — and with how confident participants are that what they think matters.


Noëlle McAfee is a professor of philosophy and the director of the Psychoanalytic Studies Program at Emory University.


Featured image: "Protesters in Chicago on November 19, Marching toward Trump Tower Chicago" by Ben Alexander is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

LARB Contributor

Noëlle McAfee is a professor of philosophy and the director of the Psychoanalytic Studies Program at Emory University. She has taught and published extensively in the areas of psychoanalysis, political theory, feminist theory, and continental philosophy. Her books include Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis (Columbia, 2019); Democracy and the Political Unconscious (Columbia, 2008); Julia Kristeva (Routledge, 2003); Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship (Cornell, 2000); and the co-edited anthology, Democratizing Deliberation. She is also the co-editor of the Kettering Review and an editor of the feminist section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


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