The strength of the public sphere, as a concept and theory, is that it provides a methodology and conceptualization of the "voice of the people." In other words, the public sphere is the direct and indirect, written and oral, discussions among people who are not officially part of the government...
The strength of the public sphere, as a concept and theory, is that it provides a methodology and conceptualization of the "voice of the people." In other words, the public sphere is the direct and indirect, written and oral, discussions among people who are not officially part of the government or ruling classes. Habermas is thinking of reasonable people in coffee shops, restaurants, and other socializing places. He is also thinking of the influence of newspapers and opinion pieces. This sphere forms the court of public opinion. The crucial function of this is to check the government. With the rise of the bourgeoisie and the public sphere, governments and monarchies had to become more accountable for their actions.
In theory, the public sphere is a vital tool for people to have a voice (collective or variated) that keeps their government aware of their needs. One problem is that the critical discussions about politics and policies became specialized and practiced by academics and professionals. This limits the public sphere. Habermas recognized this and encouraged an integration between these specializations and the common needs and language of most people. The whole point is to address the needs of everyone: not just academics and artists in coffee shops.
Another problem is that faith in the public sphere assumes that most discussions, essays, and media in general will be reasonable or will facilitate reasonable debate. This comes from Habermas’ faith in Reason. Habermas considers Modernity to be an incomplete project (stemming from the also incomplete “Enlightenment”). To complete the project, he believes in Reason in the public sphere. He argues that poststructuralists (such as Foucault, Lyotard, and Derrida) have abandoned reason as a historical project. Habermas has even called these critics “young conservatives”—a label most critics would strongly disagree with. Habermas did so to mark his difference from their methodologies. Whereas they discuss a fragmented, diverse set of interpretive theories, Habermas’s insistence on Reason suggests a universalism that might not reflect the different needs of different kinds of people. Hence, another problem with this universal notion of the public sphere can be found.
In other words, a problem with the public sphere is the risk of homogenizing what public opinion is. The opinion of smaller, marginalized groups might be excluded. Or, in the case of the United States today, there is the risk of boiling it down to a binary of opinions: the right and the left. Either result seems to be a generalization of public thought.
Another contemporary problem is confusing the media’s influence and public opinion. Social media is a virtual public sphere, but people are constantly bombarded by the normative media (right and left, Fox and MSNBC, etc.) to the point that one questions whether the public can have their own opinion any more. Is the influence too pervasive? Is reasonable debate the norm or a rarity on social media? And how do we correct that?
Despite these problems, the public sphere does seem like a now indispensable and vital part of a democracy. Certainly, there are problems that evolve as the public sphere evolves. And Habermas’s early insistence on Reason as a universalizing consensus smacks a bit too much of homogenization and generalization especially in a diverse, free population. As public opinion evolves and diversifies, the notion of a public sphere should evolve as well.