Re-Reading Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere against the Grain: Toward a Dialectical Theory of Responsible Party Discourse

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This essay represents the author's attempt to grapple with a number of tensions inspired and enriched by Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. This author's interest in history and historical context first engendered skepticism regarding Habermas's surprising discovery of the ideal of the bourgeois public sphere (hereafter BPS) within the far less than ideal context of eighteenth-century English politics and political discourse. Habermas critics have long noted that Structural Transformation often ignored many of the dreadful realties of the context of eighteenth-century political discourse (Calhoun, 1992, pp. 33, 239). There can be little doubt that the reality of politics and political discourse, at least in the English BPS, was antithetical to Habermas's ideal. According to Craig Calhoun (1992), for Habermas:

The importance of the public sphere lies in its potential as a mode of societal integration. Public discourse ... is a possible mode of coordination of human life, as are state power and market economies. But money and power are non-discursive modes of coordination ... they offer no intrinsic openings to the identification of reason and will, and they suffer from tendencies toward domination and reification. (p. 6)

In fact, public discourse of the period associated with the English BPS was thoroughly inundated with the influences of money and power. This period saw the rise and consolidation of modern financial institutions like the Bank of England and stock markets. And this timeframe also saw important developments in the growth of English political institutions--particularly political parties--that also exercised influence over policy outcomes and social coordination. In sum, the Structural Transformation may be said excessively to downplay the extent to which the power of emerging financial and political institutions, rather than the power of the better argument, shaped and guided English political discourse and policy--even during the time at which the BPS was allegedly in its prime.

But alongside this longstanding unease with the manner in which Habermas may be said to have neglected historical accuracy in the service of his efforts to recover "a valuable critical ideal" (Calhoun, 1992, p. 29) from the BPS, my current ruminations on Habermas's Structural Transformation are informed not just by history, but by concerns about the hyperpartisan context of early twenty-first century political discourse in the United States. As a corrective both to Habermas's downplaying of party and partisanship in the English BPS, as well as the seemingly unchecked partisanship of current political discourse, this essay uses Habermas's Structural Transformation as a springboard for developing contextually based strategies for argument evaluation that view political parties and partisan discourse, not exclusively as distortions of rationality or culprits in the decay of an idealized BPS, but rather as potential agents of rational deliberation and discourse.

Although Habermas (1989) maintained that the rise of modern interest-based political parties was a contributing factor in the decline of the BPS (pp. 203-5), he recognized nevertheless that the rational critical debate of the English BPS was itself somehow structured by a discursive tension between Robert Walpole's government and Bolingbroke's opposition. The English BPS, Habermas contends, resulted largely from the parliamentary opposition's attempt to influence the state by recourse to the umpire of public opinion. Opposition papers achieved the status of a fourth estate; and the public sphere developed in a confrontation between the press and the state: "From 1727 on, under the impact of the Craftsman, a systematic opposition arose which ... until 1742, via literature and press, informed the public at large about the political controversies in Parliament" (Habermas, 1989, pp. 63-64). Habermas (1989) continues,

through the critical debate of the public, it [political opposition] took the form of a permanent controversy between the governing party and the opposition . …