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Response: Against Civility, or Why Habermas Recommends a Wild Public Sphere

By Roberta Maggi

I recently found myself having to write a short reaction paper on an article entitled “Against Civility, or why Habermas recommends a wild public sphere” by Steven Klein, who stylishly makes sense of Habermas’s work with regard to our current era of “hyperpolarization, social-media echo chambers and populist demagogues”. Before reading my two cents on the subject, a reminder of the key pillars of Habermas’s work, as described in the article, is necessary.

Firstly, Habermas believes that democracy requires an open, wild, anarchic public sphere. This of course entails that confrontation and protest become key components of deliberative politics in Habermas’s understanding of democratic systems. The author’s thinking is thus described as primarily concerned with “the history of the repression and re-establishment” of rational political communication among human beings with the capacity to mutually understand and support each other in the search for true democratic consensus (which remains a theoretical fantasy due to its impracticability in a society defined rather by a recalcitrant public than an enlightened one). In a time when leaders “have too long refused to listen”, citizens find in populism and critique the sensation of a break from the world of technocratic governance (which is to populists what garlic is to vampires) and semi-dynastic politics.

Above all else, the key question that emerges from this well-written article is: If the ability to withstand civil disobedience is the litmus test for the maturity of a constitutional democracy, what does the top-down dismissal of the concerns of the protesting population, or political minority, in such political regimes say about the country’s state of affairs?

Here begins my intellectual journey of grappling with the unstoppable stream of thoughts going through my brain at the exact moment in time when I realized that agreeing with Habermas on the above meant completely reshaping my conceptualization of Western democracies as, well, democracies.

Arguably the world’s “best” democracy, allegorically known as Uncle Sam, has struggled with this very issue for the better part of the last hundred years – whether it took the form of the Black Panthers, or its recent reincarnation, Black Lives Matter. The utter inability of the administrative state to come to terms with the impact of racial inequalities on the daily lives of its minorities speaks of the embeddedness of an aversion to the “unruly forces of the public sphere” in its broken system. Similarly, the bipartisan system mistakenly portrayed as legitimate political representation fails to accurately and proportionally represent the extent of the political spectrum in a democratic manner, all the while prioritizing the opinion of the partisan (and lobbyist) majority over the course of the (single or double, but non-alcoholic) mandate.

With the intention of remaining brief, what this short reflection on the state of affairs of one of the proudest ‘democracies’ in the world serves to show that Habermas is entirely correct in his argument that a wild public sphere capable of organizing peaceful and meaningful instances of civil disobedience needs to be matched with an equally capable and reasonable constitutional democracy. Sadly, few can claim to pass the ultimate litmus test today.

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