Michael Schudson is a professor of communication at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, and at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life (1998) and, most recently, of Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press (2008). He is currently working on a report (with Leonard Downie) on sustainable models for financing news reporting (forthcoming in Columbia Journalism Review in the Fall of 2009).
The concept of the public sphere, as developed by Jurgen Habermas, is both historically descriptive and normative. It identifies a historical formation that arose in late 18th century western Europe and it posits a model of what a good society should be.
No one still longs to recover the highly idealized late 18th-early 19th century moment whose disintegration Habermas initially saw as a great historical tragedy. Now we recognize – and the “we” includes Habermas – that the social exclusions built into that early public sphere eliminate it as a sufficient ideal for us today. Large categories of people were excluded from the public life of the coffee houses and newspapers that constituted this early public sphere. Women were outside the magic circle as were men without property. Those who were included, it can also be added, had a limited capacity to arrive at reasoned public choice not only because their circle was small but also because their information about public affairs was restricted. Government operated in much greater secrecy than would be true later. Even when information was available, a culture of deference left to only a few of those propertied white males in the coffee house the capacity to speak authoritatively.
The historical concept of a bourgeois public sphere has been widely criticized and revised; the normative concept has also been criticized but stands not clearly revised. Scholars still use it as an appropriate standard of judgment for measuring our political and cultural institutions. The trouble with doing so is that there is no ideal public sphere. I do not mean that there has never been a fully realized public sphere, although this is true. I mean that there never can be, and not just because human social institutions are imperfect. There never can be because the ideal of a public sphere is unitary but the institutions of actual living democracies are plural without being arrangeable in a simple hierarchy of “better” and “worse.”
How is this possible? Consider two analogies. Imagine an ideal of human beauty. Let’s try to construct the perfect body, the one that optimizes human grace in ideal proportion. In this example, you see the problem immediately: does this ideal human have ovaries or testicles? A smooth or a bearded cheek? The human bodily ideal comes in at least two varieties, male and female. Each satisfies some image of what the ideal body looks like, but each does so in a different way.
Or consider the problem of finding the ideal pedagogy for teaching communication. What is the ideal way to educate students? We can agree at once that some approaches will be better than others. But is there a best practice that all of us should adopt? I don’t think so. We would want to specify a variety of conditions first. Context matters. Who are our students and what preparation have they had? What is the orientation of our department and what skills and interests do we bring to the table? How many students can we handle? And so forth. One size will not fit all.
The ideal form that a democratic society’s public sphere should take is and always will be variable in ways that a unitary model of reasoned public choice does not accommodate.
I tried to say this ten years ago in The Good Citizen –rather indirectly, I confess.[1. Michael Schudson, The Good Citizen (New York: Free Press, 1998). The account I develop above of the different historical citizenship ideals expressed in terms of different characters on the cartoon show “The Simpsons” is explained more fully in Michael Schudson, “New Technologies and Not-So-New Democracies,” Tidsskriftet Politik vol. 9 no. 2 (September 2006) Copenhagen, Denmark pp. 6-14.] While the variety of public spheres might be most fruitfully examined comparatively across nations, and one might then find that there is a family of public spheres, some operating with strong public broadcasting and some not, some with high circulation of commercial newspapers and some with low circulation, some with partisan newspapers predominating and some with newspapers more committed to professional detachment, some with and some without a strong tradition of investigative reporting, some with frequent elections and some with rare elections, some with a highly professional civil service and others with many layers of political appointees, some with proportional representation in the legislature and some without, some with broad access to higher education and some with limited access. Which combination of these items (and others) builds the best public sphere?
Even in one country over time, different models rise and fall and compete for public allegiance, and there may be no consensus about which model is superior. And yet, in most academic writing about the public sphere, there is a strong whiff of the seminar room. The Good Citizen offered an alternative. It argued that in the United States there have been, over time, four different models of good citizenship, each implying a rather different concept of public reason. The model that fits best with a Habermasian notion of the public sphere is the “informed citizen” model – but this model in fact arose as a popular ideal in the late 19th century – in contrast to the dominant 19th century ideal of the enthusiastic, partisan citizen, noted more by his loyalties to a party and a community than by his rigorous thinking or discussing of policy alternatives. This “informed citizen” model is, in my terms, the Lisa Simpson model of public life – the good girl model, the conscientious, educated, reasoning, thinking, openly and politely discussing model. In the 19th century, the dominant American model presented an ideal citizen more like Homer Simpson than Lisa. In this model, politics was taken to be – and was understood to appropriately be — an activity of a fraternity of men brought together by comradeship, ethnic and religious fellowship, alcohol, energetic partisanship in newspapers, and strong enthusiasms rarely leavened by a relationship to particular issues. Public life was about jobs and allegiances more than policies and principles.
The Homer model was challenged at the end of the 19th century by the Lisa model; Lisa’s approach was in turn challenged (by the time of the civil rights movement) by what I think of as the Bart Simpson model of the irreverent citizen. We have been so persuaded in academia by the Lisa model that we think of Bart as the anti-citizen. I think this is a mistake. The single-issue voter for whom an anti-war stance or a gay marriage stance or a position on abortion is a litmus test, someone who focuses obsessively on a piece of the larger political picture where they essentially refuse discussion, compromise, or complexity is not a non-citizen or an anti-citizen but someone often highly motivated for and highly effective in political and civic participation.
There are pluses and minuses to each of these ideals for the practice of citizenship. Still, maybe by some measure we could determine that some institutional facilities for public life will always be better than others. Perhaps we could agree that strong public broadcasting is better than weak public broadcasting for reasoned public choice. James Curran et al have recently argued that strong public broadcasting makes citizens better informed than weak public broadcasting and I do not doubt that they are right about this.[2. James Curran, Shanto Iyengar, Anker Brink Lund, and Ink Salovaara-Moring, “Media System, Public Knowledge and Democracy: A Comparative Study,”European Journal of Communication vol. 24 (2009) 5-26.] But in the empirical world, the various components of a public sphere do not seem to be things we can build just as we wish like creating a structure of tinker toys – we find ourselves limited by particular historical and cultural accretions. The United States never developed strong public broadcasting. On the other hand, few western democracies (if any) developed investigative reporting as aggressive and probing as that which the American print media have provided. Could we just add better public broadcasting to the U.S. or improved investigative journalism to France or Italy? This is not so simple – and it is just the tip of the iceberg.
So my question – a genuine question – is how to mediate between the historical particularities of real democracies and the seminar-room ideals of public life. Any effort at improving or reforming public life in any country must appeal at least implicitly to some standards of what the communication we seek should look like. But by the same token any such effort must get absorbed in understanding the culture and institutions of public life it engages, and this will draw it away from any kind of rote application of philosophical norms. By what means, be they political or intellectual, can the ideal of the public sphere be articulated so as to provide genuine guidance for dealing with the on-the-ground architecture of public life – or is it better for us to imagine and describe a family of differently organized public spheres that cannot be judged as better and worse but only different?
[This essay is based on a talk delivered at the mini-plenary “Keywords:The Public Sphere, Public Culture and Reasoned Public Choice” of the 59th Annual ICA Conference in Chicago, May 22, 2009.—ed.]