Public Opinion Formation
Following Durkheim and Weber, Habermas argues that social and political institutions cannot be maintained solely through force or strategic manipulation.34 Although the threat of sanctions or the prospect of rewards are often part of what motivates citizens to play by the rules, by themselves such inducements cannot guarantee mass loyalty and stability. Stability requires that “reasons for obedience can be mobilized” which “at least appear to be justified in the eyes of those concerned.”35
Laws need to be inter-subjectively recognized by citizens; they have to be legitimated as right and proper. This leaves culture with the task of supplying reasons why an existing political order deserves to be recognized.36
When the reasons culture supplies are no longer convincing, then the fragile maintenance system of a norm falls apart. At this point a process must be undertaken whereby mobilization is either regenerated or shifted to an alternative norm. Mobilizing reasons for obedience is achieved through the communicative practice of convincing each other that there really are (or are not) good grounds to recognize a norm. Without such a regenerating process, not simply at our disposal but constantly in use, the shared background to our social world would fall apart.
There are two aspects to a discursive theory. First, there is the recognition and analysis of the real-world processes through which a citizen body generates the recognition necessary to sustain a stable system of justice. Culture and communication underpin this process. This analysis brings out the consensual foundation to all stable systems of rules and norms. Overlaid upon this social analysis is the theoretical/ethical analysis, which points to the optimal conditions under which this process ought to take place if the outcomes are to represent what is in the common interest. Thus rationalism is introduced not as a rational plan for society but as a process of rationalizing the consensual foundations to society.
It is not controversial to hold that stable political systems require some underlying belief in the legitimacy of the system; what is more controversial is to hold that this legitimacy must be rationally constructed through a democratic public debate. One need only think of Madison’s remark that frequent appeals to the public would destroy “that veneration which time bestows on everything, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability.”37 Madison is echoing the conservative view that stability is maintained through non-cogni – tive, affective motivations such as reverence, respect, and patriotism. But the rise of pluralism in the modern world has made reliance on such shared community feelings increasingly implausible. Pluralism does not necessarily undermine the substance of traditional ways, rather it undermines “the sanctity… of a politics attached to traditional ways.”38 Pluralism challenges the authority of tradition more than its content. When this authority is challenged then reverence and respect must be earned; it cannot simply be assumed to be the natural by-product of the passage of time.
The historical circumstances that we, in modern liberal democracies find ourselves in, points to the conclusion that we can no longer depend on unquestioned veneration for our stability. We no longer share a common religious view nor a comprehensive moral outlook. The authority of tradition has been greatly weakened in a world where “nontraditional” perspectives are gaining an ever-stronger voice. We have very little homogeneity to fall back on to do the work of keeping our world together when a normative dispute arises. Thus, we must construct a consensus; we can no longer appeal to one that is ready-made.39 The conditions for producing, reproducing, or changing a consensus in the modern political world point to the necessity of rationalizing and democratizing our public debates.
As a rationalized version of the processes through which culture and social integration are reproduced, discourse does not take place in any specially designated institutions. It can take place wherever public opinion is formed and this means at all levels of society—from one-on-one debates in informal settings to debates in Parliament.40 What this means is that the
defining characteristic of discourse cannot be found in any one set of institutional rules. Certain institutional rules can be necessary conditions for discourse but not sufficient conditions. For example, at the most general level, institutionalized rights are part of the context which can enable us to pursue discursive solutions. The legal protection of free speech is part of such an enabling context. But the First Amendment does not enforce the reciprocal requirements of practical discourse. It does not require us to listen to what others have to say; it does not require us to attempt to understand the other’s point of view; it does not require us to refrain from manipulating or deceiving others; it does not require us to be swayed only by the force of the better argument. Only we can require these things of ourselves; institutions cannot force us to do them.
In distinguishing discursive democracy from republican or communitarian ideals of democracy, Habermas points out that discourse does not depend on a shared community ethos or the creation of a collective subject that acts as one.41 These are unrealistic ideals in a modern pluralistic context. Instead, discursive democracy depends, on the one hand, on institutionalizing the procedures and conditions of communication and, on the other, the interplay between institutionalized decision-making and informally yet rationally shaped public opinion. In avoiding the pitfalls of communitarianism and the need for a high level of civic virtue, Habermas over stresses the purely procedural requirements of discursive democracy. Discourse does depend on institutionalizing the procedures and conditions of communication. But discourse also depends on citizens participating in institutionalized as well as informal discourse as discursive actors. If citizens do not possess this willingness, then no matter how well designed institutional arrangements are for the purposes of discourse, discourse will not take place. Everyone might have the opportunity to speak, but if no one is listening, the result is chaos. Habermas does not deny that discourse requires an interest in mutual understanding, but he never deals fully with the possibility that citizens might generally lack such an interest or not possess the competencies to pursue such an interest. In a world where negotiation, instrumental trade-offs, and strategic bargaining are the most common routes to reaching collective “agreement” and resolving disputes, it is plausible that the most serious barrier to discourse can be found in the conversational habits that citizens have become used to.
Discourse ethics replaces the image of public debate as a marketplace of ideas between elites in which interests and understandings compete with each other for domination with the idea of public debate as a democratized forum in which we cooperatively construct common understandings and work through our differences. Part of this transformation can take place by opening up opportunities to participate, by including excluded voices, by
democratizing media access, by setting up “town meetings,” by politicizing the depoliticized, by empowering the powerless, by decentralizing decisionmaking, by funding public commissions to canvas public opinion, and so on. But all such initiatives will fail to produce a discursively formed public opinion if citizens are unwilling to or uninterested in acting discursively.
Despite their commitment to process over end-result, the women at Seneca Peace Camp had to come to decisions. Choices had to be made, actions had to be organized, policies had to be decided. Closure had to be achieved in a relatively clear and unambiguous way. But an ongoing public discourse in which deep collective understandings and interpretations are reevaluated and altered does not require closure in the same way. Indeed, closure is undesirable in this context. The ideal of a consensually steered society is the ideal of a society that is committed to a certain type of political culture. Implementing practical discourse, then, is not so much a matter of setting up a constitutionally empowered “body” of some sort as it is of engendering a practice. It involves fostering a political culture in which citizens actively participate in public debate and consciously adopt the discursive attitudes of responsibility, self-discipline, respect, cooperation, and productive struggle necessary to produce consensual agreements. It is utopian to believe that we will ever be as considerate, respectful, and caring of each other while working through normative disagreements as is required by the ideal of discourse. But it is not unrealistic to hope that habits of argumentation change, nor is it unrealistic to explore ways of changing them. The road from public debate in which strategic actors compete in a marketplace of ideas to public debate in which discursive actors democratically work through their differences is a long one. Its length, however, is a poor argument for not setting out on the journey.