Freedom may never be conceived merely negatively, as the absence of compulsion. Freedom conceived intersubjectively distinguishes itself from the arbitrary freedom of the isolated individual. No one is free until we are all free.—Jurgen Habermas, Essays on Reason, God and Morality
People no longer trust the media—if they ever did. Repeated studies have shown that, in many developed states, most of the general public perceive the media as biased in some way. This is a serious problem because maintaining democracy depends on far more than simply enabling voters to cast a ballot once every few years. Democratic politics depends on a robust and ongoing discussion in the so called public sphere, which emerged in the late seventeenth century as a fluid space where ideas were put forward, evaluated and won disciples and opponents. The public sphere plays a vital role in both the ongoing legitimation of democracy and the establishment of a common culture of civic friendship and reciprocity. When hyper-partisans abandon or seek to erode the public sphere through conspiracy theorizing, manic polemic and relentless antagonism, they’re doing more than just riling up their base and discrediting their enemies—more even than establishing insular bubbles, where people have little exposure to opposing points of view, leading to what Marcuse would call distorted and one-dimensional visions of the real world. The most insidious consequence of all this is a deep apathy towards democracy: a belief that the game is so rigged that there is no point trying to improve it—all you can do is try to get the best deal possible for yourself and for those who think like you. This is a dangerous development, since democracy is one of the great accomplishments of modernity. After the defeat of wannabe authoritarian Donald Trump, it is worth asking how to rejuvenate a beaten but not broken democratic project for the next decade.
One thinker who provides a subtle and often panoramic take on these themes is Jurgen Habermas. Having come of age during the period of German reconstruction and deep soul searching that followed the Second World War, his experiences watching a society first tear itself apart over the Nazis and then spend decades trying to come back together inform his rich, dense theoretical project: the explanation and justification of political and economic democracy.
Habermas on the Need for Democracy
Habermas’ early intellectual sympathies were with the critical theories of the Frankfurt School as pioneered by Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and others. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, these figures have often been carelessly lumped together with various postmodern critics of reason, which deeply misunderstands their ambitions. Adorno and Horkheimer were not criticizing reason in general but specifically “instrumental reason”—the tendency to understand the world purely in terms of objects to be manipulated for subjective purposes. Instrumental reason sets itself up as purely scientific, as taking the world simply as it materially is. But it can never provide a deep justification for universal moral principles, beyond subjective individual preferences. This means that societies governed by instrumental reason, particularly those of twentieth-century industrial capitalism, were filled with detached and atomized individuals, who nihilistically saw themselves as the source of all value in the world and were often tempted to deny any value to others. Horkheimer and Adorno believed that this contributed to the rise of reactionary fascism. The fascists promised to restore a sense of deeper meaning at the price of total submission to the party and the elimination of liberal permissiveness and tolerance of difference, which were associated with decadence and decline. But, because they did not tackle the deep roots of nihilism in the emptiness of instrumental reason, ironically the fascists ended up elevating the subjective willpower of the nation to pseudo-divine status and directing its resentments at foreigners, liberals, socialists and others through policies of mass murder.
Habermas accepted many elements of the critique of instrumental reason into his own work, but disagreed with the pessimism that underpinned this critique. And he was right to do so: as Nate Hochman has pointed out, Adorno and Horkheimer’s pessimistic leftist narrative of decline and fall has a surprising amount in common with the doom and gloom of anti- or post-liberal conservative critics of modernity like Robert Nisbet, Alasdair Macintyre and Patrick Deneen. While Adorno and Horkheimer always insisted that their critique of instrumental reason was conducted on behalf of rescuing a more inclusive, dialectical reason, Habermas argued that their work remained stamped by anti-modernism. This was reflected in their politics: buried beneath the calls for a radically new and more equal society were the nostalgia and elitist snobbery revealed by their disdain for mass society and plebian entertainment. One could accept many of their anxieties about the influence of instrumental reason and the way it filtered through capitalist institutions like the culture industry, without abandoning the significant achievements of liberal and democratic socialists in constructing rights-respecting states committed to a limited but real kind of democracy.
This doesn’t mean adopting the position of liberal conservatives that we’ve gone far enough and can now rest on our laurels. In papers such as “Modernity: The Incomplete Project” and books like The Divided West, Habermas chides liberals and progressives for their complacency in assuming that, after the fall of first fascist and then Soviet totalitarianism in the 1940s and 1980s, everything would be smooth sailing. He observes that too many liberals and social democrats put their faith purely in institutions and law to keep the forces of anti-modernity at bay, when so much more is required. For individuals to remain committed to modernity, they need to see themselves as not just beneficiaries of liberal and economic rights, but as democratic participants in an ongoing civic project. When they don’t, all the creature comforts in the world can’t prevent a backlash.
Habermas on the Decline of the Public Sphere and Religious Toleration
On these points, Habermas sounded the alarm many decades ago, warning that declining public faith in institutions and the media meant that millions of citizens no longer saw the existing order as sufficiently legitimate. Increasingly ensconced in partisan bubbles, in which people repeated simplistic and easily digestible narratives, few were ever exposed to alternative viewpoints, and so were primed to embrace an antagonistic politics that pinned all the blame for social problems on political enemies. Neoliberal economic policies that insulate economic interests and concerns from democratic pressures lead to ever deeper anger about globalization, the increasing influence of money in politics and the hegemony of business and cultural elites—Thomas Piketty’s “nativist and merchant” right and the “Brahmin left”—who dominate parties and policy in developed countries. None of these trends were good for democracy. They allowed many illiberal postmodern conservatives, who claimed to be the real voice of the people, to sweep to power and implement a variety of authoritarian reforms. Ironically, this deepened the crisis of legitimation the populists pretended they could resolve—as they created even more animosity, spread disinformation and appealed to exclusionary nostalgia for a homogeneous ethnonational or religious past, in lieu of egalitarian democratic inclusion.
Habermas’ solution to these problems is multi-pronged. On the one hand, he encourages the defenders of modernity to become more adaptable in their interests and engagements. On the other, he insists that resisting anti-modernism means translating the concerns of reactionaries into a more secular language, which can be accommodated by ever more egalitarian and democratic institutions and practices.
One of the most prominent examples of this is his ongoing effort to conduct a dialogue with the Christian religious tradition on relatively equal terms, rather than insisting on its submission to militant secularization. This has special relevance given the importance of questions of faith in countries like France and the United States. In dense books like Between Naturalism and Religion, Habermas defends secular modernity, while recognizing its roots in prominent strands of monotheistic humanism. He also admits that, while modernity has achieved tremendous feats in securing greater freedom and equality for all, it has also been characterized by declining faith in religious traditions that provided millions with a sense of purpose and meaning. This sense of meaning has faded and the loss is compounded by the increasing unresponsiveness of democratic institutions and deepening political polarization. So it should come as no surprise that millions turn to authoritarian reactionaries like Viktor Orban and Donald Trump who promise to wind back the clock to an allegedly better time while quashing the so-called cultural enemies of the people. Habermas notes that too many liberal and progressive thinkers have dismissed these concerns about meaning as irrational or anachronistic. Instead, they should try to find ways to allay these anxieties, using a less metaphysically loaded language than those deployed by the faithful and encouraging their dialogue partners to do the same. If progressives and liberals could become more familiar with the history and features of different traditions, they might be able to reduce some of the animosity religious conservatives feel towards liberal and progressive defenders of modernity. This would help deepen a shared commitment to multicultural toleration on the basis of mutual respect and consideration. As Habermas puts it:
The guarantee of equal ethical liberties calls for the secularization of state power, but it forbids the political overgeneralization of the secularized worldviews. Insofar as they act in their role as citizens, secularized citizens may neither fundamentally deny that religious worldviews may be true nor reject the right of devout fellow citizens to couch their contributions to public discussions in religious language. A liberal political culture can even expect its secularized citizens to participate in efforts to translate relevant contributions from the religious language into a publicly acceptable language … This observation paves the way for a dialectical understanding of cultural secularization. If we conceive of the modernization of public consciousness … as a learning process that affects and changes religious and secular mentalities alike by forcing the tradition of the Enlightenment, as well as religious doctrines, to reflect on their respective limits, then the international tensions between major cultures and world religions also appear in a different light.
One way to address all these problems is by reinvigorating the public sphere and emphasizing the importance of democratic life. Democracy has all too often been cast, not least by liberals, in purely procedural terms—as mostly about voting for certain candidates and parties to get one’s desired policy outcomes. But democracy is so much more: it is about constructing a shared world on the basis of mutual respect and a commitment to the moral equality of all. As democracy has fallen by the wayside over the past few decades, we have become increasingly insular and unable to recognize ourselves in a world that is being designed for us. This has produced understandable, albeit misdirected, resentments. The faithful have watched as secular liberal globalists have arrogantly pushed an ever more permissive agenda, while dismissing them as relics clinging to their guns and religion. Leftists have seen their mid-century ambition to establish greater economic democracy rolled back by anti-unionization, skyrocketing inequality and the influence of money in politics. Liberals have watched with horror as hard-won rights to freedom of expression and belief have been under assault from both edges of the political spectrum. Habermas shows us that we have only two choices: recommit to the project of improving and rebuilding democracy together or carrying on spiraling downward.