Barack Obama, Jurgen Habermas and You

The Dangers of Counterpublics

In recent weeks, nay months, many on the left have expressed dismay at the apparent failings of the Obama administration, regarding numerous topics but most prominently among them health care.He’s “caved” on the public option,failed to lead his party legislatively, spoken eloquently but delivered little.To some extent, these criticisms ring true.However, when discussing the developing health care bill, one must acknowledge the affect the media plays in the current narrative forming around this issue.The eternal horse race style coverage, head exploding political pundits of numerous ideological backgrounds, the braying on and on about Obama failing or somehow “blowing it” continues to provide additional sharp jags of irrationality into the general discourse regarding the Obama Presidency.

In 1962, Jurgen Habermas articulated his vision of a “public sphere” that had emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which served to “connect the state with the needs of the society” while preventing encroachment by the state into the private sphere. Dominated by middle class merchants and “men of letters”, Habermas’ public sphere created a universally accessible civil society which by definition could not exclude groups, “a public sphere from which specific groups would be eo ipso excluded was less than merely incomplete; it was not a public sphere at all.”Yet, we know that many were excluded. Additionally, Habermas wanted to explore the transformation of this sphere under expansive capitalism. Big business and the like dominated this new public sphere leaving citizens as postmodern consumers. Without descending into academic knifefights concerning interiority and other words that no one ever uses, one can acknowledge that the modern media monster consists not of a unified whole but a constellation of voices connected through a public sphere but not necessarily the public sphere.

If Habermas articulated a vision of a single public sphere, others suggest the existence of multiple political spheres that some observers call counterpublics.The fragmentation of television news on cable and the internet serves as a superficial but useful conceptualization. Habermas could not have for seen these divisions upon divisions. One could argue the incoherence of these publics makes domination easier, since no way to engage society broadly seems to exist. Unfortunately, in recent years the viewing public tends to gravitate toward the counterpublic that most clearly speaks for them. Regrettably it would seem that rather than acting to centralize debate in a community of ideas [I think we’ve heard enough about the marketplace variant], they instead behave like atoms bounding off one another, creating a heated environment in which real discussion fails to unfold. Of course, the point here is not that counterpublics are inherently negative, they aren’t. They can be incredibly liberating, but counterpublics when amplified unevenly in a fractured public sphere, can distort. For example, just because someone shouts the loudest in an argument doesn’t mean they win or were somehow right, it just means they were the loudest. In terms of historical precedents, one might look to the rights movements of the 1960s and 70s. Print and television media broadcast the voices of specific individuals in various movements, mostly on the left, whose personal views were then imposed upon the movements/organizations they were associated with. Columbia sociologist Todd Gitlin explored this in The Whole World Is Watching. The leaders shouting the most radical politics the loudest garnered more attention than other leaders. This process has accelerated under the new media conditions.

So what does Habermas have to do with Obama’s health care reform? Much of the narrative emerging around the health care debacle appears driven by these counterpublics’ ability to harness widespread free media coverage.The convergence of reality TV, infotainment, and the ravenous 24 hour news cycle serve as an unholy albatross around Barack Obama’s neck. No sitting President has had to endure the questioning of his citizenship so publicly and brazenly, while a prominent and powerful opposition network throws the equivalent of media Molotov cocktails. [Note: this is not to say there are not principled reasons to oppose Obama and his policies, there are, some republicans have done that but at least one prominent media outlet has not.] Additionally, though many of his critics have legitimate concerns about debt and overregulation, others, granted a minority but a sizable one, have not so subtly invoked racial and racist arguments and images in attempt to debunk his presidency. The teabag protests, the town hall meetings, Joe Wilson, all simply function as sounding boards for an inchoate anger, but the rise of new media and media channels allows for their broadcast such that they become the normative.

What do most people think of the current health care bill? Many are wildly ambivalent (yes, I realize the oddity of such a statement) since few know what’s even in it.Even the protests and townhall meetings exhibited a grab bag of complaints that often had no relation to health care. Yet, the media covered them as a populist rage over one issue with each protester as legitimate as the next.One might ask, as so many already have, how can he be both a fascist and a communist? Conversely, as already noted, supporters aren’t quite foaming at the mouth. No real “populist” pro-Obama counterpublic exists. Instead, much of the visible support for the bill comes from academics, technocrats, politicians and others, which only reinforces the elitist perception some citizens already have of the President.

Much of the anger finding its way into the narrative is as much about what we don’t know as what we do.Confusion over the issue and the complexity of health care itself means passionate rage over the unknown by opponents, and a shrug of the shoulders from those who want it, but have no idea what that “it” consists of. No doubt, the framing of Obama as a lackey for the banks is aided in no small part by the fact that NO ONE understands the financial complexities that sunk our economies. Rolling Stone journalist Matthew Taiibi acknowledged as much in a 2009 podcast admitting that for the first couple months everyone was just trying to UNDERSTAND what had happened. If professionals struggle to grasp the byzantine nature of the recession, what hope did the broader public have? The bailout has been widely credited for staving off even worse, but certainly the behavior of banks since their recovery has been questionable at best.The future unknown in regards to the economy and health care combined with an existential current unknown of the past, i.e. “what the hell happened to our economy and whose responsible?” intersect to create a lot of uncertainty which tends to make people angry, rational or not. Fear of the unknown sure isn’t original but it’s real.

There is no middle ground in today’s public sphere, you either are or you aren’t. In this light, health care shines like no other issue as Obama’s. The two wars, not really his. The economy is his now but really wasn’t for much of his first year.The financial meltdown not his, though he’s taken it on the nose for the bailout (though on Friday, the President announced a Paul Volcker-endorsed plan to crack down on the banks but as with many issues, we’ll have to wait and see.)  Health care is his… and the Clinton’s. Did I happen to mention, Obama’s pathological reticence towards nearly all things Clinton? Remember, this is the same man who modeled his transition into office on Reagan while rejecting the admittedly unorganized Clintonian example. Don’t underestimate the influence Clinton’s debacle had on the Obama team’s flawed health care approach. The reason Obama didn’t lead out of the gate was because he and his advisors clearly feared a reprisal of Hilary and Bill’s tortured attempt at reform. Cited as perhaps the greatest policy failure of the Clinton presidency, the media and others can’t help but conflate the two, but remember the Clintons’ got nothing. Even the center right Economist drew a similar comparison week ago, “More generally, Mr. Obama has run a competent, disciplined yet heterodox administration, with few of the snafus that characterized Bill Clinton’s first year.” (Economist, Time to Get Tough, 16 January 2010)

Obama will get something, we just have no idea what it is yet. And those who suggest we should must not understand the incompetency of Congress, Republican and Democrat. Anyway, not everyone sees doom and gloom. The same issue of the Economist suggested Obama “is on the point of bringing affordable health care to virtually every American citizen…” Granted this evaluation exudes too much optimism, but we should ask ourselves how quickly and thoroughly change comes in this nation.The 1965 Immigration Act under LBJ took three years before its final details were hammered out and its changes implemented yet it drastically altered America’s body public. Moreover, not to be a positivist here, but the 1957 Civil Rights Act lacked teeth, spine, or grit to any degree, yet seven years later, LBJ signed an imperfect but significant civil right act into law, and one year after that a voting rights act which greatly altered the electorate. Both of these only came into being as result of perhaps the most important amendment of the 20th century, the 14th which for decades, historians have lamented took nearly 100 years before its application even began to approach the kind of equality it promised. In the middle of two wars, a crippling recession, drooping labor and housing markets, and in the face of wide scale lobbyist resistance from insurance to pharmaceuticals ,a foothold is being secured. No one should settle for less, but an understanding of historical context and real world conditions might be useful.After all, sometimes a foot in the door is a foot in the door.

Ryan Reft