Correspondence –

– or in fact just an exchange of e-mails with my supervisor Tarmo Malmberg. Once again, this is as much of a reminder for myself as it is anything else.

“Dear András,

[…]
On the basis of your presentation on Friday, I figure out the two main questions of your thesis as the following.

(1) You have to deduce from Habermas’s normative theory of democracy such variables or issues that can be researched empirically, which means operationalizing them to a sufficient extent.

(2) You have to analyse the empirical data in such a way as to enable assessment of the degree of the health of American democracy on the basis of your sample.

(1) There are different emphases on deliberative democracy, of which Habermas’s version is one. Habermas pays little attention to the deliberation in the legislative or executive bodies, so the focus is on the deliberative capabilities of public-sphere and life-world actors. On the basis of Faktizität and the more recent contributions, we can try to approximate what Habermas means by his theory. This is not uncontroversial, because Habermas is, I think, insufficiently detailed in his ideas on this point (this, I’m convinced, parallels his lack of subtlety in matters mass communication).

(2) There are several issues concerned with what your empirical data are really about. I take up just one point. Considering that we can take the social news sites your focusing on as representative of political public sphere, we can put the two following questions.

(a) If there are one million users of the sites, and on voting on a single day’s news, say, participate only 10 000 users, can we say that the latter in any democratic manner represent the ‘site population’ (or ‘We the Site People’)?

(b) Filtering life-world inputs by public-sphere actors is relevant, because it aims at influencing the core political actors of the polity. In this case the polity consists of US citizens, that is those persons having a right to vote in a presidential election. Now, if, let’s say, ten percent of those participating ín the voting on the sites are non-American citizens, the result of the votes does not represent US public opinion. That is, the result is not a reliable index of any single constituency of the US population. This also means that it should have no real effect on the result of the presidential elections, if the latter is to be based on an independent American opinion formation process. (So it hinges on the problem of what we can say social news sites can be a public opinion of: some kind of mixture of international and American public opinion, as measured by internet users).
[…]

Tarmo”

Dear Tarmo,

the two points you mentioned are exactly the ones I would like to focus on! As for the first one – operationalizing variables identifying “good” deliberation – I thought I could take the text by Janssen and Kies, published in the Acta Politica, as a starting point – after all, Habermas himself explicitly endorses their approach and writes in his reflection that Janssen and Kies’ method could well be used in practice to gauge how online discussions deviate from deliberation in an ideal scenario.

As for the representative quality of the site – you’re probably right in questioning whether those people who use the site at any given day are representative of the total population of active users – or “We The Site People.” But I don’t believe this compromises the democratic principle of these sites, insofar as these sites exert their influence not in a single event but continuously, over longer periods of time. Constantly there are new articles published on these sites, meaning new votes and new arguments, and singling out any of these votes as representative would probably not make much sense. It is the combined output over time that matters.

After all, the objective of these sites should be – in the way I understand Habermas – to “deliberatively form the opinion” of their readers. There are two ways they do this: through publishing articles which were – supposedly – deliberatively selected (meaning that their publication on the front page is the result of considered discussion among the participants); and through the discussions themselves which accompany the articles. Naturally, any given article will not be able to incorporate all relevant issues, and not all discussion will incorporate all relevant points of view – but taken together, the multiplicity of articles (and discussions) might prove beneficial for the considered opinion formation of the readers.

And considering the international nature of these sites, I have two answers. First – in the deliberation about merits of any given article, the nationality of particular users might be secondary. One does not need to be a US citizen to point out flaws or strong points of a given text, to cite proof or to refute statements published in an article.

And second – if memory serves, it was Garnham who, when writing about the “goodness of fit” between a given public sphere and its matching institutions, claimed that “everyone is concerned who claims to be concerned” by an issue. And given the state of the US as a global superpower, it is especially understandable that not only Americans feel concerned about the election of their president – arguably, many foreign citizens are much more influenced by the decisions of a given American administration than US citizens. Thus, from the point of view of “substantial democracy”, I do not see a problem in the formation of opinion not being an “independent American […] process.”
[…]

a.

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