Between Consensus and Conflict: Habermas, Post-Modern Agonism and the Early American Public Sphere

Author(s): Robert W. T. Martin

Efforts thus far to bridge the distance between Habermasian public sphere theory and post-modernism have failed, and recent studies only reify the bifurcation. Some theorists trace this problem to misreadings of Habermas's recent works that overemphasize the weight he places on consensus. I argue instead that Habermas's stress on consensus is genuine and first emerged in his early historical work on the public sphere, wherein he focused on an absolutist theory of consensus and relegated dissent to a marginal ancillary position from which he has never really recovered it. Had Habermas turned from Europe to early America, he could have found early public sphere theorists that were much more alive to the irreducible centrality of dissent. More importantly, if current theorists will return to this history they will be better able to understand a model of the dissentient public sphere (and its counterpublics) that lies between Habermasian consensus and post-modern agonism. 
Polity (2005) 37, 365-388. doi: 10.1057/palgrave.polity.2300018

Keywords public sphere; deliberative democracy; Habermas; dissent; post-modernism; agonism