June 25, 2011
The Public Sphere and Tea Party PhilosophyBy Raymond Usell
Scorn directed at Tea Party groups for their interest in our Founders is out of step with respected philosophy and science. American grassroots organizations are headed in the right direction for the right reasons using the right methods. The Elites are out of step!
Philosophers invent concepts for explaining things hard to understand. Here is what the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says about a person that helps me. "Jürgen Habermas currently ranks as one of the most influential philosophers in the world."  This is not overstated! Habermas is a second-generation thinker from the Frankfurt School. The first generation was no friend to America. Neither is Habermas, but his perspective is helpful. His thoughts about democratic societal evolution are useful warnings. They show what to avoid. His theory of what he calls the "Public Sphere" is the most help. Here is an introduction.
First, my personal view of how to picture a democratic society: It's an ecosystem. It's a large assembly of individuals and organizations interacting in a multitude of complex ways. And, just like any of Nature's ecosystems, it works best when only gently and respectfully interfered with by conscious human intentions. Here is the Habermasian view of what gentle and respectful interference means.
Democratic societies are ideally driven by broad consensus arrived at through free dialogue of open groups of diverse literate citizens with access to the information they need. That sentence contains my version of the essence of Habermas' Public Sphere concept. Broad consensus is vital for two reasons, validity and harmony. If you cannot convince 60%-80% of thoughtful citizens of the wisdom of a plan, maybe it's unwise. If 60%-80% are favorable to a plan, its implementation likely will be harmonious. Dialogue among diverse literate citizens brings the science of group intelligence to bear. This ideal has never been achieved in large nations.
Habermas shows the closest Western societies ever were to this ideal was around the time of the American Revolution.  Citizens dialogued in American taverns and townhalls, British coffee houses, French salons, and in German "table societies." Ben Franklin called his somewhat formal version The Junto Club. It ran almost 40 years from 1727 until Ben got busy with the Revolution. Ben successfully used his Public Sphere skills in the salons of Paris to persuade France to help our Revolution. He was an ideal Habermasian about two centuries early!
In the renowned book "Democracy in America," de Tocqueville corroborates the Public Sphere theory and adds a description of French associations disruptive of democratic processes.  He traveled in America for 9 months starting in 1831. Throughout America he saw voluntary associations of people discussing ideas with the aim of discovering the best ideas and arguments to persuade others in directions of public improvement. In France he saw special interest groups whose aim was not to convince, but to force others through laws and regulations. These closed groups emphasizing force are antithetical to the Public Sphere. France was in political (sometimes bloody) turmoil for most of de Tocqueville's lifetime partly due to force-oriented groups. France also contained several large concentrations of political power. Concentrations of power are difficult for ecosystems to adjust to; concentration fosters instability. America today seems a lot like France then! That's a good reason to read de Tocqueville.
Habermas describes why the Public Sphere declined. Societal shifts during the 19th and 20th centuries towards consumerism included citizens becoming mostly uncritical consumers of information. News media and self-serving politicians became adept at manipulating consumer-citizens. Educators discouraged individual critical thinking in favor of collectivist politically-correct conformity. Many citizens fell asleep at their job or, if awake, were a "silent majority." Habermas gave up striving for the ideal democratic society. He's European. Americans have not given up.
The Tea Party Movement is driven by Americans' instinctive belief in the power of common sense, the power of civil dialogue, and the wisdom of our Founders. The Movement intends to move America back to the best it ever was and then make it better. It has the tools. None of it is untested theory. All of it is based on science, i.e., observations and careful reasoning.
The power of common sense has been known for millennia. Gautama Buddha (circa 500 BC) taught: "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." You also need information you can trust. That's where Internet contacts, friends, and neighbors come in. Over time, you identify sources of information you trust. Others do the same. The essential test of what to trust and your opinions is talking with others. Rational discourse reveals to all the strengths and weaknesses of underlying data, theories, reasoning, and conclusions. This idea is another of Habermas' major themes ("communicative action").
American politics is now informationally sick. It is beset with distorted, false, and missing information. Local Tea Party groups can be the immune system for this sickness. Each group can pick topics for study. Members with diverse educations and backgrounds can gather, share, and analyze information. Productive dialogue separates wheat from chaff. Results spread to other grassroots groups via friend-to-friend networking. Immune systems don't need central control; neither do local Tea Party groups. Step-by-step, issue-by-issue, the country can be cured via consensus!
Group intelligence science started in 1785 with the "Condorcet's Jury Theorem" (pronounced con-dor-SAY). It says voters don't have to be 100% confident for elections to turn out well. An excellent description of it and our Founders' familiarity with it can be found in Chapter 5 of a book by Len Fisher.  Our Founders were completely familiar with Condorcet's theories. Franklin and Jefferson both spent time in Paris in the late 1700s. They knew many French intellectuals including the Marquis de Condorcet. Condorcet was a philosopher-mathematician interested in using mathematics to support sound moral and social principles. Our Founders discussed vigorously the best political ideas of the time (indeed, of any time starting with the early Greeks). The Founders were avant-garde thinkers and doers.
Tea Party and grassroots supporters are proud of our Founders and are trying hard to emulate their reverence for history, common sense, and intellectual humility. Present-day Elites looking down on the Founders should be looking up!
Raymond Usell is trained in science (Ph.D., Materials Science) and law (J.D.). He's writing a book on how to foster political moderation.
 Habermas, Jurgen, "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere," The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, (1991). This book is very difficult, but accessible to dedicated readers. There are many online commentaries on Habermas and his concept of the Public Sphere.
 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/815/815-h/815-h.htm#2HCH0029 de Tocqueville, Alexis, "Democracy in America," translated by Henry Reeve, Book One, Chapter XII, Political Associations in the United States.
Also, de Tocqueville, Alexis, "Democracy in America," translated by Gerald Bevan, Penguin Books, New York, NY (2003), Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 4, Political Associations in the United States, p. 219-227. This Penguin Classic edition is available online for less than $8.
If you are not familiar with the historical context and intellectual stature of this work, the introductions in either reference will be very helpful.
 Fisher, Len, "The Perfect Swarm: the science of complexity in everyday life.", Basic Books, NY, NY, (2009).
Also excellent on Group Intelligence is: Page, Scott E., "The Difference: how the power of diversity creates better groups, firms, schools, and societies.", Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, (2007).
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