Rethinking the Public Sphere

Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing
Author(s): Nancy Fraser
Social Text, No. 25/26 (1990), pp. 56-80
Published by: Duke University Press
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Rethinking the Public Sphere:
A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing
Today in the U.S. we hear a great deal of ballyhoo about “the triumph of
liberal democracy” and even “the end of history.” Yet there is still a great
deal to object to in our own “actually existing democracy,” and the project
of a critical social theory of the limits of democracy in late capitalist
societies remains as relevant as ever. In fact, this project seems to me to
have acquired a new urgency at a time when “liberal democracy” is being
touted as the ne plus ultra of social systems for countries that are emerging from Soviet-style state socialism, Latin American military dictatorships, and southern African regimes of racial domination.
Those of us who remain committed to theorizing the limits of democracy in late capitalist societies will find in the work of Jiirgen Habermas
an indispensable resource. I mean the concept of “the public sphere,”
originally elaborated in his 1962 book, The Structural Transformation of
the Public Sphere, and subsequently resituated but never abandoned in his
later work.2
The political and theoretical importance of this idea is easy to explain.
Habermas’s concept of the public sphere provides a way of circumventing
some confusions that have plagued progressive social movements and the
political theories associated with them. Take, for example, the longstanding failure in the dominant wing of the socialist and Marxist tradition to
appreciate the full force of the distinction between the apparatuses of the
state, on the one hand, and public arenas of citizen discourse and association, on the other. All too often it was assumed in this tradition that to
subject the economy to the control of the socialist state was to subject it
to the control of the socialist citizenry. Of course that was not so. But the
conflation of the state apparatus with the public sphere of discourse and
association provided ballast to processes whereby the socialist vision
became institutionalized in an authoritarian statist form instead of in a
participatory democratic form. The result has been to jeopardize the very
idea of socialist democracy.
A second problem, albeit one that has so far been much less historically
momentous and certainly less tragic, is a confusion one encounters a
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Nancy Fraser 57
times in contempo
use of the very sam
less precise and le
used by many femi
or familial sphere
least three analytic
paid employment,
thought that the c
issue. On the contr
ple, when agitation
tions are confoun
struggles to depriv
commodification. I
whether to subject
istrative state is to
The idea of “the
resource that can h
modern societies in
medium of talk. It
common affairs, h
tion. This arena is
production and cir
of the state. The p
distinct from the
but rather one of d
ating rather than f
sphere permits us
tuses, economic m
are essential to dem
For these reasons,
that something lik
to critical social th
no attempt to und
democracy can succ
I assume that the s
project alternative
If you will grant
indispensable to c
specific form in w
satisfactory. On th
sphere needs to un
it is to yield a ca
existing democracy
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58 Rethinking the Public Sphere
Let me remind you that the subtitle
Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeo
is the rise and decline of a historic
public sphere, which Habermas call
public sphere.” The aim is to identi
this type of public sphere and to ch
argument that, under altered condit
state mass democracy,” the bour
sphere is no longer feasible. Some n
to salvage that arena’s critical funct
Oddly, Habermas stops short of
model of the public sphere. Moreov
some dubious assumptions that unde
we are left at the end of Structural
of the public sphere that is sufficie
ception to serve the needs of critica
That, at any rate, is the thesis I in
case, I shall proceed as follows: I sh
ing Habermas’s account of the stru
sphere to an alternative account th
recent revisionist historiography. T
underlying the bourgeois conceptio
scribes it, which this newer histori
following four sections, I shall exam
Finally, in a brief conclusion, I sha
these critical discussions that point
conception of the public sphere.
The public sphere: Alternative histor
Let me begin by sketching some hig
structural transformation of the p
the idea of a public sphere is that
bled to discuss matters of “public c
idea acquired force and reality in ea
of “bourgeois publics spheres” as
These publics aimed to mediate bet
ing the state accountable to “society
requiring that information about s
that state activities would be subjec
“public opinion.” Later, it meant tr
interest” of “bourgeois society” to
teed free speech, free press, and fre
parliamentary institutions of repres
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Nancy Fraser 59
Thus, at one level,
tional mechanism f
states accountable
nated a specific k
connoted an ideal o
The discussion wa
interests were to b
eted; and discussa
discussion would b
about the common
According to Hab
conception of the
to open access in p
conception of the
the state was sharp
economy; it was t
supposed to underp
interests.” But the
gained access to th
the fore; society
mented into a mas
and back room, br
reasoned public deb
gence of “welfare
mutually intertwine
gave way to publi
manufacture and m
Now, let me juxtap
tive account that
historiography. Br
Eley contend that
They argue that, d
official public sphe
number of signific
gender; she argues
France was constru
friendly salon cul
“effeminate,” and
public speech and
“virtuous,” and “m
built into the very
logic that led, at th
political life of wom
that cast femininit
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60 Rethinking the Public Sphere
tions can be gauged in the etymolo
“pubic,” a graphic trace of the fact
a penis was a requirement for sp
preserved, incidentally, in the etym
mony” and “testicle.”)5
Extending Landes’s argument, Geo
operations were essential to liberal
also in England and Germany, an
exclusions were linked to other e
formation. In all these countries, he claims, the soil that nourished the
liberal public sphere was “civil society,” the emerging new congeries of
voluntary associations that sprung up in what came to be known as “the
age of societies.” But this network of clubs and associations-philanthropic, civic, professional, and cultural-was anything but accessible to
everyone. On the contrary, it was the arena, the training ground, and
eventually the power base of a stratum of bourgeois men, who were
coming to see themselves as a “universal class” and preparing to assert
their fitness to govern. Thus, the elaboration of a distinctive culture of
civil society and of an associated public sphere was implicated in the
process of bourgeois class formation; its practices and ethos were markers
of “distinction” in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense,6 ways of defining an emergent
elite, setting it off from the older aristocratic elites it was intent on
displacing, on the one hand, and from the various popular and plebeian
strata it aspired to rule, on the other. This process of distinction, moreover, helps explain the exacerbation of sexism characteristic of the liberal
public sphere; new gender norms enjoining feminine domesticity and a
sharp separation of public and private spheres functioned as key signifiers
of bourgeois difference from both higher and lower social strata. It is a
measure of the eventual success of this bourgeois project that these norms
later became hegemonic, sometimes imposed on, sometimes embraced by,
broader segments of society.7
Now, there is a remarkable irony here, one that Habermas’s account of
the rise of the public sphere fails fully to appreciate.s A discourse of
publicity touting accessibility, rationality, and the suspension of status
hierarchies is itself deployed as a strategy of distinction. Of course, in and
of itself, this irony does not fatally compromise the discourse of publicity;
that discourse can be, indeed has been, differently deployed in different
circumstances and contexts. Nevertheless, it does suggest that the relationship between publicity and status is more complex than Habermas
intimates, that declaring a deliberative arena to be a space where extant
status distinctions are bracketed and neutralized is not sufficient to make
it so.
Moreover, the problem is not only that Habermas idealizes the liberal
public sphere but also that he fails to examine other, nonliberal, nonThis content downloaded from on Thu, 28 May 2020 01:35:37 UTC
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Nancy Fraser 61
bourgeois, compet
fails to examine th
liberal public sphe
nineteenth centu
ethnicities constr
their exclusion fr
geois women, this
woman-only volun
reform societies;
societies built by
respects the wome
tofore quintessen
precisely as sprin
privileged women
supporting roles i
other women foun
women’s rights a
from the official
Ryan’s study show
poration through
public life and a m
were excluded fro
on a class- and ge
face value the bo
historiography of
was never the pub
bourgeois public t
ing nationalist p
and working class
start, not just from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as
Habermas implies.”
Moreover, not only were there were always a plurality of competing
publics but the relations between bourgeois publics and other publics
were always conflictual. Virtually from the beginning, counterpublics
contested the exclusionary norms of the bourgeois public, elaborating
alternative styles of political behavior and alternative norms of public
speech. Bourgeois publics, in turn, excoriated these alternatives and de
liberately sought to block broader participation. As Eley puts it, “the
emergence of a bourgeois public was never defined solely by the struggle
against absolutism and traditional authority, but…addressed the problem
of popular containment as well. The public sphere was always constituted
by conflict.”‘2
In general, this revisionist historiography suggests a much darker view
of the bourgeois public sphere than the one that emerges from Habermas’s
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62 Rethinking the Public Sphere
study. The exclusions and conflicts th
from his perspective, in the revision
result is a gestalt switch that alters th
We can no longer assume that the b
sphere was simply an unrealized utop
ideological notion that functioned to l
rule. Therefore, Eley draws a Gramscia
bourgeois public sphere is the institu
transformation in the nature of politica
a repressive mode of domination to
primarily on acquiescence to superior
consent supplemented with some mea
point is that this new mode of politi
secures the ability of one stratum of
public sphere, then, was-indeed, is-th
construction of the consent that def
Now, what conclusions should we draw from this conflict of historical
interpretations? Should we conclude that the very concept of the public
sphere is a piece of bourgeois masculinist ideology, so thoroughly compromised that it can no shed no genuinely critical light on the limits of
actually existing democracy? Or, should we conclude, rather, that the
public sphere was a good idea that unfortunately was not realized in
practice but that retains some emancipatory force? In short, is the idea of
the public sphere an instrument of domination or a utopian ideal?
Well, perhaps both. But actually neither. I contend that both of those
conclusions are too extreme and unsupple to do justice the material I have
been discussing.15 Instead of endorsing either one of them, I want to
propose a more nuanced alternative. I shall argue that the revisionist
historiography neither undermines nor vindicates “the concept of the
public sphere” simpliciter, but that it calls into question four assumptions
that are central to a specific-bourgeois masculinist-conception of the
public sphere, at least as Habermas describes it. These are:
1. the assumption that it is possible for interlocutors in a public sphere
to bracket status differentials and to deliberate “as if’ they were social
equals; the assumption, therefore, that societal equality is not a necessary
condition for political democracy;
2. the assumption that the proliferation of a multiplicity of competing
publics is necessarily a step away from, rather than toward, greater
democracy, and that a single, comprehensive public sphere is always
preferable to a nexus of multiple publics;
3. the assumption that discourse in public spheres should be restricted
to deliberation about the common good, and that the appearance of “private interests” and “private issues” is always undesirable;
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Nancy Fraser 63
4. the assumption
a sharp separation
Let me consider each of these in turn.
Open access, participatory parity, and social equality
Habermas’s account of the bourgeois conception of the public sphere
stresses its claim to be open and accessible to all. Indeed, this idea of open
access is one of the central meanings of the norm of publicity. Of course,
we know, both from the revisionist history and from Habermas’s account,
that the bourgeois public’s claim to full accessibility was not in fact
realized. Women of all classes and ethnicities were excluded from official
political participation precisely on the basis of ascribed gender status
while plebeian men were formally excluded by property qualifications.
Moreover, in many cases, women and men of racialized ethnicities of all
classes were excluded on racial grounds.
Now, what are we to make of this historical fact of the non-realization
in practice of the bourgeois public sphere’s ideal of open access? One
approach is to conclude that the ideal itself remains unaffected, since it is
possible in principle to overcome these exclusions. And, in fact, it was
only a matter of time before formal exclusions based on gender, property,
and race were eliminated.
This is convincing enough as far as it goes, but it does not go far
enough. The question of open access cannot be reduced without remainder
to the presence or absence of formal exclusions. It requires us to look also
at the process of discursive interaction within formally inclusive public
arenas. Here we should recall that the bourgeois conception of the public
sphere requires bracketing inequalities of status. This public sphere was
to be an arena in which interlocutors would set aside such characteristics
as differences in birth and fortune and speak to one another as if they were
social and economic peers. The operative phrase here is “as if.” In fact,
the social inequalities among the interlocutors were not eliminated, but
only bracketed.
But were they really effectively bracketed? The revisionist historiography suggests they were not. Rather, discursive interaction within the
bourgeois public sphere was governed by protocols of style and decorum
that were themselves correlates and markers of status inequality. These
functioned informally to marginalize women and members of the plebeian
classes and to prevent them from participating as peers.
Here we are talking about informal impediments to participatory parity
that can persist even after everyone is formally and legally licensed to
participate. That these constitute a more serious challenge to the bourgeois conception of the public sphere can be seen from a familiar contemporary example. Feminist research has documented a syndrome that many
of us have observed in faculty meetings and other mixed sex deliberative
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64 Rethinking the Public Sphere
bodies: men tend to interrupt women
men also tend to speak more than wo
turns; and women’s interventions are m
to than men’s. In response to the sort
research, an important strand of femi
deliberation can serve as a mask for domination. Theorists like Jane
Mansbridge have argued that “the transformation of ‘I’ into ‘we’ brou
about through political deliberation can easily mask subtle form
control. Even the language people use as they reason together us
favors one way of seeing things and discourages others. Subordi
groups sometimes cannot find the right voice or words to express t
thoughts, and when they do, they discover they are not heard. [They
silenced, encouraged to keep their wants inchoate, and heard to say
when what they have said is ‘no.”””6 Mansbridge rightly notes that m
of these feminist insights into ways in which deliberation can serve
mask for domination extend beyond gender to other kinds of unequ
relations, like those based on class or ethnicity. They alert us to the w
in which social inequalities can infect deliberation, even in the absen
of any formal exclusions.
Here I think we encounter a very serious difficulty with the bourg
conception of the public sphere. Insofar as the bracketing of social
qualities in deliberation means proceeding as if they don’t exist when
do, this does not foster participatory parity. On the contrary, such b
eting usually works to the advantage of dominant groups in society an
the disadvantage of subordinates. In most cases, it would be more ap
priate to unbracket inequalities in the sense of explicitly themat
them-a point that accords with the spirit of Habermas’s later “comm
cative ethics.”
The misplaced faith in the efficacy of bracketing suggests another flaw
in the bourgeois conception. This conception assumes that a public sphere
is or can be a space of zero degree culture, so utterly bereft of any specific
ethos as to accommodate with perfect neutrality and equal ease interventions expressive of any and every cultural ethos. But this assumption is
counterfactual, and not for reasons that are merely accidental. In stratified
societies, unequally empowered social groups tend to develop unequally
valued cultural styles. The result is the development of powerful informal
pressures that marginalize the contributions of members of subordinated
groups both in everyday life contexts and in official public spheres.7
Moreover, these pressures are amplified, rather than mitigated, by the
peculiar political economy of the bourgeois public sphere. In this public
sphere, the media that constitute the material support for the circulation
of views are privately owned and operated for profit. Consequently,
subordinated social groups usually lack equal access to the material
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Nancy Fraser 65
means of equal part
ally what culture a
If we take these
entertain serious
purports to bracket
We should question
tors to deliberate
discursive arenas, w
societal context tha
What is at stake here is the autonomy of specifically political institutions vis-,i-vis the surrounding societal context. Now, one salient feature
that distinguishes liberalism from some other political-theoretical orientations is that liberalism assumes the autonomy of the political in a very
strong form. Liberal political theory assumes that it is possible to organize a democratic form of political life on the basis of socio-economic and
socio-sexual structures that generate systemic inequalities. For liberals,
then, the problem of democracy becomes the problem of how to insulate
political processes from what are considered to be non-political or pre-political processes, those characteristic, for example, of the economy, the
family, and informal everyday life. The problem for liberals, thus, is how
to strengthen the barriers separating political institutions that are supposed to instantiate relations of equality from economic, cultural, and
socio-sexual institutions that are premised on systemic relations of inequality.’9 Yet the weight of circumstance suggests that in order to have a
public sphere in which interlocutors can deliberate as peers, it is not
sufficient merely to bracket social inequality. Instead, it is a necessary
condition for participatory parity that systemic social inequalities be
eliminated. This does not mean that everyone must have exactly the same
income, but it does require the sort of rough equality that is inconsistent
with systemically-generated relations of dominance and subordination.
Pace liberalism, then, political democracy requires substantive social
So far, I have been arguing that the bourgeois conception of the public
sphere is inadequate insofar as it supposes that social equality is not a
necessary condition for participatory parity in public spheres. What follows from this for the critique of actually existing democracy? One task
for critical theory is to render visible the ways in which societal inequality infects formally inclusive existing public spheres and taints discursive
interaction within them.
Equality, diversity, and multiple publics
So far I have been discussing what we might call “intrapublic relations,”
that is, the character and quality of discursive interactions within a given
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66 Rethinking the Public Sphere
public sphere. Now I want to conside
relations,” that is, the character of in
Let me begin by recalling that Habe
larity of the bourgeois conception of
public arena in the singular. In additio
to be faithful to that conception, cas
publics as a late development to be re
decline. This narrative, then, like
informed by an underlying evaluative
tutional confinement of public life to
is a positive and desirable state of af
multiplicity of publics represents a depa
toward, democracy. It is this normat
scrutinize. In this section, I shall a
comprehensive publics versus multip
societies-stratified societies and egali
First, let me consider the case of str
societies whose basic institutional f
groups in structural relations of do
already argued that in such societies,
debate and deliberation is not within t
to be addressed here, then, is: what f
approaching that ideal? What institu
narrow the gap in participatory parit
I contend that, in stratified societies, arrangements that accommodate
contestation among a plurality of competing publics better promote the
ideal of participatory parity than does a single, comprehensive, overarching public. This follows from the argument of the previous section. There
I argued that it is not possible to insulate special discursive arenas from
the effects of societal inequality; and that where societal inequality persists, deliberative processes in public spheres will tend to operate to the
advantage of dominant groups and to the disadvantage of subordinates.
Now I want to add that these effects will be exacerbated where there is
only a single, comprehensive public sphere. In that case, members of
subordinated groups would have no arenas for deliberation among themselves about their needs, objectives, and strategies. They would have no
venues in which to undertake communicative processes that were not, as
it were, under the supervision of dominant groups. In this situation, they
would be less likely than otherwise to “find the right voice or words to
express their thoughts,” and more likely than otherwise “to keep their
wants inchoate.” This, would render them less able than otherwise to
articulate and defend their interests in the comprehensive public sphere.
They would be less able than otherwise to expose modes of deliberation
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Nancy Fraser 67
that mask domina
that reflects the m
This argument gains additional support from the revisionist
historiography of the public sphere, up to and including very recent
developments. This history records that members of subordinated social
groups-women, workers, peoples of color, and gays and lesbians-have
repeatedly found it advantageous to constitute alternative publics. I propose to call these subaltern counterpublics in order to signal that they are
parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups
invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to
formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and
needs.22 Perhaps the most striking example is the late-twentieth century
U.S. feminist subaltern counterpublic, with its variegated array of journals, bookstores, publishing companies, film and video distribution networks, lecture series, research centers, academic programs, conferences,
conventions, festivals, and local meeting places. In this public sphere,
feminist women have invented new terms for describing social reality,
including “sexism,” “the double shift,” sexual harassment,” and “marital,
date, and acquaintance rape.” Armed with such language, we have recast
our needs and identities, thereby reducing, although not eliminating, the
extent of our disadvantage in official public spheres.23
Let me not be misunderstood. I do not mean to suggest that subaltern
counterpublics are always necessarily virtuous; some of them, alas, are
explicitly anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian; and even those with democratic and egalitarian intentions are not always above practicing their
own modes of informal exclusion and marginalization. Still, insofar as
these counterpublics emerge in response to exclusions within dominant
publics, they help expand discursive space. In principle, assumptions that
were previously exempt from contestation will now have to be publicly
argued out. In general, the proliferation of subaltern counterpublics
means a widening of discursive contestation, and that is a good thing in
stratified societies.
I am emphasizing the contestatory function of subaltern counterpublics
in stratified societies in part in order to complicate the issue of separatism. In my view, the concept of a counterpublic militates in the long run
against separatism because it assumes an orientation that is publicist.
Insofar as these arenas are publics they are by definition not enclaveswhich is not to deny that they are often involuntarily enclaved. After all,
to interact discursively as a member of a public – subaltern or otherwise
– is to disseminate one’s discourse into ever widening arenas. Habermas
captures well this aspect of the meaning of publicity when he notes that
however limited a public may be in its empirical manifestation at any
given time, its members understand themselves as part of a potentially
wider public, that indeterminate, empirically counterfactual body we call
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68 Rethinking the Public Sphere
“the public-at-large.” The point is t
counterpublics have a dual characte
spaces of withdrawal and regroup
function as bases and training grou
toward wider publics. It is precisely
functions that their emancipatory p
subaltern counterpublics partially to
cate, the unjust participatory privil
social groups in stratified societies.
So far, I have been arguing that,
ideal of participatory parity is no
approximated by arrangements that
of competing publics than by a sin
course, contestation among compet
cursive interaction. How, then, should we understand such interaction?
Geoff Eley suggests we think of the public sphere [in stratified societies]
as “the structured setting where cultural and ideological contest or negotiation among a variety of publics takes place.”24 This formulation does
justice to the multiplicity of public arenas in stratified societies by expressly acknowledging the presence and activity of “a variety of publics.”
At the same time, it also does justice to the fact that these various publics
are situated in a single “structured setting” that advantages some and
disadvantages others. Finally, Eley’s formulation does justice to the fact
that, in stratified societies, the discursive relations among differentially
empowered publics are as likely to take the form of contestation as that
of deliberation.
Let me now consider the relative merits of multiple publics versus a
singular public for egalitarian, multi-cultural societies. By egalitarian
societies I mean nonstratified societies, societies whose basic framework
does not generate unequal social groups in structural relations of domi
nance and subordination. Egalitarian societies, therefore, are classless
societies without gender or racial divisions of labor. However, they need
not be culturally homogeneous. On the contrary, provided such societies
permit free expression and association, they are likely to be inhabited by
social groups with diverse values, identities, and cultural styles, hence to
be multi-cultural. My question is: under conditions of cultural diversity
in the absence of structural inequality, would a single, comprehensive
public sphere be preferable to multiple publics?
To answer this question we need to take a closer look at the relationship
between public discourse and social identities. Pace the bourgeois conception, public spheres are not only arenas for the formation of discursive
opinion; in addition, they are arenas for the formation and enactment of
social identities.25 This means that participation is not simply a matter of
being able to state propositional contents that are neutral with respect to
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Nancy Fraser 69
form of expression
tion means being
neously constructin
and style.26 Moreo
not spaces of zero
of cultural express
tions-including, f
raphies of urban sp
specific rhetorical
they can accommo
It follows that pub
consist exclusively
be tantamount to f
single, overarching
is genuinely cultur
sive norms of one
assimilation a con
would be the demis
equality). In genera
multi-cultural socie
arenas in which gr
definition, such a s
However, this nee
comprehensive aren
talk across lines of
egalitarian, multiover policies and is
ticipants in such d
norms, and, ther
quality of deliberat
In my view, this is better treated as an empirical question than as a
conceptual question. I see no reason to rule out in principle the possibility
of a society in which social equality and cultural diversity coexist with
participatory democracy. I certainly hope there can be such a society. That
hope gains some plausibility if we consider that, however difficult it may
be, communication across lines of cultural difference is not in principle
impossible-although it will certainly become impossible if one imagines
that it requires bracketing of differences. Granted such communication
requires multi-cultural literacy, but that, I believe, can be acquired
through practice. In fact, the possibilities expand once we acknowledge
the complexity of cultural identities. Pace reductive, essentialist conceptions, cultural identities are woven of many different strands, and some of
these strands may be common to people whose identities otherwise di
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70 Rethinking the Public Sphere
verge, even when it is the divergen
under conditions of social equality,
and open-endedness of publics could
tion. After all, the concept of a pub
tives among those who participate w
differences and antagonisms, and li
addition, the unbounded character
allows for the fact that people part
that the memberships of different
turn makes inter-cultural commun
told, then, there do not seem to be
cal) barriers to the possibility of
society that is also a participatory d
a society with many different pub
which participants can deliberate as
policy that concerns them all.
In general, I have been arguing tha
better achieved by a multiplicity o
is true both for stratified societies
societies, albeit for different reaso
intended as a simple postmodern cele
case of stratified societies, I am d
formed under conditions of dominance and subordination. In the other
case, by contrast, I am defending the possibility of combining so
equality, cultural diversity, and participatory democracy.
What are the implications of this discussion for a critical theory of t
public sphere in actually existing democracy? Briefly, we need a criti
political sociology of a form of public life in which multiple but unequ
publics participate. This means theorizing the contestatory interaction
different publics and identifying the mechanisms that render some
them subordinate to others.
Public spheres, common concerns, and private interests
I have argued that in stratified societies, like it or not, subaltern
counterpublics stand in a contestatory relationship to dominant publics.
One important object of such interpublic contestation is the appropriate
boundaries of the public sphere. Here the central questions are, what
counts as a public matter and what, in contrast, is private? This brings me
to a third set of problematic assumptions underlying the bourgeois conception of the public sphere, namely, assumptions concerning the appropriate scope of publicity in relation to privacy.
Let me remind you that it is central to Habermas’s account that the
bourgeois public sphere was to be a discursive arena in which “private
persons” deliberated about “public matters.” There are several different
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Nancy Fraser 71
senses of privacy
mean 1) state-rela
one; and 4) pertain
corresponds to a c
other senses of “p
ing to private pro
domestic or perso
I have already tal
or accessible to al
beginning with 3
what objectively a
outsider’s perspe
matter of commo
idea of a public sp
not sit well with
to delimit its pr
perspective is th
decide what is and what is not of common concern to them. However,
there is no guarantee that all of them will agree. For example, until quite
recently, feminists were in the minority in thinking that domestic violence
against women was a matter of common concern and thus a legitimate
topic of public discourse. The great majority of people considered this
issue to be a private matter between what was assumed to be a fairly small
number of heterosexual couples (and perhaps the social and legal professionals who were supposed to deal with them). Then, feminists formed a
subaltern counterpublic from which we disseminated a view of domestic
violence as a widespread systemic feature of male-dominated societies.
Eventually, after sustained discursive contestation, we succeeded in making it a common concern.
The point is that there are no naturally given, a priori boundaries here.
What will count as a matter of common concern will be decided precisely
through discursive contestation. It follows that no topics should be ruled
off limits in advance of such contestation. On the contrary, democratic
publicity requires positive guarantees of opportunities for minorities to
convince others that what in the past was not public in the sense of being
a matter of common concern should now become so.”
What, then, of the sense of “publicity” as pertaining to a common good
or shared interest? This is the sense that is in play when Habermas
characterizes the bourgeois public sphere as an arena in which the topic
of discussion is restricted to the “common good” and in which discussion
of “private interests” is ruled out.
This is a view of the public sphere that we would today call civic
republican, as opposed to liberal-individualist. Briefly, the civic republican model stresses a view of politics as people reasoning together to
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72 Rethinking the Public Sphere
promote a common good that transce
preferences. The idea is that through
public can come to discover or create
of their deliberations, participants ar
self-seeking, private individuals into
ble of acting together in the comm
interests have no proper place in the
are the pre-political starting point of
transcended in the course of debate.32
Now, this civic republican view of the public sphere is in one respect
an improvement over the liberal-individualist alternative. Unlike the latter, it does not assume that people’s preferences, interests, and identities
are given exogenously in advance of public discourse and deliberation. It
appreciates, rather, that preferences, interests, and identities are as much
outcomes as antecedents of public deliberation, indeed are discursively
constituted in and through it. However, as Jane Mansbridge has argued,
the civic republican view contains a very serious confusion, one which
blunts its critical edge. This view conflates the ideas of deliberation and
the common good by assuming that deliberation must be deliberation
about the common good. Consequently, it limits deliberation to talk
framed from the standpoint of a single, all-encompassing “we,” thereby
ruling claims of self-interest and group interest out of order. Yet, this
works against one of the principal aims of deliberation, namely, helping
participants clarify their interests, even when those interests turn out to
conflict. “Ruling self-interest [and group interest] out of order makes it
harder for any participant to sort out what is going on. In particular, the
less powerful may not find ways to discover that the prevailing sense of
“we” does not adequately include them.”33
In general, there is no way to know in advance whether the outcome of
a deliberative process will be the discovery of a common good in which
conflicts of interest evaporate as merely apparent or, rather, the discovery
that conflicts of interests are real and the common good is chimerical. But
if the existence of a common good cannot be presumed in advance, then
there is no warrant for putting any strictures on what sorts of topics,
interests, and views are admissible in deliberation.34
This argument holds even in the best case scenario of societies whose
basic institutional frameworks do not generate systemic inequalities; even
in such relatively egalitarian societies, we cannot assume in advance that
there will be no real conflicts of interests. How much more pertinent,
then, is the argument to stratified societies, which are traversed with
pervasive relations of dominance and subordination. After all, when social arrangements operate to the systemic profit of some groups of people
and to the systemic detriment of others, there are prima facie reasons for
thinking that the postulation of a common good shared by exploiters and
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Nancy Fraser 73
exploited may we
purports to repres
regarded with sus
through deliberati
In general, critical theory needs to take a harder, more critical look at
the terms “private” and “public.” These terms, after all, are not simply
straightforward designations of societal spheres; they are cultural classifications and rhetorical labels. In political discourse, they are powerful
terms that are frequently deployed to delegitimate some interests, views,
and topics and to valorize others.
This brings me to two other senses of privacy, which often function
ideologically to delimit the boundaries of the public sphere in ways that
disadvantage subordinate social groups. These are sense 5) pertaining to
private property in a market economy; and sense 6) pertaining to intimate
domestic or personal life, including sexual life. Each of these senses is at
the center of a rhetoric of privacy that has historically been used to
restrict the universe of legitimate public contestation.
The rhetoric of domestic privacy seeks to exclude some issues and
interests from public debate by personalizing and/or familializing them;
it casts these as private-domestic or personal-familial matters in contradistinction to public, political matters. The rhetoric of economic privacy,
in contrast, seeks to exclude some issues and interests from public debate
by economizing them; the issues in question here are cast as impersonal
market imperatives or as “private” ownership prerogatives or as technical
problems for managers and planners, all in contradistinction to public,
political matters. In both cases, the result is to enclave certain matters in
specialized discursive arenas and thereby to shield them from general
public debate and contestation. This usually works to the advantage of
dominant groups and individuals and to the disadvantage of their subordinates.35 If wife battering, for example, is labelled a “personal” or
“domestic” matter and if public discourse about this phenomenon is
canalized into specialized institutions associated with, say, family law,
social work, and the sociology and psychology of “deviance,” then this
serves to reproduce gender dominance and subordination. Similarly, if
questions of workplace democracy are labelled “economic” or “manage
rial” problems and if discourse about these questions is shunted into
specialized institutions associated with, say, “industrial relations” sociology, labor law, and “management science,” then this serves to perpetuate
class (and usually also gender and race) dominance and subordination.
This shows once again that the lifting of formal restrictions on public
sphere participation does not suffice to ensure inclusion in practice. On
the contrary, even after women and workers have been formally licensed
to participate, their participation may be hedged by conceptions of eco
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74 Rethinking the Public Sphere
nomic privacy and domestic priva
These notions, therefore, are vehic
disadvantages may continue to opera
after explicit, formal restrictions h
Strong publics, weak publics: On civil
Let me turn now to my fourth and
geois conception of the public sphe
functioning democratic public sphe
society and the state. This assump
interpretations, depending on how
society.” If one takes that expressio
talist economy, then to insist on its
classical liberalism. The claim would
ment and laissez-faire capitalism is
functioning public sphere.
We can dispose of this (relatively
by drawing on some arguments of
shown that participatory parity is e
and that rough socio-economic equal
parity. Now I need only add that la
socio-economic equality and that so
nomic reorganization and redistrib
Likewise, I have also shown that ef
and to cast them as off-limits with
than promote, the sort of full and fre
of a public sphere. It follows fro
separation of (economic) civil soci
condition for a well functioning pu
the bourgeois conception, it is preci
these institutions that is needed.36
However, there is also a second, mo
bourgeois assumption that a sharp s
is necessary to a working public sp
tended examination. In this interpretation, “civil society” means the
nexus of nongovernmental or “secondary” associations that are neither
economic nor administrative. We can best appreciate the force of the
claim that civil society in this sense should be separate from the state if
we recall Habermas’s definition of the liberal public sphere as a “body of
private persons assembled to form a public.” The emphasis here on “private persons” signals (among other things) that the members of the bourgeois public are not state officials and that their participation in the public
sphere is not undertaken in any official capacity. Accordingly, their discourse does not eventuate in binding, sovereign decisions authorizing the
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Nancy Fraser 75
use of state power
critical commentar
where. The public
informally mobiliz
can serve as a coun
tion, it is precisely
that confers an au
“public opinion” ge
Thus, the bourge
desirability of a sh
state. As a result,
whose deliberative
does not also encom
ception seems to i
authority to encom
threaten the auto
effectively become
check on the state would be lost.
That, at least, is suggested by Habermas’s initial formulation of the
bourgeois conception. In fact, the issue becomes more complicated as
soon as we consider the emergence of parliamentary sovereignty. With
that landmark development in the history of the public sphere, we encounter a major structural transformation, since sovereign parliament functions as a public sphere within the state. Moreover, sovereign parliaments
are what I shall call strong publics, publics whose discourse encompasses
both opinion-formation and decision-making. As a locus of public deliberation culminating in legally binding decisions (or laws), parliament was
to be the site for the discursive authorization of the use of state power.
With the achievement of parliamentary sovereignty, therefore, the line
separating (associational) civil society and the state is blurred.
Clearly, the emergence of parliamentary sovereignty and the consequent blurring of the (associational) civil society/state separation repre
sents a democratic advance over earlier political arrangements. This is
because, as the terms “strong public” and “weak public” suggest, the
“force of public opinion” is strengthened when a body representing it is
empowered to translate such “opinion” into authoritative decisions. At the
same time, there remain important questions about the relation between
parliamentary strong publics and the weak publics to which they are
supposed to be accountable. In general, these developments raise some
interesting and important questions about the relative merits of weak and
strong publics and about the respective roles that institutions of both
kinds might play in a democratic and egalitarian society.
One set of questions concerns the possible proliferation of strong
publics in the form of self-managing institutions. In self-managed workThis content downloaded from on Thu, 28 May 2020 01:35:37 UTC
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76 Rethinking the Public Sphere
places, child care centers, or residenti
nal institutional public spheres could
and decision-making. This would be t
direct or quasi-direct democracy wher
undertaking would participate in delib
operation.” However, this would still
such internal public spheres-cum-dec
ternal publics to which they migh
question of that relationship become
people who are affected by an undert
participate as agents may nonetheless
they therefore also have a legitimate
(weaker or stronger) public sphere, i
Here we are again broaching the iss
tional arrangements best ensure the
sion-making bodies (strong publics) to
possibility of hybrid cases, weaker ) p
democracy arrangements called for a
more appropriate? How are the form
More generally, what democratic arra
dination among different institutions
implicated publics? Should we think
super-public with authoritative discu
ground rules and coordination arrang
assumption of a single weak(er) exter
instead of, various other smaller pub
capable global interdependence manif
labor within a single shared planetar
understand the nation state as the app
I do not know the answers to most
to explore them further in this essay
them, even in the absence of full, per
one salient conclusion: any conceptio
a sharp separation between (associatio
be unable to imagine the forms of sel
nation, and political accountability th
egalitarian society. The bourgeois conc
fore, is not adequate for contempora
rather, is a post-bourgeois conception
greater role for (at least some) pub
opinion formation removed from au
bourgeois conception would enable
publics, as well as about various hybri
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Nancy Fraser 77
us to theorize the r
expanding our capa
limits of actually e
Conclusion: Rethink
Let me conclude by
this essay. I have shown that the bourgeois conception of the public
sphere, as described by Habermas, is not adequate for the critique of the
limits of actually existing democracy in late capitalist societies. At one
level, my argument undermines the bourgeois conception as a normative
ideal. I have shown, first, that an adequate conception of the public sphere
requires not merely the bracketing, but rather the elimination, of social
inequality. Second, I have shown that a multiplicity of publics is preferable to a single public sphere both in stratified societies and egalitarian
societies. Third, I have shown that a tenable conception of the public
sphere would countenance not the exclusion, but the inclusion, of interests and issues that bourgeois masculinist ideology labels “private” and
treats as inadmissible. Finally, I have shown that a defensible conception
would allow both for strong publics and for weak publics and that it would
theorize the relations among them. In sum, I have argued against four
constitutive assumptions of the bourgeois conception of the public
sphere; at the same time, I have identified some corresponding elements
of a new, post-bourgeois conception.
At another level, my argument enjoins four corresponding tasks on the
critical theory of actually existing democracy. First, this theory should
render visible the ways in which social inequality taints deliberation
within publics in late capitalist societies. Second, it should show how
inequality affects relations among publics in late capitalist societies, how
publics are differentially empowered or segmented, and how some are
involuntarily enclaved and subordinated to others. Next, a critical theory
should expose ways in which the labelling of some issues and interests as
“private” limits the range of problems, and of approaches to problems,
that can be widely contested in contemporary societies. Finally, our
theory should show how the overly weak character of some public spheres
in late-capitalist societies denudes “public opinion” of practical force.
In all these ways, the theory should expose the limits of the specific
form of democracy we enjoy in contemporary capitalist societies. Perhaps
it can thereby help inspire us to try to push back those limits, while also
cautioning people in other parts of the world against heeding the call to
install them.
1. ONancy Fraser. Reprinted with permission from Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig
Calhoun (Cambridge MA: M.I.T. Press, 1991). 1 am grateful for helpful comments from Craig Calhoun,
Joshua Cohen, Tom McCarthy, Moishe Postone, Baukje Prins, David Schweikart, and Rian Voet. I also
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78 Rethinking the Public Sphere
benefitted from the inspiration and stimulation of p
Public Sphere,” University of North Carolina, Chape
2. Jiirgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation
ofBourgeois Society, tr. Thomas Burger with Freder
1989). For Habermas’s later use of the category of th
of Communicative Action, vol 2, Lifeworld and Syste
McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987). For a itical
the concept, see Nancy Fraser, “What’s Critical ab
Gender, in Fraser, Unruly Practices: Power, Discou
(University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
3. Throughout this paper, I refer to paid workplace
nomic system institutions” so as to avoid the androcent
also “economic.” For a discussion of this issue, see
Theory? The Case of Habermas and Gender,” op. cit.
4. Joan Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the
University Press, 1988).
5. For the “public”/’pubic” connection, see the Ox
entry for “public.” For the “testimony”/”testicle” co
ical Survival Skills and Sunday Shoes: Notes on the H
no. 1 (Winter 1990) p. 6.
6. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of
Harvard University Press, 1979).
7′ Geoff Eley, “Nations, Publics, and Political C
Century,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed
Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women
The University of Chicago Press, 1987).
8. Habermas does recognize that the issue of gender
to bourgeois public spheres, but, as I argue below,
9. I do not mean to suggest that Habermas is unawa
the bourgeois one; on the contrary, in the “Preface” to
states that his object is the liberal model of the bourge
neither “the plebeian public sphere” (which he unde
“for just one moment” during the French Revolu
regimented public sphere characterizing dictatorshi
point is that, although Habermas acknowledges that
that it is possible to understand the character of the
from its relations to other, competing publics. Th
demonstrate, an examination of the bourgeois public’
the bourgeois conception of the public sphere.
10. Mary P. Ryan, Women in Public: Between Bann
Hopkins University Press, 1990) and “Gender and
Century America,” in Habermas and the Public Sphe
11. Geoff Eley, “Nations, Publics, and Political Cult
12. Geoff Eley, “Nations, Publics, and Political Cult
13. I am leaving aside whether one should speak
“something approaching consent,” or “something ap
consent” in order to leave open the possibility of deg
14. The public sphere produces consent via circula
sense” of the day and represent the existing order as n
imposed. Rather, the public sphere in its mature for
representation of multiple interests and perspectives to
themselves in its discourses. People who are ultima
consent nonetheless manage to find in the discourse
interests, aspirations, life-problems, and anxieties that
self-representations, identities, and feelings. Their
culturally constructed perspectives are taken up a
perspectives in hegemonic socio-political projects.
15. Here I want to distance myself from a certain
made against Habermas. This is the line that ideologic
simply undermine the normative notion as an ideal.
possible to reply that under other conditions, say, th
axes of inequality, the public sphere would no lon
institutionalization of democratic interaction. More
even in existing class societies, the significance of t
class function. On the contrary, the idea of the public
democratic interaction we use to criticize the limitat
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Nancy Fraser 79
here is that even the rev
public sphere are themsel
the conceptual condition
16. Jane Mansbridge, “F
17. In Distinction Pierre Bourdieu has theorized these processes in an illuminating way in terms of
the concept of “class habitus.”
18. As Habermas notes, this tendency is exacerbated with the concentration of media ownership in
late capitalist societies. For the steep increase in concentration in the U.S. in the late twentieth century,
see Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983). This situation contrasts in
some respects with countries with state-owned and operated television. But even there it is doubtful
that subordinated groups have equal access. Moreover, political-economic pressures have recently
encouraged privatization of media in several of these countries. In part, this reflects the problems of
state networks having to compete for “market share” with private channels airing U.S. produced mass
19. This is the spirit behind, for example, proposals for electoral campaign financing reforms aimed
at preventing the intrusion of economic dominance into the public sphere. Needless to say, within a
context of massive societal inequality, it is far better to have such reforms than not to have them.
However, in light of the sorts of informal effects of dominance and inequality discussed above, one
ought not to expect too much from them. The most thoughtful recent defense of the liberal view comes
from someone who in other respects is not a liberal. See Michael Walzer, Spheres ofJustice: A Defense
of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983). Another very interesting approach has been
suggested by Joshua Cohen. In response to an earlier draft of this essay, he argued that policies designed
to facilitate the formation of social movements, secondary associations, and political parties would
better foster participatory parity than would policies designed to achieve social equality, since the latter
would require redistributive efforts that carry “deadweight losses.” I certainly support the sort of
policies that Cohen recommends, as well as his more general aim of an “associative democracy”–the
sections of this paper on multiple publics and strong publics make a case for related arrangements.
However, I am not persuaded by the claim that these policies can achieve participatory parity under
conditions of social inequality. That seems to me be another variant of the liberal view of the autonomy
of the political, which Cohen otherwise claims to reject. See Joshua Cohen, “Comments on Nancy
Fraser’s ‘Rethinking the Public Sphere,”‘ (unpublished manuscript presented at the meetings of the
American Philosophical Association, Central Division, New Orleans, April 1990).
20. My argument draws on Karl Marx’s still unsurpassed critique of liberalism in Part I of “On the
Jewish Question.” Hence, the allusion to Marx in the title of this essay.
21. My argument is this section is deeply indebted to Joshua Cohen’s perceptive comments on an
earlier draft of this paper in “Comments on Nancy Fraser’s ‘Rethinking the Public Sphere.”‘
22. I have coined this expression by combining two terms that other theorists have recently used with
very good effects for purposes that are consonant with my own. I take the term “subaltem” from Gayatri
Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and
Larry Grossberg (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988) pp. 271-313. I take the term “counterpublic” from Rita Felski, Beyond Feminist Aesthetics (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).
23. For an analysis of the political import of oppositional feminist discourses about needs, see Nancy
Fraser, “Struggle over Needs: Outline of a Socialist-feminist Critical Theory of Late-Capitalist Political
Culture,” in Fraser, Unruly Practices.
24. Geoff Eley, “Nations, Publics, and Political Cultures.” Eley goes on to explain that this is
tantamount to “extend[ing] Habermas’s idea of the public sphere toward the wider public domain where
authority is not only constituted as rational and legitimate, but where its terms are contested, modified,
and occasionally overthrown by subaltem groups.”
25. It seems to me that public discursive arenas are among the most important and under-recognized
sites in which social identities are constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed. My view stands in
contrast to various psychoanalytic accounts of identity formation, which neglect the formative importance of post-Oedipal discursive interaction outside the nuclear family and which therefore cannot
explain identity shifts over time. It strikes me as unfortunate that so much of contemporary feminist
theory has taken its understanding of social identity from psychoanalytic models, while neglecting to
study identity construction in relation to public spheres. The revisionist historiography of the public
sphere discussed earlier can help redress the balance by identifying public spheres as loci of identity
reconstruction. For an account of the discursive character of social identity and a critique of psychoanalytic approach to identity see Nancy Fraser, “The Uses and Abuses of French Discourse Theories for
Feminist Politics,” Boundary 2, vol. 17, no. 2 (1990).
26. For another statement of this position, see Nancy Fraser, “Toward a Discourse Ethic of Solidarity,”
Praxis International, vol. 5, no. 4 (January 1986) pp. 425-429. See also Iris Young, “Impartiality and
the Civic Public: Some Implications of Feminist Critiques of Moral and Political Theory” in Feminism
as Critique, ed. Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Comrnell (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press,
1987) pp. 56-76.
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80 Rethinking the Public Sphere
27. For an analysis of the rhetorical specificity o
The Letters of the Republic: Publication and th
(Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, forth
28. One could say that at the deepest level, eve
Wittgenstein’s idea of famnily resemblances, or netw
similarities, no single thread of which runs cont
stresses the complexity of cultural identities and
Nancy Fraser, “The Uses and Abuses of French Dis
that draw on concepts of mdtissage, see Glor
Frangoise Lionnet, Autobiographical Voices: Ra
University Press, 1989).
29. In these respects, the concept of a public differ
a bounded and fairly homogeneous group, and
emphasizes discursive interaction that is in prin
implies a plurality of perspectives. Thus, the idea
accommodate internal differences, antagonisms, an
publicity and plurality, see Hannah Arendt, The H
Press, 1958). For a critique of the concept of comm
the Politics of Difference” in Feminism and Po
Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1989) pp. 300-323
30. In this essay, I do not directly discuss sense 1
essay I consider some issues that touch on that sen
31. This is the equivalent in democratic theory o
philosophy of science. See Feyerabend, Against M
32. In contrast, the liberal-individualist model
self-interested, individual preferences. Deliberati
political discourse consists in registering individual
that satisfy as many private interests as possible. It
good over and above the sum of all the various
legitimate stuff of political discourse.
33. Jane Mansbridge, “Feminism and Democracy
34. This point, incidentally, is in the the spirit
thought, which stresses the procedural, as opposed
sphere; here, the public sphere is defined as an aren
an arena for dealing with certain types of topics a
what may become a topic of deliberation. See Sey
strand of Habermas’s thought and her defense of
sphere superior to alternative views. Benhabib, “M
Tradition, and Jiirgen Habermas,” in Habermas a
35. Usually, but not always. As Josh Cohen has a
Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizin
Bowers, the decision upholding state anti-sodomy
is multivalent rather than univocally and necessar
but that the weightier tradition of privacy argum
Moreover, many feminists have argued that even
consequences in the current context and that gend
other discursive grounds. For a defense of “priva
Fraser’s ‘Rethinking the Public Sphere.”‘
36. There are many possibilities here, including s
37. I use the expression “quasi-direct democracy” i
self-management involving the democratic design
to strict standards of accountability through, for ex
38. By hybrid possibilities I mean arrangements inv
decision-making bodies to their external publics thr
in some, though certainly not all, circumstances b
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