Jürgen Habermas on Power to the Polls

Tim Rosenkranz reports on the significance of a recent article by the German philosopher and social critic Jürgen Habermas. –Jeff


On April 7, 2011 Germany’s political news magazine “Süeddeutsche Zeitung” published a piece by Habermas in which he openly attacks Chancellor Angela Merkel for her “opinion-poll dominated opportunism.” While the article focused on the problem of European integration and the continuing democracy deficit of the institutional frame of the European Union, Jürgen Habermas points his finger at significant systemic problems of today’s democratic political process – between civil society, the public sphere, political elites and the media-sphere – the problem being the loss of larger political projects in a process driven by the short-term politics of public opinion polls.

While Habermas is still a vocal figure in the academic landscape, at least in the last decade, he limits his editorial participation in larger public debates in the media. If he does speak up, it is mostly concerning the problems of European integration and its democratic process. The recent article “Merkels von Demoskopie geleiteter Opportunismus” (“Merkel’s opinion-poll dominated opportunism”) is not an exception. What caught my attention, however, is that Habermas rarely criticizes German politicians directly in person. It is also unusual in that the article is a theoretical expansion within his larger intellectual frame of “deliberative democracy.”

Very atypical for him, Habermas condenses the larger theoretical problem in one paragraph, which I would translate accordingly:

In general, today’s politics seemingly is transforming into an aggregate condition defined by the abdication of perspective and the will to create (Gestaltungswille). The expanding complexity of issues demanding regulation compels [the political actors] to short term reactions within shrinking scopes of action. As if politicians have adopted the unmasking view of system theory, they follow without shame the opportunistic script of opinion poll dominated (demoskopiegeleitet) power pragmatism.

Habermas uses two recent examples of Merkel’s politics to illustrate. The first being her flip-flopping after the nuclear disaster in Japan to suddenly abandoning nuclear power plants in Germany, a process she actually put on hold before. The second, Merkels’s prolonged attempt this past March to keep her Minister of Defense, Theo von Guttenberg, in office even after evidence of the severe plagiarism of his PhD thesis. Shortly after the nuclear meltdown of Fukushima, the public opinion polls showed an overwhelming demand for change within German energy politics towards an exit from nuclear power.  In the second example, Guttenberg received positive approval ratings, despite the plagiarism scandal that shook the ethical standards of German academia and the ethics of politics to the core.

In the larger framework of Habermas’ criticism, these specific issues are not that significant, but what is important are two interrelated processes that are challenging for the mediation of the public sphere and the normative importance of political parties. These two issues are hidden in Habermas’ terminology “opinion poll dominated (demoskopiegeleitet) power pragmatism.” First, opinion polls reduce rational, public debate to mere statistical measures. Second, they have the potential to mimic electoral political participation.

Opinion polls reduce rational public debate to mere statistical measures: This issue actually goes beyond the fundamentals of Habermas’ analysis of the decay of the media sphere: beyond his criticism that the independent sphere of public opinion has been turned into a medium of advertisement, in his words “colonized by the market” and “re-feudalized” through the state/political sphere. Even if opinion polls are statistically “representative,” the expression of “yes or no” on a specific issue is not for public debate. Instead, it is a snap-shot of quantified individual opinion of a certain group of people at a certain time. There is a significant danger if public opinion polls become a substitute for editorial debate of rational, critical public opinion. The media refrains from presenting opinions and information, but instead frames the debate in terms of numbers. It basically hands over the power of the public sphere to bureaucrats and opinion poll professionals.

Opinion polls have the potential to mimic electoral political participation: Following the first issue one might ask: What’s the problem? Is it not good that the people of civil society can express their voice in statistical form and be heard? In his article, Habermas provides an answer:

To the extent that politics defines its action to correspond to mere public feelings, which it chases from election to election, the democratic process loses its purpose. A democratic election should not merely express a naturalistic spectrum of opinion; it should be the result of a public process of debate.

I actually would go further than Habermas: Democratic elections also lose their function if they are not conceived as the one significant political act of legitimation and representation, but as one among many. Polls are no elections, but they do appear through their new centrality in the media sphere as pseudo-political participation of the individual in the democratic process. This undermines the importance of election for the voter, but further it puts the political process in a spiral of, what I would call, hyper-campaigning. As Habermas points out in the article: Political parties in the mere attempt to please and reflect short term spectrums of opinion, refrain from programmatic work that goes beyond short-term reaction to events. They do so because opinion polls take on the function of election results.

Interestingly, all these issues do not foster electoral participation. While the media debate in the U.S. seems extremely opinion poll oriented, electoral turnout was up in the last elections and in general is on a steady, but low, level throughout the last 40 years. In contrast, Germany sees a steady decline in voter turnout over the same time, even though it is still significantly higher than in the U.S. The points Habermas raises and I elaborated are part of transformational process and open up important questions.

–          If politics means ad-hoc policies dominated by a situationally expressed public opinion spectrum based on mediated polls, how can the political sphere address long-term challenges of global warming, economic transformation, systematic problems of the financial markets, etc?

–          If opinion polls replace information based reasoning of public debate in the media sphere, who controls and owns the polls?

  • Scott

    Nice article. I think it’s a serious issue as to how, in the United States, politicians use polls or ignore polls; there are such a multitude of polls taken to measure public opinion on key issues or on the popularity of this or that politician, that one can sometimes pick the poll which best bolsters their position. In that sense, they are used within political discourse to legitimate a position taken on an issue. When they don’t bolster a position however the politician might change his or her stance and take a stand “based on principle” rather than public opinion. Ultimately, public opinion polling is a murky business; often through electioneering, via scare tactics used just before a poll, careful wording of a polling question, or with just the right selective sampling frame the desired polling numbers can be generated. “Who controls and owns the polls?” is also a question worth asking given the ways in which polling outcomes can be manipulated. Rasmussen for example is clearly tilted towards the conservative end of the ideological spectrum. There’s certainly enough reasons to not take polling numbers too seriously, but politicians will often be selective about when they do or don’t do this depending on whether they see an opportunity or not. That is, I don’t think opinion polls are the biggest culprit here although I would agree that they certainly can be detrimental to the democratic process.

  • Andrew Perrin

    An interesting and useful article – thanks. In many ways Habermas is recapitulating here arguments made in the Frankfurt School’s Gruppenexperiment (translations recently available: Vol. 1, Vol. 2), for which Habermas was an assistant. Similar arguments underlie his Student und Politik as well.