This site’s sponsor is me, Edward J. Woell. I’m a Professor of History at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois.
First, a disclaimer: I alone am responsible for the writing originally posted on this site. Nonetheless, because I encourage comments and feedback from readers–including my colleagues and past and present students from WIU, the views and opinions that they express are not necessarily my own, and my decision to allow comments from readers should not be understood as an endorsement of the ideas or language they articulate here. Moreover, neither my writing nor that of any contributor is necessarily endorsed by the administration, faculty, student body, or service staff at WIU.
Inspiration for this site derives from two quarters: the past and the present.
As for the past, my own work as a historian over the past two decades has centered on the French Revolution, one of the first laboratories for modern democratic governance. In implementing elements of democracy from 1789 to 1801, French revolutionaries got some things right, got some things wrong, and–like politicians in every age–faced forces and circumstances beyond their control. But one thing I’ve learned in my study of this revolution is the importance of deliberation in a democracy. When most people think of “democracy,” they focus on basic human rights, voting and elections, and the rule of law. As crucial as these attributes are, often neglected is the need of democratic societies to have free and open space where citizens can convene and take up issues relevant to themselves and their government. My own realization about this basic requirement of modern democracy inexorably led me to the work of the scholar, Jürgen Habermas: specifically his conception of the “public sphere.” More on this term later.
Regarding the present (meaning my own lifetime), I’ve always been an unreformed political junkie. I grew up in North Dakota, where my father became a local leader in the Democratic Party, held an important position within a railroad union, and ran for public office (unsuccessfully) at several points in his life. He and my mother instilled in me not only an appreciation of politics but also a belief that politicians have a duty to be the voice for those who have none in our society. Although I’ve been a tried-and-true Democrat all of my life, I don’t consider myself a political activist. Instead, I’ve been an acute political observer–albeit one deeply concerned about America’s well being. For most of my life I’ve conceived of American politics as a zero-sum game between the two major parties, and admittedly I’ve cheered for one side while wishing for the demise of the other.
As I’ve grown older if not a little wiser, however, I’ve become alarmed by political polarization in the United States, which has become rife not just in government but also in our social geography, culture and religion, and economic activity. This trend, it seems to me, is making America deeply dysfunctional and plays no small part in its growing economic and educational inequality. So lately I’ve been asking myself a fundamental question: how can we lower the level of our polarization, while at the same time not lose sight of democracy’s importance and its potential to make life better for each and every American? I think much of the answer lies in a revitalization of our “public sphere.” But what does the term really mean?
In concert with this site’s subtitle, I define the public sphere as a physical space beyond the reach of coercive institutions where citizens can engage in discussion, debate, and deliberation. According to James Van Horn Melton, from its inception the public sphere has been governed by three key norms. First and foremost, the public sphere’s sole arbiter is “reason,” regardless of who employs it or what that person’s social or political status may be. In other words, the public sphere is open to anyone having the desire and ability to employ reason, in turn meaning that public space is inclusive and inherently promotes equality. Second, nothing is immune to scrutiny within the public sphere. Anything under the sun can be discussed, therefore requiring that the freedoms of thought, conscience, and speech be accorded to everyone within this space. And third, the public sphere is exactly that: public. The realm must observe complete transparency, thus placing a premium on the publicity that the media provides and mass literacy empowers. Although no society has fully realized these lofty norms, arguably they remain essential for modern democracy. Indeed, given how these norms preceded the first modern democratic governments and informed how their polities were expected to function, history suggests that such norms form the foundation on which virtually all modern democratic institutions stand.
Among other things, Habermas showed that the most authentic and pristine public sphere probably existed in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe (1650-1800). But since then a combination of consumerism, mass media, sophisticated public relations, and social, economic, and ideological division has greatly diminished public space–even though over the same time more democratic governments have emerged. Today the public sphere is only a shadow of what it had been when the United States began. Nonetheless, I count myself among those who believe that a true public sphere is still possible, and that those of us who value democracy should make the enduring promise of the public sphere more of a reality.
This site, then, is a small attempt to create more space for a free and open public sphere. While acknowledging that nothing can replace authentic physical space where citizens can meet face-to-face and consider pressing matters about their polity, it nonetheless assumes that the internet can be democratically empowering when it stimulates reasoned thought and sparks what an actual public sphere does: move us beyond ourselves and enable us to engage with “the other.” In keeping with the norms of the public sphere the site strives to apply reason and insight to political issues, but mostly so an individual can better discuss, debate, and deliberate on such matters. Favoring one part of the political spectrum over another, much less persuading others to do the same, is beside this site’s point. This is a political site but refuses to be a purely polemical one.