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European versus American Public Spheres: Negotiating Differences and Similarities in Times of Crisis

Roland Benedikter, Lukas Kaelin

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Leading European social thinkers like Jürgen Habermas and Niklas Luhmann wax eloquently on the importance of having a well-developed public sphere, a sort of “fourth power” or social sphere apart from government where ideas are freely exchanged, “discontents” find a hearing, and new social compromises or at least understandings are generated. In order to overcome the current crisis of the European unification project, Europe needs a common, transnational public sphere which despite some efforts still doesn’t exist. The article compares the current status of public spheres in the United States and the European Union, which it finds to be substantially different. In the United States, there is a real sense of nation (the existence of a single “country” identity) and highly developed media outlets, which these days reflect and amplify severely polarized left/right political identities. In contrast, in (Continental) Europe, a true transnational media sphere has not (as yet) developed; media outlets remain primarily national in orientation. We contend that – although few would wish for the political polarization that exists in the U.S. – the EU urgently needs a genuine public sphere that would help transcend the existing 28 national identities. Unlike in the U.S., in Europe the cultural unification which is the – still undervalued – basis of the political project can’t consist of “melting” languages, national myths, historic memories or ethnic habits, but only in the generation of a joint, multi-lingual, multicultural and multi-national public sphere. The creation of such a sphere is not on the priority agenda of European governments, nor of the European Commission; but it should be. However, such a joint public sphere cannot develop until there is greater institutional integration, that is, an advance of European federalism at the governmental level to a much higher degree.

Keywords: Public Sphere – Public Debate – Europe – USA – Media – European unification – U.S. polarization – Transatlantic relations


Bibliography: Benedikter, Roland/Kaelin, Lukas: European versus American Public Spheres: Negotiating Differences and Similarities in Times of Crisis, PCS, 2-2014, pp. 115-129.