Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) defined the public sphere as an imaginary community that does not necessarily exist in a physical space. Ideally, the public sphere comprises ” private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state”. The aim is to produce opinions and attitudes to affirm or criticize, and henceforth guide, a state’s political affairs. The public sphere at its best functions as an intermediary between private people or the society, and the state.
However, this ideal remained an ideal, as Habermas’s definition of the public sphere (in most accounts) has not been achieved. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, the ideal public sphere was almost achieved; gender, class, and other exclusions were gradually starting to diminish. Albeit simultaneously, the advance of social welfare, culture industries, and large private interests proved to be detrimental to this public sphere. The commercialization of large newspapers turned the press manipulative: “It became the gate through which privileged private interests invaded the public sphere”. Habermas mentioned of a “refeudalization” of power where there is an illusion of a public sphere, but it’s simply there to benefit leaders.
As of right now, the public sphere (in its purest form) is challenged. It is meant to be a space for objective and rational discourse where everyone is an equal participant. The 21st Century has seen a phenomenon where certain groups of people form and influence public opinion more than others. Mainly, people with existing power, wealth, or fame get most of the spotlight.
Recently, the United States saw the legalization of gay marriage. Quoting the Atlantic, “What changed, in other words, wasn’t the Constitution—it was the country. And what changed the country was a movement.” The passing of the law was the product of decades of LGBTQ activism that altered the public opinion; the public now (generally) proudly accepts LGBTQ as part of their community and feels that it is only fair that they be allowed to marry. This is how activism, and the public sphere (in some sense of the phrase), may influence a state’s decisions.
The media plays an important role in what opinions get propagated, and which groups get a voice. Mainstream fashion magazines in particular, tend to advertise white, young women, and in the United States in particular Native Americans and other minority races do not get exposure. Their voices get drowned out in this outlet, and they are forced to assimilate in a majority white-centric society.
When it comes to shaping trends or influencing public opinion, magazines or their advertisements sometimes employ celebrities for PSAs or endorsements. Celebrities in this sense seem to hold some sort of power over the average person. Magazines would also sometimes publish articles and advertisements designed to raise awareness such as domestic violence, sexual assault, etc especially in more recent years. These ads and articles, in effect, aim to change public opinion of a certain issue.
The media can be both a disastrous and a significantly helpful tool in cultivating the ideal public sphere. However, the public sphere can never be 100% achieved simply because it is human nature for those in power to want to stay in power. Hence, the “public sphere” will always remain a beautiful illusion.