Habermas's view of modern politics is often pessimistic. He unfavorably compares the modern system to the 18-century public sphere. Although more people are now allowed to vote, modern politics is conducted in a debased public sphere produced by this expansion of the electorate and the operation of the “culture industry.” The involvement of mass political parties and the apparatus of opinion management and political marketing mean that manipulative rather than critical publicity operates. If a “public” exists at all, it is frequently created by these devices for a specific purpose that does not involve rational debate. Habermas gives the example of the 1957 West German elections, where the government tried to entice the electorate with promises of social security reforms. Politics, he implies, can be a deceitful process in the absence of real publicity. The modern political system claims to operate as a democracy in which power is legitimated by debate, but it is nothing of the sort.

Habermas holds out the possibility of reform, however. The answer is not to replace the expanded public sphere with a narrower version, or to attempt to return to an illusory golden age. Only by reconstructing the public sphere around large social institutions that have a firm basis in publicity can modern politics be transformed.