The theme of the Internet and the public sphere now has a permanent place on research agendas and in intellectual inquiry; it is entering the mainstream of politi-cal communication studies. The first part of this presentation briefly pulls together key elements in the public sphere perspective, underscoring three main analytic di-mensions: the structural, the representational, and the interactional. Then the dis-cussion addresses some central themes in the current difficulties facing democracy, refracted through the lens of the public sphere perspective. In particular, the desta-bilization of political communication systems is seen as a context for understanding the role of the Internet: It enters into, as well as contributes to, this destabilization. At the same time, the notion of destabilization can also embody a positive sense, pointing to dispersions of older patterns that may have outlived their utility. Fur-ther, the discussion takes up obvious positive consequences that follow from the Internet, for example that it extends and pluralizes the public sphere in a number of ways. Thereafter the focus moves on to the interactional dimension of the public sphere, specifically in regard to recent research on how deliberation proceeds in the online public sphere in the contemporary environment of political communication. Finally, the analytic category of deliberative democracy is critically examined; while useful, some of its rationalist biases, particularly in the context of extra-parliamen-tarian politics, limit its utility. It is suggested that the concept of civic cultures offers an alternative way to understand the significance of online political discussion.
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