The expression “civil society” has been revived in America after having disappeared from political discourse for more than a century.
At a conference on political thought held at Yale University several years ago, one session addressed the question: “Does Democracy Require Foundations?” Panel members who took part in the session were responding to the idea, derived from French poststructualism and deconstruction, that we must learn to live in a world without philosophical absolutes, without, that is, any possibility of tracing things to their origins or establishing necessary, indubitable truths as a means of legitimizing a political regime. All there is, we are told, is the reality that power is everywhere, and that words and language can get us nowhere since they float freely without reference to objects beyond the text.
Curiously, all the members of the panel agreed that democracy did not require foundations. Had I participated, I would have dissented, or at least suggested that the answer can be yes as well as no. For most of American history, politics was practiced without reference to philosophical foundations, and indeed the founding of the Republic itself, as articulated in the Federalist Papers, did not rely upon such foundations as “self-evident truths.” Yet in periods of moral crisis—such as the crisis over slavery, which the Democratic Party had deflected until the 1850s—it is difficult to see how politics can be addressed without reference to deeper philosophical foundations. Consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates.