Text of lecture at Eurozine:

… The voters who in 2004 regarded Bush as the worst American president of modern times, and who desperately hoped for Kerry’s success, were also constitutionalists. When Kerry lost, they were sick at heart. But they did not dream of fomenting a revolution. Leftwing Democrats are as committed to preserving the US constitution as are rightwing Republicans.

But if, instead of asking these two groups whether they believe in democracy, you had asked them what they mean by the term “democracy”, you might have received different replies. The Bush voters will usually be content to define democracy simply as government by freely elected officials. But many of the Kerry voters – and especially the intellectuals – will say that America – despite centuries of free elections and the gradual expansion of the franchise to include all adult citizens – is not yet a full-fledged democracy. Their point is that although it obviously is a democracy in the constitutional sense, it is not yet a democracy in the egalitarian sense. For equality of opportunity has not yet been attained. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening rather than narrowing. Power is becoming more concentrated in the hands of the few.

… Many contemporary Western intellectuals (among them Juergen Habermas, the most influential and distinguished living philosopher) think that there was something importantly right about Enlightenment rationalism. Habermas believes that philosophical reflection can indeed provide moral and political guidance, for it can disclose principles that have what he calls “universal validity”. Foundationalist philosophers like Habermas see philosophy as playing the same role in culture that Kant and Jefferson assigned to it. Simply taking thought will reveal what Habermas calls “presuppositions of rational communication”, and thereby provide criteria which can guide moral and political choice.

Many leftist intellectuals in America and in the West generally would agree that democracy has such a foundation. They too think that certain central moral and political truths are, if not exactly self-evident, nonetheless transcultural and ahistorical – the product of human reason as such, not simply of a certain sequence of historical events. They are annoyed and disturbed by the writings of anti-foundationalist philosophers like myself who argue that there is no such thing as “human reason”.

We anti-foundationalists, however, regard Enlightenment rationalism as an unfortunate attempt to beat religion at religion’s own game – the game of pretending that there is something above and beyond human history that can sit in judgment on that history. We argue that although some cultures are better than others, there are no transcultural criteria of “betterness” that we can appeal to when we say that modern democratic societies are better than feudal societies, or that egalitarian societies are better than racist or sexist ones. We are sure that rule by officials freely elected by literate and well-educated voters is better than rule by priests and kings, but we would not try to demonstrate the truth of this claim to a proponent of theocracy or of monarchy. We suspect that if the study of history cannot convince such a proponent of the falsity of his views, nothing else can do so.