THE ISSAM FARES INSTITUTE FOR PUBLIC POLICY AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS
IFI, in collaboration with the Bobst-AUB Collaborative Initiative, held a discussion titled “Democracy for Realists” on June 27. The event featured co-author of Democracy for Realists Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University Christopher Achen, with Research Development Manager at IFI and Instructor of Sociology Rima Rassi as a discussant.
Achen began his presentation by posing the main question that Democracy for Realists attempts to answer: why do “democratic” elections often fail to produce a responsive government? To this extent, Achen listed examples such as Brexit, which caused widespread economic problems for the United Kingdom, as well as the recent reelection of President Erdogan in Turkey and other right wing populist movements throughout Europe. These electoral choices were made by the public in their interests, yet had ineffective and contradictory results, often damaging the economic and social standing of a state in the global system. He argued that this can be blamed on people like himself, professors and educational elites, noting that the very nature of democratic theory causes misunderstandings as to how the system should work, and how a government should process public opinion.
Current democratic theory is led by three schools of thought, all of which are an inaccurate representation of the system: deliberative democracy, retrospective voting, and agnostic theory. As Achen explained, deliberative democracy argues that we must get rid of interest groups and parties and talk in reasoned ways to secure the outcome most in line with the common good of the people. In large polities, this could be achieved by appointing citizen assemblies that would study and inform fellow voters on policies to be supported based on the collective interest. This, however, seldom works as people are more motivated by their self-interest. Retrospective voting is when a voter chooses who to vote for based on how the incumbent candidate performed. Similarly, this is often ineffective, skewed towards the final six months of the incumbent’s term, and largely swayed by partisan affiliation. Achen is convinced that democratic theory needs a conceptual revolution
Achen concluded his talk by testing some of the book’s ideas with examples from Lebanese politics. He argues that while Lebanon was once a pinnacle of democratic thought, it has fallen into chaos since. He notes that Lebanon has veered away from plebiscitarians, given that such forms of populism, including majority rule voting, is seen as leading to violence and conflict. Achen argued that though Lebanon and the US both define themselves as democratic, they behave incredibly differently electorally.