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Political realism in democratic theory: XX-century visions, XXI-century challenges



The term ‘realism’ traditionally evokes one of the key theoretical paradigms in the field of international relations as well as one of the most distinguished, and long-lived, traditions in the unfolding of Western political thought, stretching from Thucydides up through the late XX century and beyond. The distinct revival of realism that over the past few years has animated Anglo-American academia has made a significant contribution to the literature in political theory and, overall, to the contemporary study of politics along three main lines – historical, methodological, and normative.

The monographs of Sleat (2013) and McQueen (2017); the volumes edited by Bell (2009), Floyd and Stears (2011), Sleat (2018), Hollingworth and Schuett (2018); and the multitude of articles by Freeden (2012), Mantena (2012), Philp (2012), Rossi (2012), Scheuerman (2013), Rossi and Sleat (2013), Sleat (2016), McQueen (2016), Cherniss (2016), Finlayson (2017), Runciman (2017), Viroli (2017), as well as those collected by Sabl and Sagar in the “Realism” special issue of CRISSP (2017), exemplify the multiple ways in which scholars of various backgrounds have successfully broadened the scope of contemporary political theory. They have either eclectically drawn on the work of Williams (2005) and Guess (2008) to suggest a partially new research agenda beyond the liberalisms of Rawls, Dworkin, and Habermas, or provided novel accounts of the history of realism(s) that have sometimes redrawn the contours of canonical interpretations of past authors. Ever since the article by Galston (2010), debates on the nature, history, and potential (or “ambitions”) of contemporary realism have been growing louder.

However, this extensive literature has not yet offered any systematic exploration of political realism in the specific field of democratic theory, past and present. The tentative goal of our workshop – Political Realism in Democratic Theory: XX-century visions, XXI-century challenges – is precisely to fill this gap in ways that could, at once, revisit the lessons drawn from recent/ongoing debates and potentially offer new ones.

As the title suggests, the workshop will be ideally divided in two main sections.

The first one will seek to assess, critically and comparatively, various paradigms of political realism in XX-century democratic theory, both European and American (e.g., Mosca, Pareto, and Michels; Weber; Kelsen; Schumpeter; Bobbio; Schattschneider; Sartori; Dahl).

The second one will consider the realist critique of representative democracy in the neighboring fields of contemporary political philosophy, democratic theory, and political science (e.g., Brennan, 2016; Achen and Bartels, 2016).