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The question that I address in this paper is what makes a political theory realistic.
Political realism’s dissatisfaction with moralistic liberal theories cannot be reduced to methodological worries of the sort that concern non-ideal theorists; rather, it involves a different theoretical background. In this paper, I unpack the specific conception of politics that distinguishes political realism from liberal moralism.
Drawing on Waldron’s account of the circumstances of politics, I argue that politics emerges from the interplay between conflict and order. I provide an analysis of conflict as distinct from pluralism and disagreement. By observing that the presence of conflict is salient only if a need for some cooperative order is presumed, I describe how such need is an essential element of politics. I conclude that while politically realistic theories properly acknowledge both conflict and order, other theories ignore, moralize, or abstract them away. ‘Political idealism’ fails to acknowledge conflict and focuses instead on disagreement or reasonable pluralism. Theories can also be flawed if they do not properly recognize the need for order: agonism is an example of this ‘unrealistic realism’. Finally, there are theories that fail to fulfil both criteria: communitarianism is taken as an example of ‘non-political idealism’.