President’s Distinguished Speaker Series: Princeton professor Christopher Achen visits RWU

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Jade Sanchez

On October 26, renowned political scientist, Dr. Christopher H. Achen visited Roger Williams University as a part of the President’s Distinguished Speakers Series to give a talk on his newest book and the political realities that many don’t wish to face. Achen is a professor of politics at Princeton University, and his book, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, is a collaboration with Larry Bartels, whom Achen has written and worked with in the past. The Hawks’ Herald was able to sit down with Dr. Achen for an interview and have an in-depth discussion on the state of American politics and the socialization that influences how the American people vote.

The interview began with pleasantries and it was immediately apparent that Professor Achen was adept at putting students at ease. His long career as a professor no doubt aided in his affable personality and ability to educate with a smile. It was evident that Achen loves being a professor.

“When September comes around every year,” Achen said, “I want to be back on a college campus.”

In their book, Achen and Bartels discuss how American voting actually works as opposed to how we view it. The “folk theory” of democracy plays a major part in political rhetoric that idealizes American democracy. Folk theory is essentially the idea that Americans vote for who they think will do the best as a president and who will work in our country’s best interest. Achen and many other political scientists dismiss this idea as a pipe dream.

“By folk theory we mean an idea that virtually no people who study politics think is accurate, but that ordinary people refer to, and politicians refer to, and even political scientists fall into sometimes,” Achen explained.

Another idea debunked by Achen and Bartels is the Retrospective Theory of Voting, which means that a voter will look at what has happened the last few years and vote based on those results.

“We argue that those [folk and retrospective] theories don’t work, and that we need to do something else instead,” Achen stated.

Achen then went on to say that in Democracy for Realists they propose a middle ground, far away from the extremes on either side of the spectrum.

Political socialization, or the process by which individuals form their political ideology, has also undergone very little change in recent years. Despite the immense social and technological advancements in the last 50 years, studies have revealed that voter trends have remained the same.

According to Achen, people don’t choose candidates based on policies or actions, they choose based on how much a candidate sounds and acts like them. If a candidate says what’s on  or her mind, then they are more likely to gain support. Carefully crafted statements and shrewd political personas don’t resonate with the people, which is likely why Hillary Clinton struggles to gain wholehearted support despite decades of experience.

“It’s much easier now to follow politics than it once was. Information on the one hand has been much cheaper and easier to get, but it hasn’t made much difference in how much people know,” Achen claimed.

Though studying politics may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, it is citizens’ responsibility to understand at the very least whom their candidates are and what they’ve done throughout their careers. Basic research, especially in the age of smart phones, should not be an unachievable task. In this election year, tweets and Facebook posts should not be the only streams of information an individual has. Misinformation is a deadly thing.

Though the book was not written about the 2016 Presidential election, Mr. Trump embodies a great deal of the points Achen and Bartels are trying to make. Voters didn’t actively search for a man with a plan to build a wall, they follow with the idea because it was Trump who said it. Though voters can’t identify with the multi-million dollar income that either candidate makes, they can certainly get behind speeches that seem to take the words right out of their mouths.

“I have been joking,” Achen said while chuckling, “that we hired Donald Trump to advertise the book, and that he has been doing a wonderful job for us.”

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