As a means of highlighting the recent publications and scholarly work of current members, the SSA will post ‘Member Spotlight’ interviews at regular intervals.
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Associate Professor of Political Science at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan
His research focuses on political parties and democracy in Europe with an emphasis on Europe’s new democracies and its newer parties.
His newest book, co-authored with Dr. Timothy Haughton of the University of Birmingham, is The New Party Challenge: Changing Cycles of Party Birth Death in Central Europe and Beyond (Oxford University Press, 2020)
When/how did you first develop an interest in Slovak or Slovak-area studies?
I had the great good fortune of teaching English in Czechoslovakia (in Plzen) in 1990-1991 and I was hooked. When I went back to the US to go to graduate school in political science, I found that the breakup of Czechoslovakia made for a perfect political science experiment and a great excuse to get back to this place I loved, and I realized that while I knew a little about the Czech lands, I knew too little about Slovakia, and I so I started my research and language learning there. Although I didn’t give much thought to this decision at the time, it was pivotal in providing me with a home not only for my research but for my heart, and though my research now extends well beyond Slovakia, it is always to Slovakia that I return when I do my field work. And Slovakia has returned the favor by continuing to offer fascinating politics and an endless stream of new parties (though as often happens, what is great for me as a researcher may not be great for the countries that I am researching).
What is your current research/work project?
My co-author Tim Haughton and I are really happy about the publication of our new book, The New Party Challenge (Oxford University Press, 2020) whose subtitle tells our story: “Changing Cycles of Party Birth and Death in Central Europe and Beyond.” As often happens, the idea for the book came from small details we noticed in the places we were studying most closely, especially the new parties that popped up in Slovakia in 2002: Pavel Rusko’s Alliance for the New Citizen (ANO) and Robert Fico’s Direction (Smer). Our new book started from that point but quickly led to a comprehensive analysis of political parties in the entire region in terms of their newness and the qualities that usually went along with newness: low or lightweight organization, strong emphasis on corruption and their own novelty, and a heavy dependence on party leaders who were noted for their celebrity or personal wealth. Of course this makes these parties more fragile than others and so we see the odd circumstance of party systems with a few old parties that have survived and a whole bunch of new parties in a continual cycle of coming and going. Slovakia is a leader in that trend but it’s one of many countries that’s currently experiencing those cycles. And as we’ve wrapped up this book, we’ve decided to go deeper and try to understand more about these new parties (which I hope to do when I get back to Slovakia, as soon as I possibly can) and to start thinking about how we can overcome the shrinkage of our political time-horizons so that we can once again make policy intended for the long term problems we face.
Please say a few words about any activities or projects you’re involved in that link academia with society at large.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Friends of Slovakia (FoS) on public presentations, and participating in Helen Fedor’s Slovak-language conversation group, and for quite a while I was an active blogger on Slovak politics, until the excellent work by the Slovak Spectator and other online resources made my work there unnecessary. It is so important for us to be able to make our work accessible for people who want to know what we are learning without having to first learn all of the technical frameworks that shape our work. It is great sometimes to be able to put those to one side (until somebody asks about them) and say “here’s what we found when we looked carefully and here’s why our social science methods allow us to say that we’re pretty sure what we’re saying is correct.
What Slovakia-related book or article would you recommend to readers who wish to learn more about some of Slovakia’s most pressing issues?
I hope everybody has a chance to read John Gould’s book, Fragile Dreams: Liberalism and Power in Central Europe (University of Michigan, forthcoming in 2021), which is a remarkable comprehensive and accessible history of the region over the last 30 years that looks at all the big themes and manages to explain really big concepts with beautiful little stories taken from his time in the region. It really is a book everybody with an interest in Slovakia should read.
For those who want to delve deeper into the scholarship on the region, there has been a torrent of great scholarship about Slovakia’s politics by Slovak scholars, and on the issues that I care most about—political parties and democracy—there are great recent papers by Slovak scholars: Marek Rybář and Peter Spáč (“Social Origin Is No Destiny” in East European Politics and Society in 2019), and Oľga Gyárfášová and Lukáš Linek (“The role of Incumbency, Ethnicity, and New Parties,” in Politologický časopis in 2019) and Darina Malova (“Transformation Experiences in Slovakia,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in 2017).
I was also delighted to see that the Czech Journal of Political Science (Politologický časopis), in a show of Czechoslovak solidarity, did a really nice special issue devoted to Slovakia’s elections, with articles from many of the authors above along with Vlastimil Havlík, Aneta Világi, Pavol Baboš, Peter Just, Peter Učeň, Michal Škop, and other amazing scholars I have had the chance to meet during my work in Slovakia.
On broader lines, I was impressed by Petra Guasti and Lenka Bustikova’s groundbreaking (and sometimes heartbreaking) work on LGBTQ struggles in the region (“In Europe’s Closet” in East European Politics in 2020), and James Ward did a tour de force historical treatment of WWII-era Slovakia in his Priest, Politician, Collaborator: Jozef Tiso and the Making of Fascist Slovakia (Cornell University Press, 2013). And of course there’s my interviewer’s own “Forgotten Velvet” (in New Perspectives in 2019) which sheds new light on a the distinctive role of eastern Slovakia which so often gets lost in our focus on activity in the capital.
What is your favorite place in Slovakia to visit and why?
I have always been fascinated by Slovakia’s castles and castle towns and I really enjoy Kremnica and Banska Stiavnica and Trencin, but I always gravitate to the bustle of cities and so for me it always comes back to Kosice and Bratislava, especially the 19th century neighborhoods around the castle, but even the 20th century developments such as Karlova Ves and Ruzinov which, though they were not at first sight beautiful, were comfortable and pleasant places to live.