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Interview with Robert Fishman, CONEX professor at the UC3M

“There are differences among democracies in their degree of authenticity, quality, depth and consolidation”


Sociologist and political scientist Robert Fishman of the Department of Social Sciences at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) studies the characteristics and the future of democracies. Fishman is carrying out his research under the auspices of CONEX (Connecting Excellence), a UC3M talent attraction program that is backed by the European Union (Marie Curie Actions from the FP7), the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness and the Banco Santander.

Robert Fishman

Robert Fishman

What specific aspects of democracies do you research?

The objectives of my current work are, first of all, the identification and conceptualization of centrally important dimensions of variation among democracies—that is, the facets of political life that differ between one democracy and another—and secondly, the specification of determinants which help to place democracies at a higher or lower position on those dimensions. There is a lot of academic work on this subject, but much disagreement remains over the very vocabulary used to analyze variation between democracies, and about the selection of analytical tools for such work. I am interested in the improvement of that vocabulary and of the research tools used in this field of work.

What differences exist among democracies?

There are a great many elements of differentiation among democracies – among them the degree of political inclusion of economically disadvantaged sectors, the type of discourse used by politicians and activists, the degree of authenticity of the basic guarantees of democracy (such as the secret ballot), etc.

What are the causes of such variation among democracies?

The differences among democracies are due in part to the legacies of political actions carried out in the past. There are some legacies from the past that survive in the form of the predominant culture and others that survive because of the configuration of formal institutions and written laws. There are also differences that are the result of structural constraints that do not change easily.

Are there any perfect democracies?

No, I’m afraid there are no fully perfect democracies.  But there are differences among democracies in their degree of authenticity, quality, depth and consolidation. Many times strongly favorable achievements of a democracy on a certain dimension are not fully reflected or “seconded” on other dimensions. In this regard, the high quality of parliamentary debate in British democracy is an example to be emulated. British public discourse—especially in the Parliament—reflects the great promise of democracy much more than the daily political discourse in my own country (the U.S.A.). But on other dimensions British democracy has its shortcomings. Democracy in principle entails political equality among all citizens, but Great Britain is less egalitarian than many other European countries.

What are the characteristics or parameters used to analyze a democracy?

The basic dimensions I identify are authenticity, quality, depth and consolidation.  Each of them is, in turn, constituted by a broader set of features or indicators. Some features of democracy are easy to capture and measure, but others are not. For example, the degree of corruption in a political system is not easy to measure because, almost by definition, it is normally hidden. There are attempts to measure it, but they are very limited. And there are other aspects of political life that are also more difficult to study empirically than social scientists would like. One of the components of my research is precisely methodological and is focused on contributing to operationalizing the conceptual concerns that drive the study of democratic variation.

How would you assess or grade the quality of democracy in Spain?

Spanish democracy has achieved a lot, but it also has several significant shortcomings. It is obvious—as virtually everyone observes—that the consolidation of democracy in a country that has a history of major historical confrontations was a very important milestone in the period of the democratic transition and the years that followed. The honesty and speed of vote counting after polling stations close on election days is another important merit. In the United States, the vote count is much slower and is unfortunately very susceptible to electoral fraud. However, Spanish democracy has had several large problems, three of which I would like to emphasize: the weakness of the guarantee of the secret ballot, the way in which some politicians have sought to marginalize or even delegitimize protests and the voices of discontent among citizens, and a certain lack of mutual tolerance among some political actors. Debate and disagreement are very healthy—even necessary—in a democracy, but the lack of mutual tolerance can only lead to problems.

Does the fracture of the two-party system affect democracy in any way?

It does, but there is much debate about this subject between the defenders and critics of two party systems. Multi-party systems correspond more fully with voter preferences given their greater “supply” of parties. It is easier in a multi-party system for each voter to find a party that really coincides with her own ideology. On the other hand, in a two party democracy, the voters themselves choose the government—albeit among options that often do not convince large sectors of the electorate. In a multi-party parliamentary democracy the parliamentarians themselves—and the leadership of the different political parties—have to elaborate a functional combination of supporters to obtain a parliamentary majority and form a government, in keeping with the constraints established by the number of seats that each party wins.

What challenges does democracy face today?

Many. A very important one has to do with the capacity of governments to make and carry out public policy decisions in EU member countries and, above all, in the Eurozone. This subject was the main point of a book published recently by one of my colleagues in the Department of Social Sciences at UC3M, Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca. Other challenges have to do with mutual respect—political tolerance—which is essential in a democracy. And there are many more challenges.

What advantages do you see in carrying out this research at the UC3M?

There is a truly excellent group of social scientists in the department I belong to. The quality of the seminars and of the research being carried out is at a level that would be considered excellent anywhere in the world. Also, the library and the resources on the Getafe campus facilitate the work of all the members of the academic community. My current work focuses empirically on a macro-level comparison between Spain and Portugal, and there is no other academic institution on the Iberian Peninsula that offers the benefits and convenience for research I have found at UC3M.

What other researchers at the UC3M do you collaborate with?

In the Department of Social Sciences, there are many researchers whose studies offer very important points of connection with my own work. I can’t mention all of them here, but keeping in mind the focus of my work, I must mention Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca and the important work he is doing on democracy within the context of globalization. I am sure that several contacts and conversations I am having with colleagues from the Department will be reflected in collaborative works in the future.

Video interview (CONEX program):