One of the most exciting trends of the last 20 years has been a growing global commitment to democracy – not only by the United States and other developed countries, but also by new democracies in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere, which increasingly support democratic reform within their regions. While the world has undeniably become more democratic, defining exactly how to measure “democracy” remains a contentious issue.
Boston University political science professor John Gerring, quoted in a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, notes that, “In macroeconomics, we invest tens of millions of dollars in measurement. But we have nothing like that in politics.” Economists can measure in great detail whether a country is getting richer or poorer, but measuring whether it is becoming more or less democratic is sketchy at best. “We don’t have the tools to understand these phenomena in a nuanced way,” Gerring says.
The problem comes down to a question of fundamentals: what is a democracy? What makes a country more or less democratic? The answers will be slightly different for everyone.
The mere presence of a parliament, a constitution that protects basic rights, or regular elections is not enough. Even the Soviet Union, the very model of a totalitarian state, held regular elections and had a constitution that guaranteed many individual rights. The United Kingdom, the cradle of modern parliamentary democracy, has functioned for hundreds of years without a written constitution and is still nominally headed by an unelected monarch. Democracy comes in many different flavors – as does authoritarianism.
Scholars and analysts have taken a variety of approaches to “scoring” democracy, all of which try to take into account the reality of day-to-day life as well as what institutions and laws exist on paper. Freedom House’s widely-used Freedom in the World report is based on a survey of experts, assigning a numerical score of 1 (“Free”) to 7 (“Not Free”) in two broad categories, political rights (such as voting) and civil liberties (such as freedom of speech), and makes clear distinctions between electoral democracies and non-democratic countries.
Polity IV, used by many academics, attempts a more objective assessment by looking mainly at the characteristics of governing institutions, but may miss more insidious forms of oppression. Other indices, such as the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, follow a similar approach, ranking countries with a single numerical score and separating the democracies from the non-democracies.
While these indices are valuable for researchers and policymakers, no single number can truly capture the essence of democratic governance – especially when a country’s democratic institutions are dominated by an unaccountable elite, when local and regional governments are unresponsive to their citizens, or when well-designed institutions are hollowed out by corruption.
But measuring democracy doesn’t have to remain an academic pursuit. Given the wealth of data now available for free online, and increasing calls for governments around the world to open up their own (often vast) data repositories, citizens have access to more and more information on how their governments are performing in a wide range of areas, as well as regional and global comparisons.
When access to information is free, citizens can take their own measure of democracy.