The Democracy Diagnosis

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While visiting a friend recently, I picked up the second year medical school textbook he had been studying and browsed through a couple of the pages. Instantly my head began spinning as I tried to decipher the litany of unpronounceable medical terminology and pictures. Without a doubt, Spanish and Turkish have nothing on whatever foreign language was on the pages in front of me. Although I cannot offer any medical advice based on this brush with medical science, the process of identifying maladies of the body and determining a precise treatment left me thinking about the science of politics; specifically, the science of democracy. Whereas doctors can conduct an examination to determine a person’s overall health, how do you diagnose something as ambiguous as the health of a country’s democracy?

For years, democracy professionals have debated what exactly democracy means. Beyond the most basic of definitions, “rule by the people,” everyone has a unique conception based on his or her own experience. The plethora of definitions have made it difficult for experts to agree on an index classifying (or diagnosing) the level of democracy in countries around the world. At a recent event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, two principal investigators from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project presented a new tool for diagnosing democracy: not in the aggregate, but in the disaggregate.

At the event, Michael Coppedge, Professor of Political Science and Faculty Fellow at University of Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies, and Staffan I. Lindberg, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg, explained how they and their team of researchers are producing better indicators of democracy using a historical, multidimensional, and disaggregated approach. Taking into consideration that democracy cannot be boiled down to a single factor, the research team created seven conceptions of democracy. The idea being that disaggregated data will give a more accurate assessment of the state of democracy in a country than any one aggregate index.

The data itself, covering the period 1900-2012, is stuff of political scientists’ dreams. The project lays out seven conceptions of democracy – Electoral, Liberal, Participatory, Majoritarian, Consensual, Deliberative, and Egalitarian – which have been broken into 50 different components, such as competitive elections, judicial independence, direct democracy, decentralization, and gender equality, to name a few. From these components, there are more than 329 individual indicators (152 factual and 177 expert-ranked). The data sets are already available for 25 countries, but with current funding there will soon be data for 175 countries. At that time there will be approximately 22.5 million data points. The full methodology is quite interesting but involves too much detail for a short blog post, so I encourage you to visit the project website for a complete description.

There are some notable distinctions with this project. First, it does not indicate what the “right” form of democracy is; it simply measures various aspects and leaves it up to the audience to determine what is right or wrong. The transparency and replicability of the data is also commendable. Uniquely, the expert coders are asked to give each of their rankings a confidence level and only rank an indicator if they are more than 60 percent confident in its validity. The project team also uses a post-coding evaluation to check for ranking biases. These steps reinforce the precision of the data. Lastly, did I mention that all of the V-Dem data is free for use by anyone?

So if we can consider the results of the V-Dem project to be the diagnosis, how do we use it to treat problematic symptoms? The lead investigators suggest that donor organizations can use the data measures and assessment to set up aid frameworks in developing countries. It can also be used by governments to self-identify areas for political and institutional reforms. Since it is historical, the data can be used for comparing countries’ democratic paths. Finally, ranking countries in specific indicators could be useful for kick-starting important reforms.

It is unlikely that political science textbooks will ever be able to provide democracy professionals with one clear process for curing a country of authoritarian rule the way a medical textbook can walk a doctor through a hip replacement surgery. Nevertheless, the data provided by the V-Dem project is shaping up to be an important tool in diagnosing democratic deficiencies and that is a step in the right direction.

Brent Ruth is Program Officer for Latin America & the Caribbean at CIPE.