Those who want to measure whether countries are democratic or not, or want the measure to what degree countries are democratic, necessarily have to answer the question “what is democracy?”. You can’t start to measure democracy until you have answered this question, as in general you can’t start to measure anything until you have decided what it is you want to measure.
Two approaches to measuring democracy
As the concept of democracy is highly contestable – almost everyone has a different view on what it means to call a country a democracy, or to call it more or less democratic than another – it’s not surprising to see that most of the research projects that have attempted to measure democracy – such as Polity IV, Freedom House etc. – have chosen a different definition of democracy, and are, therefore, actually measuring something different. I don’t intend to give an overview of the differences between all these measures here (this is a decent attempt). What I want to do here is highlight the pros and cons of two extremely different approaches: the minimalist and the maximalist one. The former could, for example, view democracy as no more than a system of regular elections, and measure simply the presence or absence of elections in different countries. The latter, on the other hand, could include in its definition of democracy stuff like rights protections, freedom of the press, division of powers etc., and measure the presence or absence of all of these things, and aggregate the different scores in order to decide whether a country is democratic or not, and to what extent.
When measuring the democratic nature of different countries (and of course comparing them), should we use a minimalist or maximalist definition of democracy? Here are some pros and cons of either approach.
A minimalist definition makes it very difficult to differentiate between countries. It would make it possible to distinguish democracies (minimally defined) from non-democracies, but it wouldn’t allow to measure the degree of democracy of a given country. I believe an ordinal scale with different ranks for different levels of quality of democracy in different countries (ranging from extremely poor quality, i.e. non-democracies, to perfect democracies) is more interesting than a binary scale limited to democracy/non-democracy. The use of a maximalist definition of democracy would make it possible to rank all types of regimes on such an ordinal scale. A maximalist definition of democracy would include a relatively large number of necessary attributes of democracy, and the combination of presence/absence/partial development of each attribute would almost make it possible to give each country a unique rank in the ordinal scale. Such a wide-ranging differentiation is an advantage for progress analysis. A binary scale does not give any information on the quality of democracy. Hence, it would be better to speak of measuring democratization rather than measuring democracy. And democratization not only in the sense of a transition from authoritarian to democratic governance, but also in the sense of progress towards a deepening of democratic rule.
A minimalist definition of democracy necessarily focuses on just a few attributes of democracy. As a result, it is impossible to differentiate between degrees of “democraticness” of different countries. Moreover, the chosen attributes may not be typical of or exclusive to democracy (such as good governance or citizen influence), and may not include some necessary attributes. For example, Polity IV, perhaps the most widely used measure of democracy, does not sufficiently incorporate actual citizen participation, as opposed to the mere right of citizens to participate. I think it’s fair to say that a country that gives its citizens the right to vote but doesn’t actually have many citizens voting, can hardly be called a democracy.
Acceptability of the measurement vs controversy
A disadvantage of maximalism is that the measurement will be more open to controversy. The more attributes of democracy are included in the measure, the higher the risk of disagreement on the model of democracy. As said above, people have different ideas about the number and type of necessary attributes of a democracy, even of an ideal democracy. If the only attribute of democracy retained in the analysis is regular elections, then there will be no controversy since few people would reject this attribute.
So we have to balance meaning against acceptability: a measurement system that is maximalist offers a lot of information and the possibility to compare countries beyond the simple dichotomy of democracy/non-democracy, but it may be rejected by those who claim that this system is not measuring democracy as they understand the word. A minimalist system, on the other hand, will measure something that is useful for many people – no one will contest that elections are necessary for democracy, for instance – but will also reduce the utility of the measurement results because it doesn’t yield a lot of information about countries.