Measuring Democracy (3): But What Kind of Democracy?

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.

3 thoughts on “Measuring Democracy (3): But What Kind of Democracy?”

  1. I would definitely agree the maximal definition is the best measure to use. However, as you point, how this is measured can easily be disputed.

    Some of the best work on democratic theory has been done by Robert Dahl, who is cited in the study you linked to. As Dahl correctly points out, the United States is not a democracy but rather a polyarchy.

    Under the minimalist definition, the U.S. could be considered a democracy because it holds elections. And even under a more stringent definition that includes protecting civil liberties, a free press, accountability, etc. (i.e. a liberal democracy), the U.S. could still be considered a democracy.

    The liberal democracy is perhaps the most widely used definition for a democracy with perhaps a few variances by those who are measuring it (e.g. Freedom House, Polity IV, etc.). However, to be a true democracy, there has to be participation on behalf of the citizenry, i.e. where the government is responsive to the will of its people. As it stands, the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens (and I use the U.S. merely because I am most familiar with it) are spectators rather than participants in the democracy, who perhaps lend their vote every four years.

    The public has strong positions on many issues, most of which go unheeded by the government. This could not possibly be considered a democracy. And I think that’s one the points Dahl makes. So the point I’m trying to make here is that when you try to consider the maximal definition of democracy, it should necessarily include meaningful participation by the governed.


  2. Dear,Friends.

    I very much pleased my understanding about measuring domecracy!

    from its ethical piont of view it is good to embrace, but in practioce unfortunately it is distored. i do not agree with the measument techniques with both of them, and i believe our understanding of the world is different from the time thses theories are formulated and i do not think it is fair to fix the realities with in your rigid frame work of understanding. i think it is good to undrestand the world from othe perceive differently.

    the new science embrace these ideas and i would like to see the soft ware of the instiotions also embrace the understing from certralization to decetralization from concentration to deconcetration of power and from uniformity to non uniformity .

    so i suggest people should not vote for people as a whole. but they should be asked what they want in the future. not do bush or abama but what they want see in the future otherwise the picture of individuals is coulored by the opinions of madia or people. so i do not think it wise in these days to vote for people or to elect.

    i would like to see where the domocracy is seen as a process of learning for pinpointing the common goal of humanity “wel-fare” not as to elect some leaders.

    it has to aim to helping all categories of people to understand and negotiate on their objectives and enable their individual objectives with the communal and national and golobal objectives.

    let us learn together let the enegy within share with others. there are plenty of ernergy in the planet “no scarcity”. we know this and if not we have to learn.

    ofcourse fear comes scarcity of knowlege and the concept of scarcity comes from ansestors intellectuall limitations and technologies but now thanks to the development of science our understanding on the world is diffents in so the soft side of society should assist the development of scince to have diiferent structure and institions.


    you are welcome to comment.


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