Measuring Democracy (6): Three Waves of Democratization According to Polity IV and Google Ngrams

Following Samuel Huntington, many political scientists believe that there have been three waves of democratization in recent history. The first wave of democracy began in the early 19th century when suffrage was gradually extended to disenfranchised groups of citizens. At its peak, however, there were only about 20 democracies in the world during this first wave. After WWI, with the rise of fascism and communism, the wave started to ebb, and this ebb lasted until the end of WWII. The second wave began following the Allied victory in World War II. This wave culminated in the 1960s with around 30 democracies in the world. The third wave started in the 1970s and really took off in the late 1980s, with the democratization of Latin America and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today there are some 60 democracies in the world.

Maybe recent vents in the Maghreb and the Middle East are the start of a fourth wave, now focused on Arab countries.

Those numbers I cited above come from one of the two major democracy indexes, namely Polity IV. Polity IV gives countries a score ranging from -10 to +10; the numbers above are of countries achieving the rather ambitious score of +8 or higher (in other interpretations of the Polity IV score, +6 is already a democracy). Freedom House, the other index, usually gives a higher number of democracies, but is only available for the most recent decades. I don’t want to discuss the relative merits of either measurement system in the current post. Let’s just assume, arguendo, that Polity IV is a good measure (Freedom House probably measures something a bit different). In the graph below, the green line represents the Polity IV score (number of countries with a score of +8 or more):


The three waves are clearly visible in the green line. Although some have expressed doubts about the quality of Huntington’s work and the reality of the three waves (see here for instance), there does seem to be at least some truth in the metaphor.

I’ve also included in the graph above the results of a search in Google’s Ngram tool. I searched for “democracy” (blue line) and “democratic” (red line) (democratic without a capital D because I don’t want results including mentions of the Democratic Party). As you may know, this tool allows you to calculate the frequency of keywords in the millions of books available in Google’s book collection. Such frequencies can be thought of as approximations of the general use and popularity of a word at a certain time. One can assume that when there’s a wave of democratization there’s also an uptick in the frequency of the use of word such as “democracy”.

I find it interesting that both the first and the third wave of democratization are reflected in a rising popularity of the words “democracy” and “democratic”, but not the second wave. When the number of democracies was at its lowest point in the 30s and 40s, talk about democracy was most common, more common even than today. And the interest in democracy decreased steadily from the 50s until the 80s, while the number of democracies rose during those decades.

More posts in this series here.


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