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.

Measuring Democracy (2): Polity IV, and Some of Its Problems

Polity IV is, like Freedom House and others, a project ranking countries according to their political regime type. It’s extensively used in comparative and causal analysis that require a distinction between democracies and non-democracies, partly because its time series start from the year 1800.


perspective envisions a spectrum of governing authority that spans from fully institutionalized autocracies through mixed, or incoherent, authority regimes (termed “anocracies”) to fully institutionalized democracies. The “Polity Score” captures this regime authority spectrum on a 21-point scale ranging from -10 (hereditary monarchy) to +10 (consolidated democracy). (source)

The Polity Score is the aggregate of 6 component measures that aim to record what are called key qualities of democracies: executive recruitment, constraints on executive authority, and political competition.

However, it seems that Polity IV doesn’t adequately measure what it claims to measure. Its concept of democracy is quite thin, resulting in a fair number of “perfect democracies”, whereas we all know that there is no such thing in the world we live in. And other countries, which are obviously dictatorial, are classified as fairly democratic. A quote from this paper (which is an attempt to improve Polity IV):

Polity’s 21-point democracy/autocracy scale, illustrated by the dashed line [in the figure below], tracks the major changes in British political history, but only roughly. The Reform Bill of 1832 revised a complicated system of determining the franchise by increasing the number of voters from 500,000 to 813,000. Despite the modesty of this expansion, changes in the Polity Score for Britain give a sense of greatly expanded democracy, moving from a -2 (democracy=4, autocracy=6) to a +3 (democracy=6, autocracy=3).

However, … only six percent of the adult population voted even after the reform.

While the male franchise had broadened considerably by 1884, suffrage still excluded agricultural workers and servants. Actual voter turnout reached 12% of the population only in the election of 1885 before falling, and didn’t return to that level again until 1918. All the while, Polity scores for executive recruitment and competition increased while institutionalized autocracy decreased. In 1880 the Polity democracy score stood at 7 (autocracy=0). By 1901 the democracy score rose to 8 and by 1922 Polity suggests that Britain was a “perfect 10” democracy, even though full male suffrage was not achieved until 1918 and full female suffrage until 1928.

Britain has received the highest democracy rating ever since, even though the voting rate has never exceeded 60% of the adult population.

The high scores that Britain receives from 1880 on are misleading and, with respect to changes in participation, mistimed. As Figure 1 illustrates, participation doubled during a period Polity records as unchanged and doubled again during a modest 2 point move in Polity.

The racial exclusion in South Africa also demonstrates the danger of conceiving democracy without taking account of the breadth of citizen participation. According to Polity, South Africa was a relatively stable democracy from 1910 until 1989. It was coded a 7 out of 10 on democracy and a 3 of 10 on autocracy, bringing its score to +4. A positive score is surprising because it ignores the exclusion of the 90 percent of the population that did not – most could not – vote.

Switzerland, our final example, has scored a perfect 10 out of 10 on democracy in the Polity dataset since 1848, even though women – roughly half the population – were not granted the right to vote until 1971, 123 years later. Furthermore, electoral turnout has hovered around 30% recently, despite virtually universal suffrage. One reason is that Switzerland’s collective executive is an organizational form that diminishes voter motivation by minimizing the significance of election outcomes. Surely such a system should be regarded as less democratic than one in which most citizens participate in elections that actually make a difference in the leadership and policies of the nation.