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.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (17): Inequality

A transition to democratic government is very unlikely when the population of a country is sharply divided in unequal classes or groups. Some of these groups will try to monopolize political power in order to repress rival groups and maintain the distributional status quo. For example, when there’s a division between a landowning class or an industrial class on the one hand, and a group of impoverished rural or urban workers on the other hand, then the former group will fear election victories by the latter group because such victories will lead to redistribution of land or other assets. Privileged classes will therefore work against democracy. As a result of this, the working classes will radicalize and aim for a revolutionary overthrow and the abolition of property rights altogether, thereby also making democracy less likely.

Something like this is arguably a good description of much of the recent history of Latin America. Positively stated: more economic equality – perhaps following the expansion of a middle class – will make democracy more viable, since different groups have less to lose from a democratic power shift.

But polarization doesn’t have to be exclusively economic in nature. Religious or ethnic divisions can also hinder the creation and continuity of democracy, especially when there’s also a spatial division between groups. This is probably what happened in Africa since decolonization. Of course, non-economic divisions are often exacerbated by economic ones, in which case we can hope that more economic equality will take the sting out of ethnic divisions.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (16): Climate and Geography

There are some contingent reasons why countries’ governments develop or fail to develop a strong system of centralized control over resources. And those that fail to do so tend to be more democratic. The detailed argument is here, but I’ll give you a short summary.

Montesquieu already related differences in human political conditions to climatic differences. And indeed, it’s not uncommon to see the argument that water for instance plays a crucial role. Water makes land valuable, but only in countries where there’s continuous rainfall over the seasons will water be available in sufficient quantities. In other countries, a centrally coordinated irrigation system will be necessary, and this requirement favors a strong central government. In countries where citizens don’t depend on the government for water for their agriculture for instance, those citizens have more bargaining power.

Also, continuous rainfall results in agrarian surpluses, which in turn favor urbanization and taxation. Taxation is a well-known cause of democratization (“no taxation without representation“), and popular mobilization against authoritarian rule is easier in large cities. Urbanization also leads to commerce, specialization and industrialization, phenomena which result in a large and powerful middle class, able to bargain the taxes it pays against more rights and freedoms.

In light of this, it’s not surprising that democracy developed first in North-West Europe and North America, regions with plenty of rainfall. And neither is it surprising that so many non-democracies suffer from the so-called resource curse: countries that are endowed with natural resources that – unlike rainfall – can easily be brought under central control tend to develop governance structures that favor such control. Government will be centralized and authoritarian because the resource rents for the leaders are very high. And when there’s central control over resources, there’s also central control over all the rest: leaders have a strong financial incentive to stay in power and to oppress opposition movements.

But it’s not just climate that favors democracy or autocracy. There’s also geography. A country that is shielded from external military threats as a result of its geography or topography – for example because it’s an island, has a long coastal line, or is situated in a mountainous area – doesn’t need to sustain a standing army at the exclusive disposal of its leader. Without such an army, the leader’s control over coercion is limited and it’s much more difficult to develop a centralized governance system. Perhaps the success of democracy in countries such as Iceland, the UK, Scandinavia and Switzerland can be explained in this way. The army in Switzerland is really a volunteer militia, whereas the army in the UK has long been the hobby of the nobility.

So these are two examples of climate and geography deciding the balance of power in favor of citizens. A government that isn’t favored by climate or geography in its attempts to centralize power faces a stronger citizenry. Likewise, if a government depends on its citizens’ agreement for the use of an important resource such as the military – for geographic reasons – then those citizens have bargaining power. They will only participate in war or conquest if they get something in return, e.g. more rights and freedoms.

Of course, it would be silly to claim that climate factors or geography determine political outcomes, or even that they are the main causes. Democracy depends on a lot of things, especially beliefs and intentional collective action , much more than objective and contingent circumstances. But those circumstances do play a role, as they always do. Other causes are discussed in other posts in this blog series.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (15): Presidential v. Parliamentary Democracy

This post in the series focuses on the “remain” part rather than the “become” part. Juan Linz has famously argued that presidential democracies don’t work, with the exception of the US. To simplify things a bit, in a presidential democracy – where you have of course also a parliament – the executive power is elected directly by popular vote. People elect a president and this president selects her government. The people also elect members of parliament in separate elections. In a parliamentary democracy the executive isn’t elected directly by the people. The people elect only the members of parliament. The political party (or parties) that manage to get a majority of elected members of parliament then form a government (often after coalition negotiations between parties when there isn’t one party that has managed to acquire a majority of representatives in parliament).

One of the causes of the breakdown of presidential systems is the opposition between legislature and executive: both the president and the majority in the legislature have democratic legitimacy since they are both directly elected. That’s not a problem when both are of the same political family, but when they are not, it’s a recipe for stalemate at best and breakdown at worst.

Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. Theme is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate. It is therefore no accident that in some such situations in the past, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power. (source)

On the other hand, parliamentary systems seem to be less stable in countries plagued by bitter ethnic conflict, as is the case in many African countries.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (7): Education and Prosperity

There aren’t many questions in political science that are more important than this one: which are the factors that determine whether a country becomes or doesn’t become a democracy, and that determine the degree to which a country is democratic. There are two reasons why this question is important:

  • Democracy is an important good. Hence it’s important to know what facilitates or hinders the realization of this good.
  • Countries act on this statement in their foreign policy. For example, part of the rationale for invading Iraq was the conviction held by the U.S. administration of the time that promoting democracy in Iraq was both an intrinsic good and in the interest of the U.S.

I gave a short and non-exhaustive list of possible factors promoting/undermining the development/survival of democracy here. In the current post I want to focus on two of them: education levels and income or prosperity levels.

1. Education

This graph compares the Polity IV Democracy Index scores for the countries of the world (average scores during the 1960-2000 period), with the average years of schooling of the adult population in 1960. And there’s obviously a correlation, and the quote below gives an indication about the direction of correlation:

The chart above shows the 77 percent correlation between education levels in 1960 (measured by the average years of schooling in a country as estimated by Robert Barro and Jong-Wha Lee), and the subsequent 40-year average of the Polity IV democracy index. That democracy index runs from zero to 10, where countries with index values less than three don’t look remotely democratic and countries with index values of about seven are reasonably well-functioning democracies.

One way to read the graph is that there are basically no countries with very low levels of education that have managed to be democratic over the long term, and almost every country with a high level of education has remained a stable democracy.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” In 1960, 36 nations had less than 1.74 years of schooling (which happens to be the level that Afghanistan has today). Of those 36 countries, only two — India and Botswana — managed to have average democracy scores above 4.2.

Out of the 19 countries in this sample with more than 5.3 years of schooling (the current level in Iran) in 1960, 17 have average democracy scores above 7.9. Fifteen of these have been perfectly democratic, at least by the standards of Polity IV. Only Poland and Hungary were dictatorships, and one can certainly argue that those places would have been democracies in 1960s if it were not for Soviet troops.

But in the middle ranges of education, between two and five years on average, almost anything goes. Some places, like Costa Rica and Italy, have been extremely democratic, while others, like Kuwait and Paraguay, have not. Iraq falls into this category today, which suggests a fair amount of uncertainty about that country’s political future.

Why do I think that the chain of causality runs from education to democracy rather than the reverse? Democracy in 1960 is essentially uncorrelated with subsequent growth in the levels of education. Education in 1960, on the other hand, does an extremely good job of predicting increases in democracy.

Why is there a connection between human capital and freedom? Giacomo Ponzetto, Andrei Shleifer and I have argued that the connection reflects the ability of educated people to organize and fight collaboratively. Dictators provide strong incentives for the ruling clique; democracies provide more modest benefits for everyone else. For democracy to beat dictatorship, the dispersed population needs to have the skills and motivation to work collaboratively to defeat dictatorial coups and executive aggrandizement.

Education teaches skills, like reading and writing, that enable people to work collaboratively. At younger grades, teachers spend a lot of time teaching children how to get along. In the United States, education is strongly linked to civic engagement and membership in social groups. The ability to work together enables the defense of democracy. Edward L. Glaeser (source)

2. Income

There’s an interesting paper here examining the causal relation between democracy and income. The authors find that

the level of national income provides the most important factor explaining inter-country variations in the degree of democracy with the consequence that low income is the most important barrier to democracy.

They first present the correlation between income and democracy, using not the Polity IV index but the Gastil/Freedom House index.

The authors have two reasons to believe that the causal link goes from income to democracy rather than the other way around:

  • Initial income in 1971 correlates with average democracy scores during the 1972-2005 period. This approach is similar to the one above in the case of education and democracy.
  • And – simultaneously – there doesn’t seem to be a very strong causal link going from democracy to income. Barro has concluded that the degree of democracy is only a minor variable explaining income levels. So there is only a weak causal link going from democracy to income. This means that the strong correlation shown in the graph above must be explained by a causal link going from income to democracy.

Why do higher levels of income promote the development of democracy? I gave an overview of the reasons here but some of the more important ones are:

  • Higher education levels in a population means a higher probability of contestation. Following the Maslow hierarchy of needs it’s natural to expect the appearance of political needs once more basic needs have been secured.
  • More income means more complex production. This in turn means that governments find it harder to impose central control over their economies.

Obviously, income is just one of many factors determining the development of democracy. It’s an important one, but clearly not sufficient. The graph above shows the Muslim countries separately. As you can see, all non-Muslim countries with high income levels are in the “high level of democracy” range. Affluent Muslim countries, however, aren’t. This indicates that affluence in itself promotes but doesn’t determine the development of democracy. Other factors are also in play. Culture and religion are perhaps some of them. It’s often argued that Islam is incompatible with democracy, or at least slows down the development of or transition to democracy. I’ll come back to this controversial topic another time.

Thinking About Politics, and Doing Politics

What’s the status of thinking about political subjects? I think it’s fair to say that there’s no way of achieving something called “truth” or “scientific knowledge” when dealing with basic political concepts. For example, there’s no truth about democracy, human rights, justice etc. We’re stuck with mere opinions. Opinions which can be better than others, based on the reasoning and the arguments supporting them, but which nevertheless cannot pretend to be the unquestionable truth. There will always be people with other opinions which may be supported by equally good arguments. This doesn’t mean that we should all become extreme relativists for whom everything is equally valuable. Opinions can be based on prejudice or arguments, on good or bad arguments, on arguments picked up more or less randomly or on arguments that are properly tested and investigated, on correct logic or flawed logic etc.

This doesn’t mean that there can’t be any truth or scientific knowledge in the field of politics. We can do scientific work, for example we can do quantitative analysis on support for democracy, on preconditions of democracy etc. but not on the concept of democracy as such. The basic terms of the debate will remain contestable concepts that mean different things to different people, and that are valued differently by different people.

Opinions – contrary to the truth – do not have to be accepted, do not eliminate difference and do not impose consensus. They can be accepted or rejected, depending on the force of the arguments, your inclination to properly investigate the arguments, your prejudice, your upbringing and education, your social environment etc. Needless to say that the proper way of thinking about politics or about anything else requires investigation of the arguments for and against any opinion.

The world of political thinking is therefore very similar to the world of politics itself, at least as long as we limit ourselves to democratic politics (which for many is the only proper type of politics – any other kind is really just force rather than politics): it’s a world of plurality, contradiction and persuasion. We like to hope that the similarity between these two worlds goes even further than this, that democratic politics isn’t just a clash between opinions, but that the persuasion taking place in democratic politics is based on the proper investigation of all the arguments for and against, and that the opinions which temporarily gain the upper hand (and become policy or law) are the ones that are strongest intellectually. Just like in the world of political thinking.

Of course, democracy is only potentially like this. In reality, the predominant opinions aren’t necessarily the ones that are backed by the best arguments. Sloppy arguments or even prejudice (the absence of arguments) often determine which opinions “win” in a democracy. But that also happens in the world of political thinking, although perhaps (and hopefully) less often (if it happens less often, this doesn’t have anything to do with the supposed superior “intellects” of political scientists or philosophers compared to the ordinary people; it’s because of structures and procedures such as peer review and citation requirements, the time these people can spend on investigations of arguments etc.).

Democracy falls short of its potential because arguments aren’t investigated properly or are replaced by prejudice, but also because some players in the game regard their opinions not as opinions, but as the truth. As a result, they don’t believe it’s necessary to investigate the merits of other opinions or the arguments behind other opinions. Other opinions are no longer equal players in a game of persuasion, but are mistakes, errors, lies, or even sins (if the “truth” is of godly origin).

Ideally, the world of political thinking and the world of democratic politics would merge. Democratic politics, if it’s to avoid prejudice, faulty argumentation and claims of truth, needs an education in argumentation. Political thinkers (and, yes, I’m not thinking of myself) can provide this, not because they are smarter than the ordinary people who engage in politics, but because they have the benefit of practice in the art of argumentation. However, the benefits don’t have to travel in this direction: Soviet political science in the 1930s or 1940s, for example, could have benefited a lot from the example of ordinary US politics at the time. I’m not so sure about present-day US politics…

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 Human Rights (5): Some (Insurmountable?) Problems

If you care about human rights, it’s extremely important to measure the level of protection of human rights in different countries, as well as the level of progress or deterioration. Measurement in the social sciences is always tricky; we’re dealing with human behavior and not with sizes, volumes, speeds etc. However, measuring human rights is especially difficult.

Some examples. I talked about the so-called catch 22 of human rights measurement. In order to measure whether countries respect human rights, one already needs respect for human rights. Organizations, whether international organizations or private organizations (NGOs), must have some freedom to control, to engage in fact finding, to enter countries and move around, to investigate “in situ”, to denounce etc. Victims should have the freedom to speak out and to organize themselves in pressure groups. So we assume what we want to establish.

The more violations of human rights, the more difficult it is to monitor respect for human rights. The more oppressive the regime, the harder it is to establish the nature and severity of its crimes; and the harder it is to correct the situation.

So, a country which does a very bad job protecting human rights, may not have a low score because the act of giving the country a correct score is made impossible by its government. On the other hand, a low score for human rights (or certain human rights) may not be as bad as it seems, because at least it was possible to determine a score.

Another example: suppose a country shows a large increase in the number of rapes. At first sight, this is a bad thing, and would mean giving the country a lower score on certain human rights (such as violence against women, gender discrimination etc.). But perhaps the increase in the number of rapes is simply the result of a larger number of rapes being reported to the police. And better reporting of rape may be the result of a more deeply and widely ingrained human rights culture, or, in other words, it may be the reflection of a growing consciousness of women’s rights and gender equality.

So, a deteriorating score may actually hide progress.

The same can be said of corruption or police brutality. A deteriorating score may simply be a matter of perception, a perception created by more freedom of the press.

I don’t know how to solve these problems, but I think it’s worth mentioning them. They are probably the reason why there is so little good measurement in the field of human rights, and so much anecdotal reporting.

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.