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The majority of countries are democracies

About half of the world’s countries are now democracies. The charts here use two different classifications to depict the slow rise of the number of democracies over the last two centuries.

The end of World War I led to the birth of many democracies. However, during the 1930s, many of these young democracies then reverted to being autocratic.

After World War II, the number of democracies began growing again. But it was the end of the Cold War that led to a more dramatic increase in the number of democracies.

200 years ago, everyone lacked democratic rights. Now, billions of people have them

When French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille prison in 1789 in pursuit of liberty, equality, and fraternity (and weapons), they could not have imagined how far democratic political rights would have spread a mere 200 years later. In the 19th century, there were few countries one could call democracies. Today, the majority are.

It is an astonishing achievement that many countries are now governed democratically. But the mere number of countries does not tell us how many people enjoy democratic rights. When Tunisia became democratic in 2012, its population of 11 million gained the political rights that came with it. When India democratized in the 1950s, this same transition affected almost 400 million people.

If we adopt the common and famous understanding of democracy as rule by the people, we should also look at how many people get to have a say in their government. How many people have democratic political rights around the world? And how has their number changed over the last two hundred years?

To answer these questions, we need to combine long-term data on countries’ populations1 with information on their political systems. This tells us how the political rights of the world’s population have changed over the past two hundred years.

How do researchers identify which countries are democracies?

Identifying which countries are democracies comes with many challenges. People disagree  about what characterizes a democracy, and whether actual political systems can even come close to such an ideal. If they agree on what democracy is and that countries can come meaningfully close to it, its characteristics — such as whether an election is free and fair — still are difficult to assess. If knowledgeable researchers can be found, their assessments are still to some degree subjective, and they may disagree with others. Even if researchers align in their assessment of specific characteristics of a political system, they may disagree about how to reduce the complexity of these many characteristics into a single variable: a binary measure that says whether a country is a ‘democracy’ or not.

Because of these difficulties, classifying political systems is unavoidably controversial.

In our work we therefore rely on sources that work hard to address these many challenges, and are transparent, so that they can be interrogated and criticized by those who disagree. 

Here, we identify the political systems of countries with the Regimes of the World (RoW) classification by political scientists Anna Lührmann, Marcus Tannenberg, and Staffan Lindberg.2 The classification uses data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project3 and distinguishes between four types of political systems: closed autocracies, electoral autocracies, electoral democracies, and liberal democracies.

Which political systems does the ‘Regimes of the World’ classification distinguish?

  • In closed autocracies, citizens do not have the right to choose either the chief executive of the government or the legislature through multi-party elections.
  • In electoral autocracies, citizens have the right to choose the chief executive and the legislature through multi-party elections; but they lack some freedoms, such as the freedoms of association or expression, that make the elections meaningful, free, and fair.
  • In electoral democracies, citizens have the right to participate in meaningful, free and fair, and multi-party elections.
  • In liberal democracies, citizens have further individual and minority rights, are equal before the law, and the actions of the executive are constrained by the legislative and the courts.

While we use RoW’s classification and V-Dem’s data, we expand the years and countries covered and refine the coding rules. This post details how the political systems are measured, which changes we made, and what shortcomings and strengths the measure has. It is important to know that this measure describes when many people in a country had certain political rights, not that everyone had them.4 It is not a perfect classification, but still allows us to approximate how many people have had democratic rights.

Using the RoW classification, the interactive map shows how each country is classified at the end of each year, going back in time as far as 1789. To explore changes over time, you can drag the time-slider below the map.

Almost everyone lacked democratic political rights in the 19th century, but many have gained them since.

In the core chart of this post we see how many people lived under each of the four political systems since 1800. To see what share of the world’s population lived in each regime, you can tick the ‘Relative’ box.

Very few people had democratic political rights in the 19th century. In 1800, almost everyone lived in regimes that are classified as closed autocracies by RoW. No country was a democracy, and only 22 million people lived in the two countries classified as electoral autocracies: the United Kingdom and the United States.

Most people continued to live in closed autocracies over the course of the 19th century, with 3 out of 4 people still having few political rights by 1900, while those who did not mostly lived in electoral autocracies in the Americas and Western Europe. Only the 14 million people in Australia, Belgium, and Switzerland enjoyed a wide range of electoral and liberal political rights. A further 41 million in France and New Zealand enjoyed many democratic (but not liberal) political rights.

The first half of the 20th century made clear that a spread of democratic rights was both possible and uncertain. Democratic progress in the first decades of the century was set back when countries such as Germany reverted to autocratic rule in the 1930s and 1940s. 

Over the course of the second half of the 20th century, large numbers of people then gained democratic political rights. In 1950, more than 200 million people — mostly in Western Europe — lived in liberal democracies, and another 240 million lived in electoral democracies in Western Europe and the Americas. This number increased in the next decades, and by the late 1990s the majority of the world’s population — around 3 billion people — lived in electoral and liberal democracies.

The spread of democratic political rights continued during the early 21st century. By 2018, more than 2.7 billion people lived in electoral democracies in all regions of the world: most coming from the populous countries of India,5 Indonesia, Brazil and Nigeria. Another billion people lived in liberal democracies, such as those living in South Korea and Ghana. Almost all of the 1.9 billion people still living in a closed autocracy now reside in just one country: China.

Democratic political rights are still far from universal — and far from inevitable

While democratic rights have spread far, they are also still far from universal, and there have been recent setbacks. Even though many people now have them, the total number of people not having democratic rights is higher than ever. This is because the world’s population grew faster than democracy spread. And some people have recently lost political rights; most prominently the 1.4 billion people living in India, which became an electoral autocracy in 2019.6 This means that now more than two thirds of the world’s population live in closed and electoral autocracies.

These setbacks should serve as a reminder that continued political progress is not inevitable. Nonetheless, we see that a staggering number of people have gained democratic rights in a relatively short period of time. Many people still lack them, but the pace of this progress is a sign that this can change quickly. The French revolutionaries’ — and our — pursuit of liberty, equality, and fraternity is far from over. But we have come a long way already.

In most countries, democracy is a recent achievement. Dictatorship is far from a distant memory

To young people living in democracies, authoritarianism may seem like a long-forgotten part of their country’s history. For as long as they can remember, their fellow citizens have had the right to voice their opinion and to organize freely, political parties have competed in meaningful elections, and the legislature and courts have checked their governments’ actions.

But these experiences are far from universal. Many countries are not democracies; and almost all countries that are democratic are younger than a lifetime. This means that for most people, life under authoritarianism is either their current experience, or they remember a time when it was.

How can researchers measure the age of democracies?

Identifying which countries are democracies comes with many challenges. People disagree  about what characterizes a democracy, and whether actual political systems can even come close to such an ideal. If they agree on what democracy is and that countries can come meaningfully close to it, its characteristics — such as whether an election is free and fair — still are difficult to assess. If knowledgeable researchers can be found, their assessments are still to some degree subjective, and they may disagree with others. Even if researchers align in their assessment of specific characteristics of a political system, they may disagree about how to reduce the complexity of these many characteristics into a single variable: a binary measure that says whether a country is a ‘democracy’ or not.

Because of these difficulties, classifying political systems is unavoidably controversial.

In our work we therefore rely on sources that work hard to address these many challenges, and are transparent, so that they can be interrogated and criticized by those who disagree. We also use multiple sources to see how the assessments of different researchers compare.

The first source we use here is the Regimes of the World (RoW) classification by political scientists Anna Lührmann, Marcus Tannenberg and Staffan Lindberg.7 The classification uses data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project8 and distinguishes between two types of democracies: electoral democracies and liberal democracies.

In electoral democracies, citizens have the right to participate in meaningful, free and fair, multi-party elections. Liberal democracies go further: citizens have individual and minority rights, equality before the law, and the actions of the executive are constrained by the legislature and the courts.9

While we use RoW’s classification and V-Dem’s data, we expand the years and countries covered and refine the coding rules. This post details how RoW measures democracies, which changes we made, and what shortcomings and strengths the measure has.

Although RoW allows us to look at two different understandings of democracy, Lührmann et al. (2018) acknowledge that it is a demanding measure of which countries are democracies.10 RoW has high standards for how free, fair, and meaningful elections have to be to classify as a democracy. It therefore classifies some political systems with limited flaws, such as some restrictions on the freedoms of expression and association, as autocratic. Other measures are more accepting of such flawed elections and consider these political systems as sufficiently democratic.

One alternative source we use here is the BMR classification by political scientists Carles Boix, Michael Miller, and Sebastian Rosato.11 The classification distinguishes between democracies, in which political leaders are elected under broad suffrage in free and fair elections, and non-democracies, which do not meet these criteria.12 They apply the classification to 222 countries, some of which they cover as far back as 1800.13

To calculate the age of democracy in a country, we count the number of years since a country is considered democratic, looking in turn at electoral democracies and liberal democracies based on RoW, and democracies as identified by BMR. If the classification categorizes the country as non-democratic at any point, the age of its democracy is set back to zero.14

Just over half of countries are democracies today

The interactive map shows how old electoral democracy was in each country in 2020 when using the RoW classification.15 The bar chart sums up the number of countries by age.

Based on this classification and the assessments of V-Dem’s experts, we see that only half of all countries were democracies in 2021: of the 179 countries for which data is available, 89 held meaningful, free and fair, and multi-party elections.

This means that for the people living in the other 90 countries, authoritarian government is not a memory at all, but their current experience.

To explore how the ages of democracies and their frequencies have changed over time, you can drag the time-slider below the charts as far back as 1789, when no country was democratic.16 

Most democracies are young

The data shows that democracy is young in most of the countries that are democratic today.

Many democracies are less than a generation old. Eighteen of them are younger than 18, not older than a child. These include the democracies in Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Nepal, or Liberia. Others are only as old as the country’s young adults, such as the democracies in Indonesia, Mexico, and South Africa.

This means that in these countries even most young people have experienced authoritarian rule, and that older people have lacked democratic political rights for a large part of their lives.

A smaller group of countries have been electoral democracies for two or three generations. This includes the democracies in Botswana, Costa Rica, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

In these countries, children and young adults have only known life in a democracy. But their parents and grandparents, and thus large parts of the population, have still experienced non-democratic rule.

Only a few countries have been electoral democracies for a long time. Eight countries — Canada, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States — have been electoral democracies for a century or more. And according to this data, just two countries have been electoral democracies even longer: Australia and Switzerland have been democracies since the mid-19th century.

Democracy in these countries is therefore older than all or close to all of their citizens.This does not mean, however, that everyone in these countries has enjoyed democratic political rights since then. For example, the Australian and Swiss governments forbade women to vote and stand in elections until 1902 and 1971, respectively.

Liberal democracy is an even more recent achievement

If we look at liberal democracies, defined in the RoW-classification as political systems in which citizens have further individual and minority rights in addition to the meaningful, free and fair, multi-party elections that characterize electoral democracies, we see that they are an even rarer and more recent achievement.17

In the interactive map and bar chart we see the age of liberal democracy in any given country and their frequencies by year.18 In 2021, only 34 of the 179 countries covered were considered to be liberal democracies.

These liberal democracies split evenly into four age groups: democracies the age of children or young adults, such as Chile, Estonia, and South Korea; middle-aged democracies, including Costa Rica, Israel, and the United States; democracies the age of senior citizens, such as France, Germany, and Japan; and even older liberal democracies: this includes Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. The outlier by far is Switzerland, which the RoW classification categorizes as a liberal democracy without interruption since the middle of the 19th century.

Democracy is a recent achievement regardless of the measure used

As emphasized earlier in this article, researchers come to different conclusions about whether a country should be considered democratic or not.

This becomes clear when we compare the RoW classification — which we just looked at — with the classification by Carles Boix, Michael Miller, and Sebastian Rosato (BMR). One example of where the classifications disagree is India. RoW considers the country to have been an electoral autocracy in 1975 and 1976, and since 2019. This is because its classification emphasizes freedoms of association and expression in addition to the freedom and fairness of elections. V-Dem’s experts deem these to have declined during those years.19 The BMR classification disagrees with this assessment and considers India to have been continuously democratic since 1950.  

But, overall, a comparison of sources shows broad agreement, and we see that the BMR classification agrees that democracy is a recent achievement in most countries.

The interactive map and bar chart again display the age of democracy in each country and their frequencies by year.

The data shows that in 2020, the BMR classification considers more countries to have been minimally democratic than in RoW’s classification: 118 of the 193 countries covered were considered to have been electoral democracies. This includes small countries which RoW does not cover, such as Andorra and Saint Lucia, plus countries such as Hungary and the aforementioned India which RoW does cover, but recently classifies as electoral autocracies.

Among the democracies classified as such by BMR, those aged one or two generations are especially common. This includes countries categorized the same based on RoW, such as Indonesia, Mexico, and South Africa; and it includes some democracies RoW considers to be younger, such as the Dominican Republic and Ukraine.

While the measures for some countries disagree about whether they are democracies, and for how long they have been so, the measures agree in their assessment of many others. And importantly, they agree that few countries that are democratic are older than two generations.20

Ultimately, regardless of the measure used, the data shows that many people have experienced non-democratic rule in their lifetimes.

In almost all countries, non-democratic rule is far from a distant memory

Electoral and liberal democratic political rights are recent achievements in the countries where citizens have them.

Countries such as the United Kingdom, in which democracy is older than almost all of its citizens, are rare; and even countries such as Spain have democracies which are younger than many of its older citizens. 

The experience of young people living in democracies in Western Europe or North America is therefore a fairly unique one: it is not representative of other people’s experiences — not of older citizens in their own country, or of people in other parts of the world.

Democracy’s spread is largely a recent achievement, and dictatorship is far from a distant memory for people in almost all countries. It instead is either still with them, and a part of their daily life; or it is not forgotten, and part of their own or their older relatives’ memories.

People around the world have gained democratic rights, but some have many more rights than others

200 years ago, everyone lacked democratic rights. Now, billions of people have them.

But there are still large differences in the degree to which citizens enjoy political rights: most clearly between democracies and non-democracies, but also within these broad political regimes.

To understand the extent of people’s political rights, we shouldn’t only look at whether a country is classified as a democracy or not. We should also look at smaller differences in how democratic countries are.

How democratic have countries been across the world? And how big are the differences between them?

To answer these questions, we need information on countries’ political systems over recent centuries.

How can researchers measure how democratic a country is?

Measuring how democratic countries are comes with many challenges. People do not always agree on what characteristics define a democracy. Its characteristics — such as whether an election was free and fair — are difficult to assess. The assessments of experts are to some degree subjective and they may disagree; either about a specific characteristic, or how several characteristics can be reduced into a single measure of democracy.

​​Because of these difficulties, classifying political systems is unavoidably controversial. I have written more about how researchers deal with the challenges of measuring democracy here.

The source we show here is the electoral democracy index from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project21. In our Democracy Data Explorer, however, we show the data for several leading approaches, so that you can compare how different sources score democracy across the world.

The electoral democracy index from V-Dem tries to capture the extent to which political leaders are elected under comprehensive voting rights in free and fair elections, and freedoms of association and expression are guaranteed.22

The interactive map shows how democratic each country is at the end of each year, going back in time as far as 1789.23 To explore changes over time, you can drag the time-slider below the map. 

We see that countries differ in how democratic they are, with some countries close to the index’s maximum of 1, and others close to its minimum score of 0. Most countries are somewhere in the middle.

The world was highly undemocratic in the 18th and 19th centuries

The world did not always look like it does today. It has become much more democratic over time.

A very clear way of showing this is to look at the distribution of democracy scores at different stages in history. 

Here we do this in the form of a bar chart, where electoral democracy is again measured on a scale from 0 to 1. The shortest bars here are the least democratic countries, the highest bars indicate the most democratic. 

This means that the area covered by all of the bars gives us a proxy for the extent of democracy globally.

In the data’s earliest available year, 1789, the world was very undemocratic: most of the world’s political leaders were unelected, few people had voting rights, elections were neither free nor fair, and citizens were not able to assemble and speak freely.

Only a few countries, such as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, had a few democratic characteristics. The United States was the most democratic country according to V-Dem’s assessment, but still only received a score of 0.35.

In this sense, the world was more equal than it is today: democratic rights were very limited everywhere.

Related charts:

The world was mostly undemocratic in the early 20th century

By 1900, political institutions had become more diverse, but remained highly undemocratic in most countries. 

A fair number of countries in Europe and the Americas now had some democratic features: citizens especially had become freer to associate and express their opinions. A couple of countries, such as Australia, France, and Switzerland, had even developed fairly democratic features, with men now having the right to vote and almost all political leaders being chosen in elections.

The most democratic country, with a score of 0.8, was New Zealand.

But the many other countries, most under colonial rule, had political systems that granted few democratic rights to their citizens: the colonial powers installed unelected leaders, gave no or only few citizens the right to vote, and restricted citizens’ ability to assemble and express their opinions.

Democratic rights became highly unequal across the world in the first half of the 20th century

In the first half of the 20th century, some countries continued to become more democratic, while progress in most others stalled. 

More democratic political institutions in Europe after the First World War were almost completely undone in the two decades that followed, but were then reestablished after the second World War. Some non-European countries such as Canada and the United States also extended the democratic rights of their citizens. 

In the rest of the world, however, countries broadened some political rights while remaining overwhelmingly undemocratic. The colonial powers at times expanded voting rights and loosened restrictions on freedoms of expression and association, but local political leaders remained unelected, or the elections choosing them were marred by violence, intimidation, or fraud.

This meant that democratic rights were distributed highly unequally across the world’s inhabitants, shown by the chart’s steep slope.

Democracy spread across the world in the second half of the 20th century

Many countries then became much more democratic in the second half of the 20th century.

In the 1990s especially, democratic institutions expanded across the world. Countries in South America shed their highly autocratic political systems that had spread in the 1970s. According to V-Dem, a considerable number of countries in Africa became fairly democratic (such as Ghana and Senegal) or largely democratic (such as Botswana) in the decades after gaining independence. Civil society organizations and political parties could operate more freely, and elections became freer and fairer.

And while many countries in Asia and the Middle East remained decidedly undemocratic, some countries in these regions expanded democratic rights, such as India, Indonesia, Turkey, and South Korea. 

Democratic rights therefore became much more evenly distributed across the world.

Democracy’s spread has slowed in the 21st century

The spread of democracy has slowed in the 21st century compared to previous decades. While some countries became more democratic according to V-Dem, such as Tunisia and Peru, many stagnated or became less democratic — some, such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Poland considerably so.

Despite these declines in democracy, almost all countries remain much more democratic than they were at the beginning of the 20th century. 

And they remain vastly more democratic than most countries during the 18th and 19th centuries: a score of 0.11 made Denmark one of the most democratic countries in 1900, while the same score made Mexico an average country in 1900, and Yemen one of the least democratic countries in the world in 2021.

Some countries are much more democratic than others

While the world has become much more democratic over the last 200 years, there are still large differences between countries.

As the previous chart shows, some countries — mostly located in Europe and the Americas — are highly democratic: they have elected political leaders, elections are free and fair, and most citizens have the right to vote and can associate and express their opinions freely. The most democratic countries were Denmark and Sweden, with scores of 0.91.

Other countries, concentrated in Asia, are highly undemocratic according to V-Dem. This includes countries such as China, North Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and the least democratic country in the world, Saudi Arabia, with a score of just 0.02. In these countries, citizens do not have the right to choose their political leaders in popular elections.

Many countries, often situated in Africa and East and Southeast Asia, fall somewhere in the middle. In these countries, political leaders usually are elected and most citizens have the right to vote, but their rights to associate and express their opinions are limited, and elections are not entirely free and fair.

As mentioned, V-Dem is only one of the leading approaches to measure democracy. And its electoral democracy index is only one main measure it provides alongside other, more comprehensive indices of democracy.

Yet, using another approach or V-Dem index to measure democracy shows a similar development from a highly undemocratic world in the 18th and 19th century, to high democratic inequality in the earlier 20th century, and a much more democratic, and more equally democratic, world in recent decades.

You can see so for yourself by exploring the four charts below, which use the Polity project’s democracy index and V-Dem’s liberal democracy index.

Taken together, the democratic political systems of many countries show that a world where people have much more say in how they are governed is possible. 

But the fact that so many countries are still highly undemocratic means that the fight for democratic political rights goes on.

Democratization

Countries with better education in the past tend to be more democratic today

A long-standing theory in political science argues that education is a key determinant of the emergence and sustainability of democracy, because it promotes political participation at the individual level and fosters a collective sense of civic duty.

And so, under this theory, we should expect that education correlates positively with measures of democratization in subsequent years. This is precisely what we see in the data and chart below. Those countries that had higher average education levels in 1970 are also those countries that are more democratic today (you can read more about measures of education level in our entry on Global Rise of Education).

Again, these data should be interpreted carefully. They merely show a correlation and do not imply a causal link. That is, these data do not imply that education leads to democracy.

Nonetheless, academic work does suggest that there is such a causal link. Even after controlling for many other country characteristics, the positive relationship between education and democracy holds (see, for example, Lutz, Crespo-Cuaresma, and Abbasi‐Shavazi 201024).

Living conditions in democratic countries

Democratic countries tend to be richer

This chart plots each country’s GDP per capita against the Liberal Democracy index.

All highly democratic countries have relatively high GDPs per capita. Only few countries that are highly undemocratic are as rich. Those countries either export large quantities of fossil fuels or are small city states.

People in democracies tend to be healthier

This chart plots each country’s child mortality against the Liberal Democracy index to illustrate the association between health and democracy.

All highly democratic countries have relatively low child mortality rates. Very few less democratic countries have child mortality rates that are as low. Most undemocratic countries have much higher mortality rates.

Democracies are better at protecting human rights

The right to vote and determine who holds political power is in itself a fundamental right. And this right is, by definition, upheld and protected by all democracies.

But of course, there are many other human rights. Are democracies also better at protecting these other human rights?

As noted in our entry on human rights, it is difficult to measure the degree to which human rights are protected. In our opinion, the best available measure is the Human Rights Score developed by Fariss (2014).25

The Human Rights Score focuses on the protection of the physical integrity of citizens. In particular, it takes into account torture, government killing, political imprisonment, extrajudicial executions, mass killings and disappearances.

The chart plots each country’s Human Rights Score against its score on the Liberal Democracy index. There is a clear positive correlation: more democratic countries tend to protect human rights more.

Mulligan, Gil, and Sala-i-Martin (2004)26 investigate the link between democratic rule and the human rights protection in a sample of 121 countries controlling for other important variables. The authors find that countries that are more democratic are less likely to execute citizens, regulate religion, or censor the press.

Does democratization impact education?

Above, we mentioned that improved education might cause greater democratization. Now, is there also a reverse causal effect? That is, does democratization lead to improved education? Once again, this is a tricky question for social science, because we need to distinguish between the two arrows of causation.

Evidence that democratization leads to better education
Gallego (2010)27 presents the most careful analysis that we are aware of. It presents evidence that democracy has indeed had a causal effect on primary-school enrollment.28

Other papers deal with the issue of possible reverse causality in a simpler fashion and use lagged observations of democracy as a possible determinant for the level of education. For example, Baum and Lake (2001) find that democratization increased secondary-school enrollment.29

Also, Acemoglu, Naidu, Restrepo, and Robinson (2015)30 find that democracy is associated with an increase in secondary schooling.

We now briefly discuss several channels through which democratization might improve education:

Electoral competition in democracies increases the incentive to abolish school fees
Harding and Stasavage (2014)31 find that democratization has a positive effect on primary education. Their explanation is that electoral competition in democracies incentivizes politicians to abolish primary-school fees. They argue that democratization has a much smaller effect on the provision of school inputs and consequently the quality of schooling — the reason is that such actions are harder to monitor and would thus provide politicians with a smaller advantage in electoral competition.

Democratization increases educational spending
Stasavage (2005)32 finds that the 1990s shift to multiparty competition in African countries increased total educational spending as a percentage of GDP.
Ansell (2010)33 studies 100 countries over 40 years and finds that democratization increases both total educational spending as a share of GDP and as a share of the government budget.

Evidence that democracy improves teacher–student ratios
Naidu (2011)34 studies the effects of the 19th-century disenfranchisement of black citizens in the US South through poll taxes and literacy tests. He finds that this reversal of democracy “reduced the teacher-child ratio in black schools by 10–23%, with no significant effects on white teacher-child ratios.”

Democracy improved local politics in China and lead to more educated politicians
Martinez-Bravo et al. (2012)35 study the gradual introduction of local elections in China. In particular, they exploit the staggered timing of the introduction of village elections as a natural experiment. They “find that elections significantly increase public goods expenditure, the increase corresponds to demand and is paralleled by an increase in public goods provision and local taxes.” This is consistent with some of the results we’ve already discussed, including increased public education in villages with more children. Overall total public goods investment increased by 27 percent – this increase in public expenditures was funded by villagers and was accompanied by an increase in the local taxes paid by villagers.

The introduction of elections also reduced inequality. This was achieved partly through (a) land redistribution from elite-controlled enterprises to farming households; and (b) increased irrigation and hence improved agricultural productivity that is likely to “disproportionately benefit poorer households”.

Martinez-Bravo et al. (2012) also find that the introduction of elections was followed by the increased turnover of village chairmen increased. Moreover, the village chairmen were now less likely to be Communist Party members and, more importantly, were better educated.

Democracy data: how do researchers identify which countries are democratic?

Measuring the state of democracy across the world helps us understand the extent to which people have political rights and freedoms.

But measuring which countries are democratic comes with many challenges. People do not always agree on what characteristics define a democracy. Its characteristics — such as whether an election was free and fair — are difficult to assess. The assessments of experts are to some degree subjective and they may disagree; either about a specific characteristic, or how several characteristics can be reduced into a single measure of democracy.

So how do researchers address these challenges and identify which countries are democratic and undemocratic?

In our work on Democracy, we provide data from eight leading approaches of measuring democracy:

These approaches all measure democracy (or a closely related aspect), they cover many countries and years, and are commonly used by researchers and policymakers.

You can delve into their data — the main democracy measures, indicators of specific characteristics, and global and regional overviews —  in our Democracy Data Explorer.

Reassuringly, the approaches typically agree about big differences in countries’ political institutions: they readily distinguish between highly democratic countries, such as Chile and Norway, and highly undemocratic countries, such as North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

But they do not always agree. They come to different assessments about which of the two highly democratic countries – Chile and Norway – is more democratic, and whether Chile is more or less democratic than it was ten years ago. At times they come to strikingly different conclusions about countries that are neither highly democratic nor highly undemocratic, such as Nigeria today or the United States in the 19th century.

Why do these measures sometimes reach such different conclusions? In this article I summarize the key similarities and differences of these approaches.

How is democracy characterized?

In this and the following tables I summarize how each approach defines and scores democracy, and what coverage each approach provides.44

We see that the approaches share a basic principle of democracy: a democracy is an electoral political system in which citizens get to participate in free and fair elections. The approaches also mostly agree that democracies are liberal political systems, in which citizens have additional civil rights and are protected from the state by constraining it.

Some approaches stop there, and stick to these narrower conceptions of democracy. Others characterize democracy in broader terms, and also see it as a participatory and deliberative (citizens engage in elections, civil society, and public discourse) as well as an effective (governments can act on citizens’ behalf) political system.

Varieties of Democracy — true to its name — offers both narrow and broader characterizations, by separately adding liberal, participatory, deliberative, as well as egalitarian (economic and social resources are equally distributed) political institutions to electoral democracy.

How is democracy characterized?
Varieties of DemocracyNarrow and broader: electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, or egalitarian democracy
Regimes of the WorldNarrow: electoral or liberal democracy
Lexical IndexNarrow: electoral (or liberal) democracy
Boix-Miller-RosatoNarrow: electoral democracy
PolityNarrow: electoral and liberal democracy
Freedom HouseNarrow: electoral or liberal democracy
Bertelsmann Transformation IndexBroad: electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and effective democracy
Economist Intelligence UnitBroad: electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and effective democracy

How is democracy scored?

The approaches also differ in how they score democracy.

V-Dem treats democracy as a spectrum, with some countries being scored as more democratic than others. 

Other approaches instead treat democracy as a binary, and classify a country as either a democracy or not. 

A final group does both, using a spectrum of countries being more or less democratic, and setting thresholds above which a country is considered a democracy overall.

Approaches that classify countries into democracies and non-democracies further differ in whether all countries that are not democracies are considered autocracies or authoritarian regimes, or whether there are some countries that do not clearly belong in either group.

And while Freedom in the World identifies which countries are electoral democracies in recent years, its main classification distinguishes between free, partly-free, and not-free countries (which many treat as a proxy for liberal democracy).

Beyond these broad similarities in how the approaches characterize and score democracy, their exact definitions differ in smaller ways, too. If you are interested in the details, you can take a closer look at the specific defining characteristics at the end of this article.

How is democracy scored?
Varieties of DemocracyOn a spectrum: 0 to 1, highly undemocratic to highly democratic
Regimes of the WorldAs a classification: closed autocracy < electoral autocracy < electoral democracy < liberal democracy
Lexical IndexAs a classification: non-electoral autocracy < one-party autocracy < multi-party autocracy without elected executive < multi-party autocracy
< exclusive democracy < male democracy < electoral democracy < polyarchy
Boix-Miller-RosatoAs a classification: non-democracy < democracy
PolityOn a spectrum: -10 to 10, hereditary monarchy to consolidated democracy
classification: autocracy < anocracy < democracy
Freedom HouseAs a classification 1: not free < partly free < free
classification 2: non-democracy < electoral democracy
Bertelsmann Transformation IndexOn a spectrum: 1 to 10, highly undemocratic to highly democratic
classification: hard-line autocracy < moderate autocracy < very defective democracy < defective democracy < consolidating democracy
Economist Intelligence UnitOn a spectrum: 0 to 10, highly undemocratic to 10 highly democratic
classification: authoritarian regime < hybrid regime < flawed democracy < full democracy

What differences are captured?

How the approaches score democracy affects what differences in democracy they can capture.

Classifications tend to be coarser, and therefore cover big to medium differences in democracy: they reduce the complexity of political systems a lot and distinguish between broad types, such as the democracies of Chile and Norway on the one hand, and the non-democracies of North Korea and Saudi Arabia, on the other.

The fine-grained spectrums of other approaches meanwhile reduce political systems’ complexity a bit less, and capture both big and small differences in democracy, such as the difference in democratic quality between the democracies Chile and Norway, and the difference between autocracies North Korea and Saudi Arabia. Spectrums can also better capture small changes within political systems over time, towards or away from democracy.

While some approaches use their classifications exclusively to reduce the complexity of their spectrums, others also use theirs to clearly define what features characterize each category.

What differences are captured?
Varieties of DemocracyBig to very small differences
Regimes of the WorldBig differences, with clear meaning
Lexical IndexBig to medium differences, with very clear meaning
Boix-Miller-RosatoBig differences, with clear meaning
PolityBig to medium differences
Freedom HouseBig differences
Bertelsmann Transformation IndexBig to small differences
Economist Intelligence UnitBig to small differences

What years and countries are covered?

The approaches also differ in what years and countries they cover. 

All approaches cover the recent past, but differ in how far they go back in time. BTI and EIU begin in the mid-2000s. Freedom in the World starts in the early 1970s. The other approaches go back to the beginning of the 19th century or even the late 18th century. The Regimes of the World-data we ourselves extended back from 1900.

All approaches cover most countries in the world. They differ in how comprehensive their coverage is: BTI excludes long-term members of the OECD (which it considers consolidated democracies), while all other approaches assess them. Some approaches also include very small states and territories, and some also assess many non-independent countries, usually colonies.45

What years and countries are covered?
Varieties of DemocracyYears since 1789; 202 countries, also non-independent
Regimes of the WorldYears since 1789; 202 countries, also non-independent
Lexical IndexYears since 1789; 242 countries, also non-independent and microstates
Boix-Miller-RosatoYears since 1800; 218 countries, also microstates
PolityYears 1800 — 2018; 192 countries
Freedom HouseYears since 1972; 229 countries and territories, also microentities
Bertelsmann Transformation IndexYears since 2005; 138 countries and territories, no consolidated democracies
Economist Intelligence UnitYears since 2006; 167 countries

How are democracy’s characteristics assessed?

The approaches also differ in how they go about assessing the characteristics of democracy. 

Many rely on evaluations to assess democratic characteristics that are difficult to observe, such as whether elections were competitive and people were free to express their views. Some rely on evaluations by country experts to assess whether, or to which extent, democracy’s characteristics are present (or not) in any given country and year. Others depend on evaluations by their own researchers reviewing the academic literature and news reports. And many use both country experts and their own teams. A few additionally incorporate some representative surveys of regular citizens.

The Lexical Index and the Boix-Miller-Rosato data meanwhile work to avoid difficult evaluations by either experts or researchers, and mostly have their own teams assess easy-to-observe characteristics — such as whether regular elections are held and several parties compete in them — to identify (non-)democracies.

Depending on whether they score democracy as a spectrum or classification, the approaches then aggregate the scores for specific characteristics: some average, add, and/or weigh the scores, others assess whether necessary characteristics are present, and a few do both.

How are democracy's characteristics assessed?
Varieties of DemocracyMostly through evaluations by experts; some easy-to-observe characteristics assessed by own researchers
Then weighting, adding, and multiplying scores for (sub-)characteristics
Regimes of the WorldMostly through evaluations by experts; some easy-to-observe characteristics assessed by own researchers
Then evaluating whether necessary characteristics are (not) present
Then weighting, adding, and multiplying scores for a few characteristics
Lexical IndexMostly with easy-to-observe characteristics, few evaluations by own researchers based on academic research
Then evaluating whether necessary characteristics are present or not
Boix-Miller-RosatoMostly with easy-to-observe characteristics, few evaluations by own researchers based on academic literature
Then evaluating whether necessary characteristics are present or not
PolityMostly through evaluations by own researchers based on academic literature and news reports
Then weighting and adding scores for characteristics
Freedom HouseMostly through evaluations by country and regional experts and own researchers based on different types of sources
Free countries: then adding scores for (sub-)characteristics
Electoral democracies: then adding scores and evaluating whether necessary characteristics are present or not
Bertelsmann Transformation IndexMostly through evaluations by country, regional, and general experts, some evaluations by representative surveys of regular citizens
Spectrum: then averaging of scores for (sub-)characteristics
Classification: then averaging and evaluating whether necessary characteristics are present or not
Economist Intelligence UnitMostly through evaluations by own country experts, some evaluations by representative surveys of regular citizens
Then averaging and minor weighting of scores for (sub-)characteristics

How do approaches work to make assessments valid?

The next tables summarize how the approaches address the challenges that come with measuring democracy. The first challenge is to make their assessments valid — to actually measure what they want to capture.

The approaches go about measuring democracy differently because they weigh the challenges of measurement differently. 

For those mostly relying on experts, the priority is that democracy’s characteristics are evaluated by people that know the country well. For those relying on their own researchers, the priority is that the coders know the approach’s characterization of democracy and the measurement procedures well. And for those relying on representative surveys, capturing the difficult-to-observe lived realities of regular citizens is especially important.

How do approaches work to make assessments valid?
Varieties of DemocracyExperts (often nationals or residents) know country and characteristics well, own researchers know measurement procedures well
Regimes of the WorldExperts (often nationals or residents) know country and characteristics well, own researchers know measurement procedures well
Lexical IndexOwn researchers know measurement procedures well
Boix-Miller-RosatoOwn researchers know measurement procedures well
PolityOwn researchers know measurement well
Freedom HouseExperts know country or region well, own researchers know measurement well
Bertelsmann Transformation IndexExperts (about half of them local) know country well, regular citizens know their own experiences well
Economist Intelligence UnitExperts know country or region well, regular citizens know their own experiences well

How do approaches work to make assessments precise?

The approaches are also concerned with making their assessments in a precise and reliable manner.

Expert-based approaches therefore often recruit many experts in total, several experts per country, or even several to many experts per country, year and characteristic.

Own-researcher-based approaches instead either focus more on making difficult subjective evaluation mostly unnecessary, or encourage their teams to rely on many different secondary sources, such as country-specific academic research, news reports, and personal conversations.

How do approaches work to make assessments precise?
Varieties of DemocracySeveral experts per country, year, and characteristic used (usually 5 or more since 1900, often 25 per country)
Regimes of the WorldSeveral experts per country, year, and characteristic used (usually 5 or more since 1900, often 25 per country)
Lexical IndexCharacteristics easy to understand and observe; subjective evaluation therefore mostly unnecessary
Boix-Miller-RosatoCharacteristics easy to understand and observe; subjective evaluation therefore mostly unnecessary
PolitySeveral researchers used
Freedom HouseMore than 100 experts and researchers used in total; Experts and researchers rely on academic research, news and NGO reports, personal conversations, and on-the-ground research
Bertelsmann Transformation IndexTwo experts per country and year used
Economist Intelligence UnitOne or two experts per country and year used

How do approaches work to make assessments comparable?

The approaches also face the challenge of how to make the coders’ respective assessments comparable across countries and time.

The surveys therefore ask the experts questions about specific characteristics of democracy, such as the presence or absence of election fraud, instead of making them rely on their broad impressions. They also explain the scales on which the characteristics are scored, and often all of the scales’ values.

Measuring many specific low-level characteristics also helps users understand why a country received a specific score, and it allows them to create new measures tailored to their own interests.

How do approaches work to make assessments comparable?
Varieties of DemocracyExperts answer very specific questions about sub-characteristics on completely explained scale
Experts also code hypothetical countries and many code several countries, denote own uncertainty and personal demographic information
Project investigated expert biases and found them to be limited
Regimes of the WorldExperts answer very specific questions about sub-characteristics on completely explained scale
Experts also code hypothetical examples and many code several countries, denote own uncertainty and personal attributes
Project investigated expert biases and found them to be limited
Lexical IndexResearchers answer specific questions about characteristics on explained scale
Same researcher assesses all countries and years
Boix-Miller-RosatoSame researcher assesses all countries and years
PolityExperts answer specific questions about characteristics on completely explained scale
Freedom HouseExperts answer questions about characteristics separately
Bertelsmann Transformation IndexExperts answer specific questions about sub-characteristics on explained scale
Economist Intelligence UnitExperts answer specific questions about sub-characteristics on completely explained scale

How are remaining differences dealt with?

The approaches then all work to address any remaining differences between coders, even if they do so differently.  

V-Dem and RoW work with a statistical model which uses the experts’ ratings of actual countries and hypothetical country examples, as well as the experts’ stated uncertainties and personal demographics to produce both best and upper- and lower-bound estimates of many characteristics. They thereby avoid forcing themselves to eliminate all uncertainty and thereby possibly biasing their scores, and acknowledge that its coders make errors. This also recognizes that small differences in democracy on fine-grained spectrums may actually not exist, or be reversed, because measurement is uncertain.

Most other approaches go about it differently, and have researchers and experts discuss differing scores to reconcile them. This adds an additional step to make the assessments comparable across coders, countries, and years.

And while it uses discussions, Freedom in the World still acknowledges that it refined its approach over time, which makes its scores not as readily comparable: they work best for comparing different countries at the same time, or comparing the same country over the course of a few years.

The Lexical Index and Polity meanwhile do not have several coders per country and year, but they still worked to assess coding differences by once having its researchers rate some countries independently and compare their results. Reassuringly, they found that they came to similar conclusions.

How are remaining differences dealt with?
Varieties of DemocracyMeasurement model uses main and additional information and provides estimates of remaining measurement uncertainty
Regimes of the WorldMeasurement model uses main and additional information and provides estimates of remaining measurement uncertainty
Lexical IndexOne primary coder, so no differences between coders to be reconciled
Second researcher for some countries reproduced most assessments
Boix-Miller-RosatoOne primary coder, so no differences between coders to be reconciled
For recent years discussions among researchers reconcile different standards across coders, countries, and years
PolityDiscussions among researchers reconcile different standards across coders, countries, and years
Separate researcher teams for some countries and years reproduced most assessments
Freedom HouseDiscussions among experts and researchers reconcile different standards across coders, countries, and years
Bertelsmann Transformation IndexDiscussions among regional and general experts and own researchers reconcile different standards across coders, countries, and years
Economist Intelligence UnitDiscussions among experts and researchers reconcile different standards across coders, countries, and years

How do approaches work to make data accessible and transparent?

Finally, the approaches all take steps to make their data accessible and the underlying measurement transparent. All approaches publicly release their data and almost all make the data straightforward to download and use. Most approaches release not only the overall classification and scores, but also the underlying (sub-)characteristics. V-Dem even releases the data coded by each (anonymous) expert.

Almost all release descriptions of how they characterize democracy, as well as the questions and coding procedures guiding the experts and researchers. V-Dem again stands out here for its very detailed descriptions that also discuss why it weighs, adds, and multiplies the scores for specific characteristics. Polity, Freedom in the World, and BTI meanwhile provide additional helpful information by explaining their quantitative scores in country reports that discuss influential events.

How do approaches work to make data accessible and transparent?
Varieties of DemocracyProvides data for sub-indices and several hundred specific questions by country-year, country-date, and coder
Detailed questions and coding procedures are available and easy to access
Justifies democracy characteristics and their combination in detail
Regimes of the WorldProvides data for sub-indices and several hundred specific questions by country-year, country-date, and coder
Detailed questions and coding procedures are available and easy to access
Justifies democracy characteristics and their combination
Lexical IndexProvides disaggregated data for specific questions by country-year
Questions and coding procedures are available and easy to access
Justifies in detail democracy characteristics and their combination
Boix-Miller-RosatoProvides data by country-year
Questions and coding procedures are available and easy to access
Justifies democracy characteristics and their combination
PolityProvides disaggregated data for sub-indices and specific questions by country-year
Detailed questions and coding procedures are available and easy to access
Explains scores with country reports
Freedom HouseProvides recent disaggregated data for sub-indices and specific questions by country-year
Questions and coding procedures are available and easy to access
Justifies democracy characteristics
Explains scores with country reports
Bertelsmann Transformation IndexProvides disaggregated data for sub-indices and specific questions by country-year
Detailed questions and coding procedures are available and easy to access
Justifies democracy characteristics and their combination
Explains scores with country reports
Economist Intelligence UnitProvides disaggregated data for sub-indices by country-year
Questions and coding procedures are available
Justifies democracy characteristics

The best democracy measure depends on our questions

There is no single ‘best’ approach to measuring democracy. Conceptions of democracy are too different, and the challenges of measurement are too diverse for that. All of the approaches put a lot of effort into measuring democracy in ways that are useful to researchers, policymakers, and interested citizens.

The most appropriate democracy measure depends on what question we want to answer. It is the one that captures the characteristics of democracy and the countries and years we are interested in.

This means that having several approaches to measuring democracy is not a flaw, but a strength: it gives us different tools to understand the past spread, current state, and possible future of democracy around the world.

If you want to explore and compare the data that each of these datasets produce, you can do so in our Democracy Data Explorer.

What are democracy’s specific characteristics?