But 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. We also use multiple sources to see how the assessments of different researchers compare.
One measure we rely on in some of our work is the Regimes of the World (RoW) classification, which measures political systems with data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project, and which we refine and expand to cover more countries and years.
The RoW classification by political scientists Anna Lührmann, Marcus Tannenberg, and Staffan Lindberg1 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.
The classification builds on data from the V-Dem project,2 which identifies the characteristics of political systems based on expert assessments. In these assessments, thousands of country experts answer surveys for V-Dem every year. If these experts consider a country’s elections to have been both multi-party and free and fair, and the country as having had minimal features of an electoral democracy in general,3 Regimes of the World classifies it as a democracy. A country is classified as a liberal democracy if the experts also consider the country’s laws to have been transparent; the men and women there as having had access to the justice system; and the country as having had broad features of a liberal democracy overall.4 If it does not meet one of these conditions, the country is classified as an electoral democracy.
A country is classified as an autocracy if it does not meet the above criteria of meaningful, free and fair, multi-party elections. It is classified as an electoral autocracy if the experts consider the elections for the legislature and chief executive — the most powerful politician — to have been multi-party. It is classified as a closed autocracy if either the legislature or chief executive have not been chosen in multi-party elections.
In our work, we use the RoW-classification and V-Dem’s data to identify countries’ political systems, but expand the years and countries covered and refine the coding rules. While RoW covers the years since 1900, we use V-Dem’s historical data from 1789 to 1899 to expand the classification’s coverage back in time. To cover more of today’s countries when they were still non-sovereign territories, we further identified the historical entity they were a part of and used that regime’s data whenever available.5
Using the expanded and refined RoW classification, the map shows how each country is classified at the end of each year, going back in time as far as 1789.7
Classifying political systems the way RoW does has shortcomings. The classification only captures that these political rights were broad, not that they were universal. This means that not all people living in a democracy necessarily enjoy its political rights: this includes children, but often also historically marginalized groups such as women.8
More broadly, the classification focuses on electoral and liberal understandings of democracy, and does not account for other understandings, such as democracies as egalitarian political systems in which social and economic resources are equally distributed to allow everyone to participate. This means that some of the most economically unequal countries in the world, such as Brazil and South Africa, are classified as democracies in recent years.
And because the classification groups all political systems into four broad types, it is not very granular. This means that it does not pick up small changes in political institutions, or conversely that the classification sometimes categorizes countries with similar institutions differently. This includes some recategorizations of countries across years where their political institutions barely changed, but crossed a somewhat arbitrary threshold.9
Despite these shortcomings, the classification tells us much about how widely held democratic political rights were and are. RoW still combines two understandings of democracy: as an electoral political system in which citizens vote in free and fair multi-party elections to have a say in who governs them; and a liberal political system in which citizens are protected from others and the state.10
The RoW classification can also be applied to many countries and years, because its measurement relies on V-Dem data. V-Dem covers most countries in the world, many of them since 1900 — even when they were colonized by another country — and some of them as far back as 1789.11 By relying on its data, RoW also has V-Dem’s other advantages, such as its highly disaggregated data and its many experts.
And the broad classification into four types of political systems can make the many differences in political institutions we observe across countries and over time easier to understand. It allows us to combine the many countries with similar political institutions, while still distinguishing countries whose institutions differ in meaningful ways.12
Ultimately, whether the classification by Regimes of the World is a useful measure of democracy will depend on the questions we want to answer. RoW will not give us a satisfying answer if we are interested in the political rights of historically marginalized groups specifically; in non-electoral or non-liberal understandings of democracy; or in how democratic a country is. In these cases we will have to rely on other measures. But if we are interested in big differences in the electoral and liberal institutions across countries, and far into the past, we can learn a lot from the classification. It is for these latter purposes we use the measure in our reporting on democracy.