I love this quote from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, when Humpty Dumpty says to Alice: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Now, the political science research is clear: words have power, and different word choices can matter a lot for persuasive communication. But as Humpty Dumpty demonstrates through his flippant disregard for dictionary etiquette, definitions matter too. We may think we are being clear by using a word—such as democracy—but unless we all agree on the definition of that word, we may still talk in circles around each other.
When you hear the word “democracy,” what do you think about? It’s not an easy question to answer! The Government Department of Georgetown University in the mid-2000s was obsessed (like much of the world at that time) with the question of democracy. What is democracy? How do we measure it? What differentiates a non-democratic country from a democratic country? As a graduate student cohort in comparative politics, we read all the big thinkers of the field: Dahl, Diamond, Schmitter and Karl, Schumpeter, Przeworski, Huntington, Collier and Levitsky, Linz and O’Donnell, and more. (I’m probably giving fellow PhDs in political science the shivers right now!)
Humpty Dumpty would have been proud: There was such disagreement in political science over how to define democracy that, in 1997, Collier and Levitsky’s World Politics article identified more than 550 different “types” of democracy in the literature (see ResearchGate for access). One of the reasons for this huge number of possible definitions was that academics could not agree on the cut-off point between democracy and non-democracy: on one side, the “minimalist” definition of democracy focused on the election systems, while on the other side, the “maximalist” definition of democracy added the rule of law and various civil and political freedoms. There was also another huge debate over what kind of electoral system was best for democracy: Should you have a president or a prime minister (or both)? Should you win elections by majority vote or by proportional representation? (Dahl wrote an accessible and thought-provoking book on this topic, How Democratic is the American Constitution?, which compares the US system to the other advanced industrialized democracies of the world to show that different types of electoral systems produce different levels of democracy.)
I’ve written elsewhere about the methodological strength of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project, which provides historical and modern-day data of 202 countries on all sorts of important aspects of politics. Since 2014, I’ve been honored to contribute annually to their award-winning dataset. One of the things I particularly like about this research project is the care they take with capturing the different types of political, economic, and social systems around the world. The Varieties of Democracy project recognizes that there is no one established form of democracy in the world that every polity must match. Each individual country is analyzed by experts who have extensively lived and/or worked in their country of expertise, but these experts also bring to the project their own biases, based on their life experiences, personal philosophy, and cultural knowledge. So, through the use of certainty ratings and explanatory vignettes, the Varieties of Democracy project can help ensure the correct context for the information given by their experts.
One of my favorite contextual checks comes at the end of the V-Dem survey, when they ask the expert about their understanding of democracy. To do so, the survey provides seven aspects of democracy (electoral, liberal, majoritarian, consensus, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian) and asks the expert to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 how strongly they support each conception of democracy. This section of the survey always makes me think about the inherent tensions in a democratic system. One system simply cannot fulfill all seven of these important aspects of democracy at the same time. There are always going to be trade-offs as different societies prioritize some aspects of democracy over others.
Here are the seven aspects of democracy, as defined by the Varieties of Democracy project, for your consideration. As you read through, think about how closely each aspect of democracy fits with your own gut feelings of what democracy means (or should mean), and also think about how other people may feel differently. What is your ideal version of democracy? I hope this exercise provides you with some interesting food for thought!
The electoral principle — also known as contestation, competition, elite, minimal, realist, or Schumpeterian — is the idea that democracy is achieved through competition among leadership groups, which vie for the electorate’s approval during periodic elections before a broad electorate. Parties and elections are the crucial instruments in this largely procedural account of the democratic process. Of course, many additional factors might be regarded as important for ensuring and enhancing electoral contestation, e.g., civil liberties, an active media, a written constitution, an independent judiciary (to enforce the rules of the game), and so forth. However, these factors are viewed as secondary to electoral institutions.
The liberal principle identifies democracy with limited government, rule of law, and the preservation of individual liberties. The liberal model assumes a “negative” view of political power insofar as it judges the quality of democracy by the limits placed on government. Principles and procedures must be established so as to ensure that rule by the majority does not result in the loss of individual liberties.
The majoritarian principle (a.k.a., responsible party government) reflects the principle that the will of the majority should be sovereign. The many should prevail over the few. To facilitate this, political institutions must concentrate power (within the context of competitive elections). In practical terms, this means strong and centralized parties, a unitary rather than federal constitution, plurality rather than proportional electoral laws (or PR with high statutory thresholds), and so forth.
The consensus principle is the idea that democracy is achieved when consensus is achieved. This means that new policies should not be adopted by a polity unless and until a consensus (or near consensus) is reached. In order to assure that the principle of consensus is honored institutions should be set up in such a way as to assure that power is dispersed across numerous independent (or quasi-independent) bodies. In practical terms, this means a large party system or diffusely organized parties, a federal constitution, proportional electoral rules, and so forth (directly contrary to the majoritarian conception).
The motivation for participatory democracy is uneasiness about delegating complete authority to representatives. Direct rule by citizens is preferred, wherever practicable. And within the context of representative government, the participatory component is regarded as the most democratic element of the polity. This model of democracy thus highlights the importance of voting, but also of citizen assemblies, party primaries, referenda, social movements, public hearings, town hall meetings, and other forums of citizen engagement.
The deliberative principle focuses on the process by which decisions are reached in a polity. A deliberative process is one in which public reasoning focused on the common good motivates political decisions—as contrasted with emotional appeals, solidary attachments, parochial interests, or coercion. In this conception, democracy requires more than a mindless aggregation of existing preferences; there should be respectful dialogue at all levels—from preference formation to final decision—among informed and competent participants who are open to persuasion. Some political institutions have a specifically deliberative function, such as consultative bodies (hearings, panels, assemblies, courts); polities with these sorts of institutions might be judged more deliberative than those without them. However, the more important issue is the degree of deliberativeness that can be discerned across all powerful institutions in a polity (not just those explicitly designed to serve a deliberative function) and among the citizenry.
The egalitarian principle of democracy stresses that formal political rights and civil liberties are insufficient for political equality. The polity should also address material and immaterial inequalities that inhibit the actual exercise of these rights and liberties. Ideally, groups – as defined by income, wealth, education, ethnicity, religion, caste, race, language, region, gender, sexual identity, or other ascriptive characteristics – should have approximately equal participation, representation, agenda-setting power, protection under the law, and influence over policymaking and policy implementation. If such equality does not already exist, the egalitarian principle requires state efforts to make the distribution of socioeconomic resources, education, and health more equal so as to enhance political equality. (This principle does not entail equality of power between leaders and citizens, as leaders in all polities are by definition more powerful.)