By Justin Kempf
Around this time of year different organizations from Freedom House to Varieties of Democracy to The Economist Intelligence Unit and others release their annual reports on the state of democracy. For some time these reports have shown a widespread consensus that democracy is under threat. Some call it a democratic recession, while others call it an autocratic wave. Still, the message is the same. Democracy is in decline.
At the same time, we do not understand much else. We know democracy has declined, but we do not know its cause or the solution. Lots of theories exist about the reasons why backsliding happens in specific democracies, but it’s far more difficult to explain why it happened almost everywhere at the same time. So, many people naturally find the annual reports on democracy a little frustrating, because they have become increasingly effective at observing trends but remain weak at explaining the causes or developing solutions.
Part of the problem is political science relies heavily on empirical data. It looks for observable events or information it can easily quantify. However, politics does not always happen in a way social scientists can observe. Politics has always depended on ideas. Philosophies develop to give those ideas a wider meaning and purpose. But political scientists overlook ideas, because they are not easily measurable. For instance, the Varieties of Democracy examines more than 500 indicators, but none examine the philosophies that underpin regimes or give them legitimacy.
Colloquially people refer to political philosophies to categorize regime types. It is not always scientific. People might look for institutions like elections to describe democracies, but it’s the philosophy behind institutions that matters. Democracies use elections to select their leaders. This institution provides the foundation for their legitimacy. Meanwhile, other regime types pursue legitimacy through other means such as birthright in a monarchy or a political ideology in communist states.
Of course, regime philosophies are notoriously inconsistent. The United States has many lofty ideals, but often fails to live up to them. America both embraced values of liberty and equality, while simultaneously accepting the presence of slavery or later on racial segregation. Yet its ideals are also what make efforts for reform possible. The Civil Rights Movement leaned into these inconsistencies in its demands for a more equal and just society.
Regime philosophies play a large role in whether governments become more or less democratic over time. The philosophies that underpin a regime’s legitimacy will either lead to greater democratization or autocratization. For example, the United States has historically encouraged democracy at home and abroad, because it fits into its regime’s philosophy. China and Russia, on the other hand, share the opposite tendencies. Still, regime philosophies can change and they often waver. Nothing is set in stone. America is not immune to the seductive lure of authoritarianism. Meanwhile, China has some democratic legacies.
Nonetheless, the most controversial part of the various reports on democracy involves the classification of different regimes. The Economist Intelligence Unit made waves when they downgraded the United States to a flawed democracy. Many criticized V-Dem when it classified India as an electoral autocracy. However, these measurements define democracy as the accumulation of different measures and indicators rather than a holistic examination of its regime’s philosophy. This is why these approaches do not differentiate between absolute monarchies and single party communist dictatorships. They both get lumped in as autocracies without any consideration for how they approach governance differently or for their capacity to change and evolve over time.
Still, the different measures of democracy including V-Dem, Freedom House, and the Economist’s Democracy Index provide a remarkable service for the study of democracy. They provide an objective way to observe the degree of democratic practice or governance. Each approach may have its flaws, but it gives a degree of insight previously unavailable on such an enormous scale. At the same time, it’s important to recognize other more qualitative approaches that consider the philosophies behind regimes. Regime philosophy may have inconsistencies from a regime’s actual governance, however it offers a window into its aspirations and long-term trajectory.
About the Author
Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.
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