« Which is the Best Democracy? » « Which are the democracies? » Some evidence | Democratic Development

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There has been some interesting course discussion around whether the U.S. is « the best democracy, » and much wider discussion about the extent to which different countries are democracies, or good democracies. There are various indexes that try to measure this, and each has its own problems and drawbacks. For several years now (dating back to 2006), The Economist magazine has made an intelligent and creative effort to measure the extent of democracy in most of the countries of the world.

While I have some quibbles with its methodology, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual « Democracy Index » does have the virtues of being objective, empirical, transparent, and multidimensional. The dimensions it seeks to examine with available data and also independent expert codings are:

1) Electoral process and pluralism
2) Functioning of government (incl. government accountability and control of corruption)
3) Political participation
4) Democratic political culture (where survey data is available)
5) Civil liberties

You can download the latest annual report, for the year 2012, by registering for free on The Economist website: http://bit.ly/WAwEaw.

Here is a brief overview of the comparative data: The United States was not the best democracy (in 2012, or any of the year’s surveys). It was not even second, third, or fourth best. In fact, it ranked number 21 out of the 167 countries assessed — behind almost all of Western Europe, well behind Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and even behind Uruguay (ranked the most democratic country in Latin America), Mauritius, and South Korea. In other words, there was one country each in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that ranked ahead of the U.S. in the extent of democracy. The relatively low U.S. ranking is due in particular to low scores on the « functioning of government » and on « political participation. »

And the winner is … Norway. As has been the case since the index was established, and as virtually all comparative measures of democracy affirm (and as I have already repeatedly mentioned in the discussion forums), the Scandinavian countries generally form the most democratic sub-region of the world. Sweden ranks 2, Denmark 4 (behind Iceland), and Finland 9. New Zealand and Australia are 5 and 6. 

There has also been a vigorous discussion about politics in Venezuela recently. Venezuela is ranked by this index among the Hybrid Regimes, not the democracies (not even the « flawed democracies »; and even among the hybrid regimes, it ranks behind 14 others in its extent of democracy). And this was before the elections last Sunday, for which these is growing evidence of electoral fraud that might have denied the opposition a victory. Even before this last election, there was a grossly unfair electoral playing field. Even if there is not vote fraud on election day, if there is not some degree of fairness in the ability of competing parties and candidates to campaign and access the media, if there is widespread climate of intimidation and fear and a lack of belief in ballot secrecy, these contradict the principles of free and fair elections, and therefore of electoral democracy.

Many people in the class have raised questions about whether I am promoting the United States as « the best » democracy, or a model democracy. I think the U.S. is a vigorous and open democracy in many respects, with extensive freedom. But it is also a democracy with many problems, shortcomings and challenges. I have been quite open and even critical of these shortcomings throughout my career, and indeed I devoted the last chapter of my book, « The Spirit of Democracy », to this issue. I was not planning to lecture on democracy in the United States in this class, but I do have a lecture on this subject, and I can post it as the last lecture, for interest (i.e. not for the exam), at the end of this class.

I hope this post will stimulate further discussion, but also more empirically-based discussion. Many posts on the Discussion Forums have expressed passionate opinions. While we welcome your opinions, this is a course in which we are trying to employ empirical evidence, logic, and analysis to substantiate our points, and the more we can debate in that vein, the better and more meaningful the dialogues will be.
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