A key political trend of the past three decades is the spread of formal democracy through the global South. This posed a challenge to mainstream academics and commentators in the North who were used to thinking of democracy as the property of the white-run countries of Western Europe and North America. Since the 19th century, when John William Burgess, the American credited with founding academic political science, insisted that only the “Teutonic” races (white Anglo Saxons) had a gift for “liberty,” democracy had become code for “run by civilized white people.” Later, the revered US scholar Seymour Martin Lipset offered a liberal version of Burgess’s view by insisting that only countries which embraced market economics and “western culture” could be democratic.
On one level, democracy’s spread could be seen as a triumph of western civilization—many mainstream academics were pleased that everyone was now embracing the ways of the West. But it was also a problem because democracy isn’t a western preserve at all.
In my new book, Power in Action: Democracy, Citizenship and Social Justice, I argue that the democratic idea is that every adult has a right to an equal say in all decisions that affect them. Democracy is established and sustained not by white missionaries but by collective action. It is born, and grows, when people who have been excluded from decision-making are able to organize, to force themselves into the conversation. That does not necessarily mean taking to the streets, although it might—the most effective collective action, the sort almost always used by the powerful, is the “routine” kind, such as belonging to associations that influence policy. But it does mean gaining an organized collective voice.
So the problem for the northern colonizer of the mind is that democracy may be used not to affirm their values, but to reject them. It was no done deal that the new democracies of the South would become western democracies which, in their view, are the only real ones, to which all others should aspire. This worry created a body of academic writing—the democratic consolidation approach, which examined whether new democracies were consolidated—meaning whether they resembled a romanticized version of democracies in the North.
This approach also created the democracy scoring index which gave scientific credibility to the consolidation approach by ranking democracies and then assigning them a numerical score or a ranking in an index. The US-based Freedom House is the best-known: it ranks all countries as free, partially free or not free; the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit ranks countries as authoritarian, hybrid, flawed democracies and full democracies.
Democracy by numbers gives great power to the colonial assumptions of the consolidation approach. Academics who prefer the mathematics of regression analysis to rational thought (which today, in the North, means most) can feed the Freedom House scores or those of the other indexes into computer programs and make sweeping claims about democracy throughout the world. The scores are also handy references for journalists or social media debaters. And so they come to play a crucial role in the way democracy is seen.
Like all colonial assumptions, the democracy by numbers business says more about the prejudices of those who compile the indices than the state of the world. Freedom House always gives northern countries a score of 1, which means free (even when they detain people without trial or gerrymander elections). The Economist allows the odd southern country to become a full democracy, but generally populates this club with northern countries despite the fact that there is no evidence that their democracies are more real than those of the South.
Although the numbers give a false sense of authority, they are based on opinions, not an objective measure; if you put numbers to opinions, they are still opinions. And, since the opinions are those of mainstream—northern scholars or others who think like them—the effect is to turn the latter-day versions of Burgess and Lipset’s prejudices into the way many people with great influence see the world.
Next time someone tries to make or clinch an argument with a democracy index, remember the prejudices that lie behind the numbers.