Defining Democracy

Speaking of Defining Democracy: the EIU’s 2015 Democracy Index

In the Origins series of posts, my goal has been to reflect on the research and thought processes that served as the foundation for my translations of four of Hugo Chávez’s political speeches. And in Origins II – Venezuelan Education Reform, readers learn that what piqued my interest early on in pursuing this project was the conflicting definitions for democracy that came from either side of the debate on education. That being said, when I received notification last week of the EIU’s 2015 worldwide democracy index under the subject line “Democracy defined,” I decided to shift from the Origins series to the EIU’s democracy scorecards for the US and Venezuela for this next post.

The EIU, or Economist Intelligence Unit, has been scoring worldwide democracy since 2006, and this year’s report, titled “Democracy Index 2015: Democracy in an age of anxiety,” presents data on the democratic performance of 165 nations and two territories, covering—as the EIU notes—“almost the entire population of the world and the vast majority of the world’s states (micro-states are excluded)” (1).[1] The democratic performance of these countries is scored based on five categories: “electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture” (1, emphasis in original).[2] Based on their performance, countries are then assigned an overall score, ranked, and categorized into one of the following four categories: “‘full democracies’; ‘flawed democracies’; ‘hybrid regimes’; and ‘authoritarian regimes’” (1) (see definitions for each regime type in the image “Summary of EIU Definitions of Regime Types”).

Summary of EIU definitions of regime type

Defining & Measuring Democracy

In its report, the EIU points out, “There is no consensus on how to measure democracy,” nor on how to define this term. The organization notes that even within the US, a country whose foreign policy includes the export of its democratic ideals, “no consensus [exists] as to what constitutes a democracy” (42). However difficult it is to reach a definition, the EIU indicates that democracy can be defined overall as a “set of practices and principles that institutionali[z]e… and… protect freedom” (42). Further, fundamental characteristics are said to include: “government based on majority rule and the consent of the governed; the existence of free and fair elections; the protection of minority rights; and respect for basic human rights,” along with “equality before the law, due process and political pluralism” (42). The EIU discusses the characteristics used for the measurement of democracy by Freedom House, a respected and well-known organization, and Dahl’s concept of polyarchy, said to be an “immensely influential academic definition of democracy” (43), before speaking to the features of democracy most significant to their own measures.[3]

Five Categories of the EIU's Democracy IndexIn discussing the categories used for scoring of worldwide democracy, the EIU stresses the importance of “active, freely chosen” public participation to a healthy democracy, noting that while citizens may choose not to participate in democracy in order to “express their dissatisfaction” with the government or their societies, “an obedient and docile citizenry… is not consistent with democracy” (44). Rather, “[d]emocracies flourish when citizens are willing to participate in public debate, elect representatives and join political parties” (11). Moreover, the EIU also notes that an inherent feature of elections is the periodic division of “population[s] into winners and losers” (44). Thus, a country’s political culture refers not only to an environment in which citizens participate freely and of their own accord, but also to a system in which any “losing parties and their supporters accept the judgment of the voters, and allow for the peaceful transfer of power” (44).

Democratic Performance of the US & Venezuela

Venezuela is not known for its pluralism, and the recent election of the “first… opposition-controlled parliament… in nearly 16 years” is certain to test its capacity for a “peaceful transfer of power” (“Venezuela’s crisis: Heading for a crash” 27; and EIU 44).[4] In the US, gracefully accepting political defeat is not exactly a forte either (consider, for example, “61st Time’s The Charm: GOP Votes Again to Repeal the ACA”). Both countries performed poorly in the EIU’s democracy index.

The US ranked last among “full democracies,” at twentieth out of twenty; and US scores for “functioning of government” and “political participation” fell into the “flawed democracies” range, at 7.50 and 7.22 respectively (4). The US’s overall score has been on the decline since the EIU’s first index in 2006, falling from 8.22 to its current score of 8.05 (12). To be categorized as a full democracy, a country must receive a score of between 8-10, putting the US just over the threshold for the “flawed democracy” category (45). The US decline in the democracy index is a topic of relatively long discussion in the EIU’s report. The organization notes that “increasing polari[z]ation” and “political brinkmanship” has eroded “faith in political institutions” (3). Consider further criticisms of the functioning of the US government by the EIU:

The ideological entrenchment of congressional representatives fosters deadlock. Bitter partisanship has developed, in part because many congressional districts have been redrawn in a way that gives one party a built-in advantage. As a result, congressional representatives fear a challenge in their party primaries, which are controlled by the party base, and are consequently incentive[z]ed to move to the right… or to the left…. The upshot is a stronger emphasis on ideological purity and less appetite for compromise, especially in the House of Representatives… where lawmakers face voters every two years. (EIU 37)

However, poor functioning of the government is not the only threat to US democracy, according to the EIU. The organization also cites inequality and violence perpetuated by the state and a “para-militari[z]ed police force” (37):

Young black men were nine times more likely to be killed by police in 2015 than young white men. Blacks are six times more likely than whites to be in prison… These problems go beyond the question of race. The US law-enforcement system is violent and punitive… In 2015, more than 1,100 Americans died at the hands of US law-enforcement officers… [and] [t]he US jails 1% of the adult population, more than five times the developed-country average, and sentences are harsh… (EIU 36-37)

Venezuela ranked ninety-ninth overall out of the 167 countries analyzed and remains categorized as a “hybrid regime” (6). Venezuela received its lowest scores for “functioning of government” and for “political culture,” at 3.93 and 4.38 respectfully, the former of the two scores falling into the “authoritarian regime” category (6). Venezuela’s score has also mostly declined since the start of the index; in 2006, Venezuela received an overall score of 5.42, and its current score is 5.00 (14). In its analysis of Venezuela’s scores, the EIU notes the “extensive… official corruption” that has resulted from first Hugo Chávez’s and now Nicolas Maduro’s “strong centrali[z]ed control of the economy and the main oil industry” (34). The EIU indicates that popular dissatisfaction with political corruption and a non-performing economy likely led to the election of the opposition majority to the National Assembly in the December 6 elections (34).


Among the overall trends that the EIU has identified through its democracy index are the shift to populism, overall restrictions to civil liberties in western states as a result of the terrorist threat, and increased global restrictions to the media. In terms of populism, the EIU attributes the successes of candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to the increasing popular belief that the “political establishment no longer represents the people” (18). The EIU classifies the “upsurge” of populist movements as a “seismic change” and a sign of “the end of the post-war political order” (19). (For further discussion on restrictions to civil liberties and the media, see pages seventeen through nineteen of the report.) Despite all this, the EIU assures us that democracy still has a “near-universal appeal” (19). However, this sense of hope is also coupled with some candid advice: “Democracy means more than holding elections; it requires the development of a range of supportive institutions and attitudes. Such a transformation takes a long time” (21). Overall, my final questions after considering what this report means for democracy in Venezuela and the US are as follows: In Venezuela’s move away from chavismo, will there be a backlash against Chávez supporters or will oppositions leaders attempt to bring chavistas into the fold? Will 2016 be the year that the US becomes a flawed democracy, and what implications will our poor scores have for our foreign policy and relations?

The EIU’s “Democracy Index 2015: Democracy in an age of anxiety” can be downloaded at the following link:


[1] The EIU issued its democracy index every two years from 2006-2010, at which point the EIU began rolling it out on a yearly basis (12).

[2] For more information on the EIU’s methodology, scoring and data collection, see pages 45-58 of the report.

[3] Georg Sørensen’s “Democracy and Democratization,” cited in my post “Origins II – Venezuelan Education Reform,” includes discussion of Robert Dahl’s definition of democracy; and in its report, the EIU indicates the eight features of Dahl’s polyarchy: “almost all adult citizens have the right to vote; almost all adult citizens are eligible for public office; political leaders have the right to compete for votes; elections are free and fair; all citizens are free to form and join political parties and other organi[z]ations; all citizens are free to express themselves on all political issues; diverse sources of information about politics exist and are protected by law; and government policies depend on votes and other expressions of preference” (43).

[4] The article “Venezuela’s crisis: Heading for a crash,” in the January 23rd-29th issue of The Economist outlines the early interactions of the newly-elected opposition members of the National Assembly with Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s presidential successor.


Works Cited

“Venezuela’s crisis: Heading for a crash.” The Economist 23-29 Jan. 2016: 27. Print.

Economist Intelligence Unit. “Democracy Index 2015: Democracy in an age of anxiety.” The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited, 2016. PDF accessed from web. 21 Jan. 2016.

About alainab

Alaina Brandt is an Assistant Professor of Translation and Localization Management at MIIS. She holds a Master of Arts in Language, Literature, and Translation from UW-Milwaukee.

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