Shifting perceptions of democracy

In the course of my research last week, I read a fascinating article about the malleability of the concept of “democracy.” In “The Subjectivity of the ‘Democratic’ Peace: Changing U.S. Perceptions of Imperial Germany,[1] Ido Oren argues that the criteria that we use to determine whether a state is democratic are in fact measures of how similar states are to the United States. That is, the way we think about and classify other states as democratic or not reflects a distinctly American understanding of what democracy is and how it operates. We in the United States define democracy in terms that make us seem most similar to states that we like and most distinctive from other states we dislike, and we adapt that definition as necessary to fit the geopolitics of the day.


Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, it has a major influence on the construction of the major datasets on democracy and regime type that political scientists use to study the role of democracy in international politics—for example, in studying the relationship between democracy and economic interdependence; between democracy and domestic economic growth; and between democracy and the likelihood of war (the so-called “Democratic Peace” proposition, wherein democracies do not go to war with other democracies). Oren points out, for example, that in most studies of democracy and in many datasets on regime type, the United States receives “virtually perfect scores on the democracy scale,”[2] across periods when the United States permitted slavery and did not allow women to vote (for example). Oren sees this as evidence that we have defined America as the ideal democratic system and projected these values backwards in our coding procedures. He notes in a footnote that a democracy index constructed by a Finnish researcher (that is not used in American studies of the relationship between democracy and conflict) consistently awards top marks to Finland, which ranked well above the United States![3]


To me, the most interesting part of the article was how the notion of what constitutes an “ideal” democracy has changed over time. Oren examined the way in which two leading political scientists of the late nineteenth century—John Burgess, founder of the first graduate school in political science at Columbia University, and Woodrow Wilson, future president—evaluated imperial Germany in terms of its democratic credentials. Both found much to admire in the management of the German state, including many elements that we would not necessarily associate with democracy today, and they were not alone in their admiration. While Burgess maintained his favorable assessment of Germany through World War I, Wilson changed his “coding” in response to the growing geopolitical conflict between the United States and Germany in the early twentieth century. Today, most people would probably classify Germany at the start of the twentieth century as distinctly un-democratic; Oren’s work suggests this is the product of our conflict with Germany and not a response to new information about the German state or an objective assessment of Germany’s political system.

[1] International Security 20, no. 2 (Fall 1995): 147-84.

[2] P. 150

[3] See note 9.