Monday, February 20, 2012

A Very Short Quantitative History of Democracy, Dictatorship, and Other Political Regimes, Part I

(Part I of probably two).

Readers will have to forgive me, but I find dataset blogging addictive. One can use historical datasets to tell stories, not just to test models, yet outside economic history one hardly finds much quantitative history, much less quantitative political history, out there. Nevertheless, the Polity IV dataset I described in the previous post, with its long-run coverage and wealth of information about patterns of political authority at a global level, lends itself to the sort of quantitative history of political regimes I have in mind.  Though this sort of history is not always advisable, it provides a powerful antidote to the most common failings of what passes now for the history of democracy and other political regimes: excessive Eurocentrism, and annoying tendencies towards either Whig triumphalism or Hegelian determinism. (An exception here is Adam Przeworski’s excellent book Democracy and the Limits of Self-Government, whose self-consciously global perspective and use of long-run quantitative data makes it one of the most eye-opening books I’ve read on democracy and its history). My hope is that a little bit of quantitative history can mitigate some of the nonsense people seem to believe about democracy; and since I’ll soon start teaching my “Dictatorships and Revolutions” course again (more on this in a different post), I thought I’d try to use the Polity data to graphically chart the evolution of different patterns of political authority over the last couple of centuries for the benefit of students and perhaps others.

A couple of methodological points before starting. First, though the Polity IV data is pretty substantial, going back to 1800 in some cases, it does not track every single polity within that period. The focus is on nation-states, and indeed nation-states that have survived up to the present; lots of states that did not survive to the present time (because they were annexed by other states or disappeared through other processes) are not included, though some historical polities are (Prussia, Bavaria, Wuerttemburg, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Sardinia, the Papal States, Modena, Parma, Tuscany, a few others). Colonial dependencies of these independent states are not coded; the dataset codes only the regime at the imperial center (though we can correct for this bias to some extent, as we shall see). Moreover, some of the polities that are included in the dataset from 1800 onwards (Austria and Turkey, for example) have experienced so much change (from Austro-Hungarian empire to Austria, and from Ottoman empire to modern Turkey) that one doubts the wisdom of having a single time series for them (rather than, for example, a time-series for the Austro-Hungarian empire and another for Austria). And Polity does not collect information about “micronations” (less than 500,000 inhabitants), which means that its coverage of Oceania (Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia) is spotty at best. Finally, it is also worth noting that in the long span of time covered by the dataset many areas of the world, some of them incorporating substantial populations, were effectively stateless: James C. Scott’s “Zomia” in Southeast Asia is one of these regions, but every continent has had (and sometimes continues to have) large non-state spaces. Statelessness does not mean that people live without political authority, but authority is far more fluid (and often has different implications) when exit is relatively easy, as it has historically been in stateless areas, than when exit is more difficult, as it has often been in state zones.

Second, as I was saying in the previous post, the dataset does not track every feature of political regimes that might be of interest. It purports to measure only three general concepts: the mechanisms of executive recruitment in states (how leaders come to hold power over a central state apparatus), the forms of political competition (how groups contend for control over a central state apparatus), and the degree of executive restraint (how much the power of the political leaders at the centre is limited: political discipline). Though all three measures are very highly correlated (above .99), I strongly suspect that while executive recruitment and political competition do measure fundamental if related aspects of the political regime, executive restraint is best understood as a function of the other two, plus temporary changes in the configuration of political forces that are not part of the political regime properly speaking. In other words, to the extent that “executive restraint” is not simply picking up paper constraints (whether the constitution says this or that about a political leader), it must be picking up the ways in which the groups that play a role in political competition and selection are able to sanction the main government leaders in the state. So in what follows I will mostly ignore the measure of executive restraint and focus on executive recruitment (this post) and political competition (in part II).

Let’s start with the mechanisms of executive recruitment. In the Polity classificatory scheme, leaders can come to power in two basic ways: through unregulated political activity (your classic coup d’etat, for example) or through some norm-regulated process (like hereditary succession, competitive election, etc.). Norm-regulated processes can in turn be divided into those where political leadership is allocated, at least in principle, on the basis of “ascriptive” characteristics (like what family you were born into), and those where political leadership is allocated by explicit selection within a particular group. (No modern polity allocates political leadership by lottery, unlike many ancient ones; this may be a modern mistake). Finally, selection can occur through relatively open competition within a relatively large group (election, though not necessarily universal suffrage election), or through informal processes within small groups ("designation;" e.g., like the process of selecting the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). These three dimensions of political competition lead to a seven-fold set of categories: pure ascriptive (absolute hereditary monarchies without powerful prime ministers); ascriptive plus small-elite selection (absolute monarchies with powerful prime ministers, for example); ascriptive plus large-elite selection (powerful monarchs confronting powerful elected prime ministers, for example); pure small-elite selection (single party regimes, for example); pure large-group selection (competitive electoral regimes); small group plus large-group selection (what polity calls “transitional” or “restricted” election regimes, though they are often not very transitional at all but merely regimes where small elites cannot select the leadership without some form of large-scale electoral competition, even if unfair); and self-selection regimes (unregulated selection). Polity also has a confusing “executive-guided transition” category that I don’t much like, but basically indicates a period of transition from a self-selection regime to a norm-regulated selection regime. (In fact, for most purposes it can be replaced by the self-selection category, since it does not actually indicate a change in executive selection mechanisms and relies on uncertain analyses of leadership intentions). So what do we see when we look at the evolution of political authority through this lens?
Fig. 1

Vertical lines and shaded areas indicate, from left to right, the First World War, the beginning of the great depression, the Second World War, the beginning of African decolonization, and the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet empire. Black/grey areas at the bottom of the graph indicate the number of countries falling into Polity’s three “transitional” categories: regime transition, anarchy, and foreign occupation. You must also imagine much of the white space in the graph – representing lots of colonial possessions – to be colored dark red and green, since rule over colonial possessions was exercised through limited elite and ascriptive selection regimes, even if regimes at the imperial center were different.

A few things are worth noting. First, there is a slow but steady trend towards more large-group selection regimes – relatively competitive elections of all types, even if mixed with small-elite selection (as in competitive autocracies). These elections are not always fair [update: and suffrage is not always universal or even close to universal], but by my count nearly 70% of all regimes in 2010 involved some form of meaningful competition for executive power within large electorates, while only 30% or so did in 1900:
Fig. 2

Large-group competitive selection is now the norm, not the exception, a change that happened over the course of a century but begins in the 19th century. But though the overall trend is clear, the proportion of large-group competitive selection regimes fluctuates quite a bit, apparently in response to major political events: the two world wars (one can identify them just by looking at the spikes in regime collapses), the beginning of decolonization, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Interestingly, the great depression barely rates a blip – it hardly affects the trends in executive recruitment patterns. And the current trend towards more large-group selection regimes starts in the mid 1970s (the oil shocks? The exhaustion of the appeal of single-party regimes?), though it appears to accelerate by 1989. Oddly, the 70s are also the great age of coups (“self-selection” regimes – lots of these emerged with decolonization) as well as the apogee of limited-elite selection regimes (single-party regimes, especially). The data thus seem to point to a future where most regimes recruit their leaders through electoral competition (not necessarily fair!) appealing to large groups, but there is still a substantial minority of ascriptive recruitment regimes (monarchies, basically) and limited-elite selection regimes; it’s as if the only long-term stable equilibria are either competitive elections or full-blown monarchies.

Moreover, the phenomenon is pretty much global: competitive regimes with elections that appeal to large electorates are now found in every continent:
Fig. 3
(Includes both competitive electoral regimes and competitive autocracies [mixed large group/small group selection]; the picture is not substantially different with only full competitive electoral regimes included). But it was never just a European phenomenon: competitive regimes (even if not always very stable and electorally fair) are first of all an American phenomenon (and I don’t mean North American). Most large-group electoral selection regimes in the 19th century were in the Americas (the USA, Canada, Peru, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Honduras, Bolivia, Argentina, Guatemala), though we even find some in Africa (Liberia for a time, which of course was in part an American import). Genuine electoral competition for power with an appeal to large electorates is a New World invention, but not a specifically North American one, even if the North American version of the experiment proved relatively more stable than many of the South and Central American versions. To be sure, the fact that a regime is competitive insofar as executive recruitment requires an appeal to a large electorate does not mean that it is a democracy in the full sense of the term (however you want to define it); many of these competitive regimes included important restrictions on suffrage (slaves and women needed not apply), and elections were not always fair or fully free. But all of the regimes in figure 3 are fundamentally different in kind, at least with respect to the mechanism of executive selection, from regimes where leaders are selected either by ascription or by informal competition within a small elite.

Here’s a more fine-grained picture of the distribution of such regimes since 1950:
Fig. 4. Competitive regimes per region.
(As I mentioned earlier, coverage of Oceania is pretty sparse in the dataset, so you might as well ignore the Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia cells). As we can see, these regimes are now common basically everywhere; the only laggards are Central and Western Asia, where large-group selection competitive regimes (let's not speak of democracies, however) are still less than 50% of the total.

Non-electoral regimes – monarchies, single-party regimes, etc. are now almost exclusively found in Asia and Africa, though they used to be pretty evenly distributed throughout the world:
Fig. 5
Interestingly, the only real shocks to the distribution of these regimes seem to have been decolonization in the 1960s and the end of the Cold War in 1989. It is as if new countries generally end up with limited selection or unregulated recruitment regimes, and it takes a while for them to move either toward large-group selection or full monarchy. 

We can also look at this history in combination with the history of economic development. Using data from the Penn World Tables (caveat: some countries have no income data, and what data exists only goes back to 1950 for most countries), we can see that the rise in competitive selection regimes is visible in every income quantile except the highest:

Fig. 6
The proportion of competitive regimes in the richest quantile seems to be declining over time (and stabilizing in the third quantile) at about 80% of all regimes, as stable oil monarchies and other limited-elite selection groups rise to the top of the income distribution. As Przeworski has argued, there seem to be diminishing returns to conflict over executive selection mechanisms in rich countries, so all regimes should be relatively stable at high levels of income per capita. To be sure, full electorally competitive regimes (with “free and fair” elections) are less common in poorer countries, but even if we restrict ourselves to these regimes, we get basically the same picture:
Fig. 7
We can actually investigate this further by looking at the “transition matrix” of regimes over this period of time per income quantile. We basically look at what the regime is like at time t, and then what it is like at time t+1, and make a matrix, where each cell represents the percentage (number) of cases over the period in question where a mechanism of political selection in the rows changed to one in the columns (so the diagonal represents stability):

(Click here for a full spreadsheet version). Here we see that mechanisms of executive recruitment in countries in the poorest quantile remained stable about 90% of the years in question (i.e., on average they switched to another selection mechanism about once every ten years); by contrast, at the richest quantile, only self-selection regimes were stable less than 95% of the time. Competitive electoral regimes in the richest quantile were stable basically 100% of the time; but all other regime categories were also stable, and hereditary monarchy was basically just as stable as democracy at this level of income (more than 99% of the time). Even state breakdown appears stable in the richest quantile; those puzzling 13 years of stable state breakdown in the second table represent Lebanon, which appears to have maintained a relatively large income per capita during the years of civil war (though note economic data is likely to have been spotty and unreliable during that time, so take that factoid with a large scoop of salt).

Moreover, rich countries were likely to transition to competitive regimes if they transitioned at all; and the regimes most likely to transition where the self-selection regimes, whereas in the poorest quantile we find transitions to a wider variety of other regimes.

So where does that leave us? More in part II (looking at the forms of political competition over this period), but basically I think what we see is the political manifestation of the long process of global economic change since 1800 (the industrial era). We start with ascriptive selection and limited elite selection regimes everywhere in the world (or at least in zones of state power), but economic change slowly alters the basis of political power in them (more so in certain kinds of economies than others). These changes render norms of political selection unstable, and more particularly they make it possible for elites (new and old) to “defect” from previous norms of selection by appealing to larger groups in the selection process (this, generally, means elections). And global political shocks (the world wars, the breakdown of empires) can push the process in particular directions at least for a time – e.g., towards single party regimes in the wake of WWII and decolonization, or towards electorally competitive regimes after 1989. But after countries reach a certain level of income, political competition over executive recruitment is less useful; so all regimes eventually stabilize. 

Code necessary for replicating the graphs in this post, plus further graphs and ideas for analysis, in my repository here. (Still pretty rough, though). You will need to download the Polity IV and Penn World Table datasets directly.

[Update 21/2/2010: added a few small clarificatory remarks about how comeptitive elctoral regimes are not necessarily democratic in the full sense of the term]


  1. This is very useful, and I look forward to reading Part II.

    The one thing undermining the value of the exercise, however, is the invalidity of Polity's observations for earlier years. There are three problems: 1) lack of information; 2) lack of coder resources to assess the information that does exist; and 3) Polity's bizarre decision to apply different standards to different times.

    To my mind, the last is the most damning, allowing the coders, for example, to give the USA a perfect 10 before women had the right to vote and when Jim Crow laws severely restricted the political rights of blacks in many states. That strange approach means we really shouldn't directly compare contemporary values to older ones. This is a serious but unacknowledged problem in many of the recent statistical studies of long-term trends in political development, and I'm not sure why it doesn't get more attention.

    1. Hi Jay, I agree that Polity's observations are less reliable. But that's in part why I'm not using the democracy/autocracy index - I prefer the component values. It is absurd to interpret the USA as a "10" in democracy before women had the right to vote, but it is not absurd to say that it had a large-group selection competitive regime. Ignore democ, use exrec; it gives a more fine-grained picture of what's going on. I think we can certainly make meaningful comparisons then, tracking the evolution of the extension of the suffrage separately (with, e.g., the dataset in Przeworski, which I hope he would make public, bt also by the evolution of the polcomp variable in polity).

    2. Ugh, "less reliable the further back in time we go" is what I meant to say.

  2. In other words, what I'm trying to say is that the post does not track democracy, but "executive selection via election in large electorates", a category that we can more easily track over time (because we don't have to assume that much about the extent of the electorates).