Is the United States becoming less democratic? It depends on how you look at it. For many progressives, modern America is a place where politicians, lobbyists, and big corporations collude to constrain the political participation of ordinary citizens. For conservatives, freedom is eroded by an overweening federal government that intrudes into even the most miniscule details of everyday life.
Both positions seem self-evident to their supporters, and both sides can cite plenty of numbers to bolster their arguments. But what do those numbers ultimately mean? Calculating the share of gross domestic product comprised by federal spending would seem to offer a rock-solid indicator of "big government," for example. Yet does that mean that Somalia, where central government barely exists, is more democratic than the United States? One can offer a similar response to the liberal argument about the corrupt intertwining of private and public interests. There are no lobbyists in North Korea -- yet few would argue that Kim Jong Un's kingdom is a bastion of freedom.
Many people around the world aspire to "democracy." You'd think that such a desirable good would be easy to measure. But it isn't -- precisely because the concept is a notoriously slippery one. A healthy democracy has many potential components. Notions of popular rule differ widely according to country and culture. And even in places with long traditions of democracy, how one defines the term is inextricably bound up with complex value judgments, and the criteria by which those judgments are made change constantly.
But we shouldn't give up too quickly. There are, after all, many facets of politics that we routinely quantify. Opinion polls are a widely accepted feature of electoral life. Finance and demography offer rich data sets with wide political relevance. Campaign strategists mine mountains of data in order to understand voting patterns.
Applying comparable techniques to the measurement of democracy could be enormously useful. Today, democracy promotion is no longer the exclusive preserve of the United States and a handful of other rich countries. The number of democratic societies around the world has increased dramatically over the past few decades, and many of these newcomers are increasingly offering money and know-how to nations aspiring to emerge from dictatorship or dysfunction. But it's hard to understand whether you're having an effect unless you can measure the progress of the societies you're trying to help.
"In macroeconomics, we invest tens of millions of dollars in measurement," says John Gerring, a political science professor at Boston University. "But we have nothing like that in politics" -- and especially when it comes to the international realm. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization all compile reams of statistics on comparative economic indicators. The World Health Organization and other public health organizations track a wide array of data on global health. Scholars of democracy would like to follow suit. But so far, Gerring notes, "we don't have the tools to understand these phenomena in a nuanced way."