Defining democracy is a notoriously difficult thing, but much is revealed by how media outlets choose to do so.
One popular metric is called “Polity IV”—a methodology created by the Center for Systemic Peace, headed by Dr. Monty G. Marshall of Georgetown University, which has been cited in prestigious outlets like the Washington Post and New York Times. But few outlets have embraced the method as enthusiastically as the “news explainer” site Vox.
Vox, which constantly tells its readers that life is actually swell, with the momentum of history indisputably on the road to justice, decreased poverty and less war, consistently uses Polity IV to prop up its argument that “democracy” is on the rise:
- How the Fall of the Berlin Wall Changed the World, in One Chart (11/10/14)
- 26 Charts and Maps That Show the World Is Getting Much, Much Better (11/24/14)
- The Animated Map That Explains the World (4/22/14)
- The World Is Getting Better All the Time, in 11 Maps and Charts (7/13/15)
- World Hunger Is at Its Lowest Point in at Least 25 Years. Thank Democracy (5/9/16)
But dig into the criteria being used and you find a troubling definition of “democracy” that serves the interests of US power—and wealthy elites. According to the Polity IV method, the United States during the time of slavery scored 9 out of 10 on the democracy scale. During the era of Jim Crow, when most blacks and women of all races couldn’t vote, it scored a perfect 10 out of 10—or “full democracy.”
The metric makes many equally dubious assertions. Today’s Israel—which occupies the lands of 4.5 million Palestinians, who cannot vote in Israeli elections, do not have freedom of movement and are restricted in dozens of ways—receives a score of “full democracy,” or 10 out of 10. Since the nation of Palestine is not included in Polity IV’s list of countries, one can only assume it must fall under the purview of Israel, which renders the score even more risible. How can a country with 35 percent of its population disenfranchised be a “full democracy”? The same way, presumably, that the antebellum United States—with 3.5 million slaves—can be 90 percent democratic.
Similarly, countries that suffered colonialism at the hands of European and US “democracy,” like most of Africa, South Asia and the Middle East prior to 1960, are simply listed as “no data.” For those still suffering the brutal legacy of colonialism, this map from 1900 leaves a lot to be desired:
As with Palestinians, those occupied and subjugated by “democracies” are simply ignored. The existence of unpersons—whether they be slaves, serfs or disenfranchised and exploited imperial subjects—does not affect a country’s “democratic” status, for reasons that are never explained.
This isn’t too much of a surprise, since the data used come from the Political Instability Task Force—a research project set up with funding from the Central Intelligence Agency. (The Center for Systemic Peace’s Monty Marshall also runs this Agency-funded think tank). That the CIA would fund a project that produces absurd results favorable to US ideological interests is not a scandal; that our media would so uncritically adopt it should be.
“The limits of my language,” philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote, “mean the limits of my world.” How one defines “democracy” is a question loaded with ideological baggage that “explainer” journalists at Vox don’t seem too concerned with unpacking. There’s a “widely accepted standard” among elite institutions, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp remarks, and this taken-for-granted assumption is simply recycled until it is self-evidently true.
Assumptions are also made about what constitutes a meaningful relationship between citizen and state. Countries that limit free speech are naturally docked democracy points, but those that leave 22 percent of children in poverty, like the US, can still be “full democracies.” How robust can a democracy be, though, when so many lack the resources, or the security, to push back against the system? How robust can a democracy be that routinely, and predictably, serves the interests of the super-wealthy? Such questions are rarely asked by Vox—and when they are, they’re dismissed as distractions.
FAIR reached out to the researcher Vox cited, Oxford research fellow Max Roser, who uses Polity IV. After conceding Polity IV was “far from perfect,” Roser told FAIR via email:
I chose it as my main source because of the comparison with alternatives that I cite on the data entry on democratization. We also have to keep in mind that this measure cannot capture everything that matters for a political regime. For example, it makes sense to measure corruption or economic exploitation separately from the democracy concept. Not because it doesn’t matter, but because [it] all matters, and for different questions we want to be able to differentiate between the importance of different factors.
So an intentionally narrow and admittedly flawed metric used for a very specific input is being held up by Vox and others as per se evidence of “democracy.” Vox’s Zack Beauchamp (4/22/14) uses Polity IV’s cut off of “6” to assert “democracy has conquered the world.” His nifty gif begins with the US (naturally) as the sole democracy in 1842—despite being one of the few countries left in the Western world that still had legalized slavery:
According to the link Vox provided to back up the claim that Polity IV is a “widely accepted academic standard,” “democracy reflects three essential elements”:
- The “presence of institutions and procedures through which citizens can express preferences about alternative policies and leaders”;
- The “existence of institutionalized constraints on the power of the executive”;
- The “guarantee of civil liberties to all citizens”—although whether these guarantees are respected is not actually measured.
The “guarantee of civil liberties to all citizens”? Even setting aside the absurd historical ratings, how does Polity IV award a perfect score to a country like the United States that incarcerates the highest number of people in world, maintains offshore penal colonies where people are denied basic due process, routinely shoots unarmed people of color, runs a massive domestic and global spying apparatus and passes increasingly restrictive disenfranchisement laws. While the explanation of the United States’ perfect democracy score vaguely references Jim Crow and present-day discrimination, there is no explanation of how the US’s racist and oppressive past and present allow it to remain virtually perfect for the past 150 years.
When asked in a follow up email by FAIR if Polity IV’s source of funds from the CIA bothered him, Roser responded, “Yes, it does. Very much so,” but he reiterated that he knows it’s flawed, but uses it due to a lack of a better alternative.
Even if a CIA-funded “democracy” rating could produce entirely objective results, certainly disclosing this funding to Vox’s readers would give an important piece of context to the ideological framing at work. No such context is provided: just a quick assertion of academic consensus and a series of sexy-clickbait graphs with American exceptionalism—and, frankly, white supremacism—baked into Vox’s content cake.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.