Conceptual and Measurement Issues in Assessing Democratic Backsliding
56 Pages Posted: 29 Jun 2023
Date Written: May 2023
This paper addresses three interrelated questions. First, how strong is the evidence that democracy has declined globally over the last decade? Second, how should we best measure (change in) democracy? Third, given that much of the recent evidencefor global backsliding comes from measurement projects that rely on expert ratings, is there evidence that experts have become harsher judges of democratic quality in recent years?
We begin our analysis with a discussion of how to conceptualize democracy and democratic backsliding, stressing that for contested concepts such as democracy, no one operationalization is likely to reign supreme. We then dissect the distinction between “subjective” and “objective” measures, examining how measurement error can affect even seemingly objective indicators, and highlight how subjectivity pervades all measurement enterprises. Next, focusing on V–Dem’s methodology, we show—through both theoretical considerations and empirical tests—that it is highly unlikely that time-varying expert biases drive recent declines in estimates of the state of global democracy. Finally we evaluate Little and Meng’s (2023) recent attempt to assess the prevailing case for global backsliding using “objective” measures. We demonstrate multiple issues that make their measurement strategy ill-suited to studying trends in global democracy.
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