Nighttime scene with silhouettes of people holding glowing letters that spell out "We the people"
There are good political reasons to hold fast to a pluralist conceptualization of democracy – precisely in light of the current challenges to democracy. | Foto: Backbone Campaign via flickr | CC BY 2.0

The Reconstitution of Liberal Hegemony in Comparative Regime Research: V-Dem’s Discursive Turn from the Contestation to the Decontestation of Democracy

Within just a few years, the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project has experienced a remarkable rise to both academic and political prominence. As I show in a paper that was just published open access with Contemporary Politics, this rise has been accompanied by a notable discursive shift: Having started as a project aimed at taking seriously the essential conceptual contestability of democracy, in recent years V-Dem has adopted an increasingly narrow and taken-for-granted focus on liberal democracy. This turn from the contestation to the decontestation of democracy, which responds to the perception of serious threats to democracy in general and liberal norms in particular, is not only remarkable in and of itself. In the face of the current crisis of democracy, it is also deeply problematic as it contributes to downplaying the inherent limitations of liberal democracy. The following contribution presents and summarizes the main arguments from the paper.

“There is no consensus on what democracy at large means, beyond the prosaic notion of rule by the people […]. Political theorists have been emphasizing this point for some time, and empiricists would do well to take this lesson to heart.” This agenda-setting statement is at the heart of a 2011 article that laid out what would later become the conceptual framework of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project. In line with other academic interventions around that time, Michael Coppedge, John Gerring and colleagues questioned the taken-for-grantedness of the (liberal) model of democracy that characterized mainstream empirical democracy research, the predominant global indices of democracy as well as the practice of North-Western democracy promotion. A few years later, V-Dem was born and presented to the world a sophisticated dataset that included a broad range of indicators arranged so as to measure five separate indices of democracy: In addition to the usual indices of electoral and liberal democracy, there is also a participatory, a deliberative, and an egalitarian democracy index.

Now, let’s fast-forward to the year 2021 and look at how V-Dem’s Democracy Report begins: “This is the 5th Annual Democracy Report from the V-Dem Institute at University of Gothenburg. It summarizes the state of liberal democracy in the world in 2020 against the backdrop of developments over the last 10 years […].” A year before, the V-Dem Institute had published a “resource guide” aimed at all those that “firmly believe in democracy and liberalism and want to defend these values” that openly buried the idea that there might be any relevant varieties of democracy:

“Without liberal rights and institutions democracy is not meaningful and unlikely to endure. Elections become an empty shell. Such rights and institutions include the rule of law, minority rights, and horizontal accountability through parliaments and courts. Fundamentally challenging these rights and institutions – as illiberals do – threatens the persistence of democracy […].”

V-Dem, Autocratization and the Defense of Liberal Democracy

In the paper “From the Varieties of Democracy to the defense of liberal democracy: V-Dem and the reconstitution of liberal hegemony under threat”, I analyze this remarkable discursive  turn from the contestation to the decontestation of democracy. Based on a close reading of V-Dem’s flagship publications, I reconstruct two mechanisms that both concern the ways in which academic research relates to the outside world:

First, the aim to theoretically grasp and empirically trace the current threats to both democracy in general and liberal norms in particular has pushed V-Dem scholars towards embracing unequivocally liberal conceptions of regime type and regime change. As a consequence, autocratization is conceptualized, measured and analyzed as a linear movement away from “full” – that is, liberal – democracy, and political regimes around the world are categorized, as in the good, old Freedom House ranking, as either “liberal” or “electoral” (that is, not sufficiently liberal) democracy or as authoritarian regimes.

Second, this intra-academic logic of theory production and concept development was reinforced by the aim to inform and shape broader public and political debates. In response to what is described as the “third wave of autocratization”, the political aim to do something about it, that is, to raise public awareness and, eventually, to contribute to defending liberal democracy against accumulating threats, swiftly took center stage. This suggested the choice of simple and definitive statements based on unequivocal and well-established conceptions in order to make strong public and political claims about the “reality” of the global wave of autocratization. Pointing to the essential contestedness of the concept of democracy does certainly not help the mission to defend liberal democracy against all those “illiberals and authoritarians [who] are putting democracy at risk”.

Beyond the V-Dem Institute

To be sure, the V-Dem Institute continues to produce data on a variety of conceptions of democracy, in line with the original mission of the V-Dem project. As my analysis shows, however, its academic publications and policy-oriented reports are characterized by an increasingly narrow and taken-for-granted focus on liberal democracy. Over the years, V-Dem has shifted from contesting the attempt “to impose a particular definition upon the concept, insist that this is democracy, and then go forward with the task of measurement” to doing exactly this. Given V-Dem’s widespread use, the high academic and political visibility of its publications as well as the fact that it is by far the most successful and well-known attempt to push for recognition of the conceptual diversity of democracy, V-Dem’s discursive evolution is relevant in and of themselves. Yet, my paper also suggests that broader regime research might be characterized by a similar trend. An analysis of all 120 V-Dem Working Papers published between March 2015 and early May 2021, which include a broad range of studies based on V-Dem data, exhibits a similar trend of conceptual decontestation – even if electoral, rather than liberal conceptions of democracy predominate in these decidedly academic and largely quantitative studies.

Why V-Dem’s Original Mission is Still Relevant Today

As seen, V-Dem has gradually moved away from its original emphasis on the conceptual varieties of democracy, adopting an increasingly decontested view on democracy as liberal democracy. In order to defend liberal democracy against its critics, V-Dem has chosen to use unequivocal, decontested and simple concepts: democracy is liberal democracy or it is not; democratization is the process of approaching full, that is liberal democracy; and autocratization is the opposite: any movement away from liberal democracy. As a result, the case of V-Dem nicely illustrates how the perception of serious threats to liberal democracy has given rise to a reconstitution of liberal hegemony within the academic study of political regimes and the related policy-oriented research.

The shift from the contestation to the decontestation of democracy is understandable: Both academically and politically, it constitutes a plausible response to the threats to democracy and liberalism that come with what V-Dem calls the most recent “wave of autocratization”. But still, the (re-)turn to a decontested meaning of democracy is not only theoretically problematic, given that the insights on the conceptual contestability of democracy that motivated V-Dem in the first place remain as valid as ever. What is more, the existing scholarship on the “backsliding”, “crises” or “regression” of democracy suggests that there are also good political reasons to hold fast to a pluralist conceptualization of democracy – precisely in light of the current challenges to democracy. More specifically, as a cursory glimpse at this literature shows, the inherent limitations of liberal democracy are generally regarded as a relevant part of the problem and point, inter alia, to the persisting relevance of the three alternative conceptions of democracy (participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian) that have been traditionally emphasized by V-Dem. The observation that (would-be) autocrats and authoritarian movements attack liberal democracy should, therefore, not lead us to dismiss the well-founded calls for rethinking, reforming, deepening or transforming democracy. In the end, the capacity for innovation, which is perhaps the central strength of democracy broadly conceived, resides precisely in its conceptual openness.

Post scriptum:

This year’s V-Dem Democracy Report includes a box, on page 13, that explicitly acknowledges the conceptual contestedness of democracy. It notes, inter alia, that “V-Dem seeks to reflect the contemporary varieties of democracy, each encompassing many different attributes”. The report also emphasizes that it deliberately “focuses on the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI)”, while emphasizing that this is not meant “to underrate other varieties of democracy”.

This article has previously been published on edp wire.

Jonas Wolff
Jonas Wolff ist Leiter des Programmbereichs „Innerstaatliche Konflikte“ an der HSFK und Professor für Politikwissenschaft an der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt. Seine Forschungsschwerpunkte sind Demokratie und politischer Wandel, soziale Proteste und Konfliktdynamiken sowie außen- und entwicklungspolitische Fragen. Sein regionaler Schwerpunkt ist Lateinamerika. // Jonas Wolff is head of PRIF's research department “Intrastate Conflict” and professor of political science at the Goethe-University Frankfurt. His research focuses on democracy and political change, social protests and conflict dynamics, and foreign and development policy issues. His regional focus is Latin America.

Jonas Wolff

Jonas Wolff ist Leiter des Programmbereichs „Innerstaatliche Konflikte“ an der HSFK und Professor für Politikwissenschaft an der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt. Seine Forschungsschwerpunkte sind Demokratie und politischer Wandel, soziale Proteste und Konfliktdynamiken sowie außen- und entwicklungspolitische Fragen. Sein regionaler Schwerpunkt ist Lateinamerika. // Jonas Wolff is head of PRIF's research department “Intrastate Conflict” and professor of political science at the Goethe-University Frankfurt. His research focuses on democracy and political change, social protests and conflict dynamics, and foreign and development policy issues. His regional focus is Latin America.

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