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200 years ago, everyone lacked democratic rights. Now, billions of people have them

When French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille prison in 1789 in pursuit of liberty, equality, and fraternity (and weapons), they could not have ima

When French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille prison in 1789 in pursuit of liberty, equality, and fraternity (and weapons), they could not have imagined how far democratic political rights would have spread a mere 200 years later. In the 19th century, there were few countries one could call democracies. Today, the majority are.

It is an astonishing achievement that many countries are now governed democratically. But the mere number of countries does not tell us how many people enjoy democratic rights. When Tunisia became democratic in 2012, its population of 11 million gained the political rights that came with it. When India democratized in the 1950s, this same transition affected almost 400 million people.

If we adopt the common and famous understanding of democracy as rule by the people, we should also look at how many people get to have a say in their government. How many people have democratic political rights around the world? And how has their number changed over the last two hundred years?

To answer these questions, we need to combine long-term data on countries’ populations1 with information on their political systems. This tells us how the political rights of the world’s population have changed over the past two hundred years.

We identify the political systems of countries with the Regimes of the World (RoW) classification by political scientists Anna Lührmann, Marcus Tannenberg, and Staffan Lindberg.The classification uses data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project and distinguishes between four types of political systems: closed autocracies, electoral autocracies, electoral democracies, and liberal democracies.

Which political systems does the ‘Regimes of the World’ classification distinguish?

  • In closed autocracies, citizens do not have the right to choose either the chief executive of the government or the legislature through multi-party elections.
  • In electoral autocracies, citizens have the right to choose the chief executive and the legislature through multi-party elections; but they lack some freedoms, such as the freedoms of association or expression, that make the elections meaningful, free, and fair.
  • In electoral democracies, citizens have the right to participate in meaningful, free and fair, and multi-party elections.
  • In liberal democracies, citizens have further individual and minority rights, are equal before the law, and the actions of the executive are constrained by the legislative and the courts.

While we use RoW’s classification and V-Dem’s data, we expand the years and countries covered and refine the coding rules. This post details how the political systems are measured, which changes we made, and what shortcomings and strengths the measure has. It is important to know that this measure describes when many people in a country had certain political rights, not that everyone had them.2 It is not a perfect classification, but still allows us to approximate how many people have had democratic rights.

Using the RoW classification, the interactive map shows how each country is classified at the end of each year, going back in time as far as 1789. To explore changes over time, you can drag the time-slider below the map.