Democracy and Struggle for Definition

Common definitions happen to be useful in research. Instead of arguing what “democracy” means, economists agree on the same definition and move on to important things, for example, the relationships between democracy and economic growth:

Acemoglu et al., "Democracy Does Cause Growth."
Acemoglu et al., “Democracy Does Cause Growth.”

So, you study relationships between specific “democracy” (usually Polity IV) and specific “growth” (real GDP per capita). No problem in studying another democracy and another growth. But until economists conquer the world and turn everyone into an economist, very few heads are working on the issue right now. And these heads have to focus on very specific definitions, like the Polity IV components of “democracy”:

Competitiveness of Executive Recruitment
Openness of Executive Recruitment
Constraint on Chief Executive
Competitiveness of Political Participation

This makes communication with the public difficult, though. For one reason, the public understands “democracy” differently. The great source for making a representative public definition of “democracy” is the World Values Survey (WVS). The survey reaches thousands of respondents in 52 countries, and since 1995, asks questions about democracy. Specifically, it asks to “tell me for each of the following things how essential you think it is as a characteristic of democracy,” and offers nine scales. Summary stats of these scales (min 1 — not an essential characteristic; max 10 — an essential characteristic):

Definition of democracy given by the WVS respondents
Definition of democracy given by the WVS respondents

The first row is the answer to the question how good democracy is for the respondent’s political system (min 1 — “Very good”; max 4 — “Very bad”). The rest of the variables are the components of democracy as defined by 74,000 people from 52 countries. You can think of the respective means (third column) as weights each variable has in the public definition of democracy. The standard deviations aren’t huge, which implies some consensus across many people.

These components seemingly have little in common with the Polity IV’s definition. To make sure, let’s compare the Polity IV index of political regimes with question V141 from the WVS, which asks “how democratically is this country being governed today.” A scale ‘from 1 to 10, where 1 means that it is “not at all democratic” and 10 means that it is “completely democratic.”’ Hence, I compare two things: the respondent’s opinion about the state of democracy (as she understands the concept) in her country and Polity IV’s expert’s opinion about the state of democracy (as defined by Polity IV) in the same country.

Democracies described by the public in the WVS and by experts in the Polity IV dataset have almost nothing in common:


Though the regression line is not horizontal and the relationship is significant at 0.01, R² is just 14%. Not what you may expect from two things with the same name.

This nerdy fact is important because results in the social sciences are relevant only for concepts as they’ve been defined in the social sciences. If your definition X is different from my definition X, then my investigations of X are useless to you. If someone thinks that “democracy” is when “the army takes over when government is incompetent” (row six in the table) then this democracy does not cause economic growth that the first figure shows. In fact, the authors of the figure describe in detail how they constructed the measure of democracy that is relevant for growth.

Of course, when it comes to elections and policy making, economists become as humble as dentists. That is, not even dentists, but also physicians know how to fix the economy—contrary to what economists think on the same matter. In addition, there’s no organized communication between people and researchers. When the public is so poorly informed about actual research, the difference in definitions—of which “democracy” is just one example—seem unimportant. It is, to an extent. But whenever serious research makes it into the media, it’s better to doublecheck the words.

The Source of Our Sources

Not today’s news, but The New York Times and other major newspapers have a great influence on public policy. Key government documents, like budgets and congressional hearings, mention “the new york times” about 38,000 times (see Government Printing Office website with Google Search), while an economist from the top 10—who studies his topic for decades but doesn’t write for the public regularly—gets mentioned in the same documents just 10 times. So, even if economists know something (like a big secret about inflation), it’s up to the media to deliver this knowledge.

Where do the media source their information from, in turn? The Times explains:

Mentions in NY Times articles, Source

If someone doesn’t see the black line for the references to researchers, it’s because the line had been drawn over the zero axis.

(That was a post of envy, of course.)


The inflation fear appears here and there, but mostly around government initiatives. One problem with this fear is: regardless of how you measure it, there’s no inflation in government initiatives. Economists spend a lot of time in the media repeating this.

But “inflation” is not even a public concern. You won’t find it in polls or, for instance, Google Search trends:


In fact, “inflation” is a problem in just one place:


Ok, in two places. Wall Street made traffic for NYC. Meanwhile, elsewhere:


Employment does remain a top problem in public polls for long. You might expect the media to keep the public updated on this, but:

NYT Chronicle
NYT Chronicle

The New York Times devotes about the same attention to inflation as to unemployment, despite unemployment being a much bigger concern.

What comes after ignoring both public and experts? Correlation in the tail of the plot is suggestive:


And anyone who disagrees is a witch!


The New York Times evolved over time in words and topics (onetwo). And so did the US Congress.

To track topics in the congressional agenda, I compared the word frequency in bill titles over the last 40 years (see Appendix for details):

Education surges in the recent years, while health care does not

Health care takes about 18% of US GDP, but the US Congress mentions it only 400 times a year in its bill titles.

Security happens to be more important than freedom

About ten times more important. But the two correlate, so one serves another in certain contexts.

China replaces the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union appears in US Congress documents after 1991, when it ceased to exist. But China became popular around that time. The EU is less so, mainly because it’s still treated as two dozens of independent states, not a single union.

Unemployment periodically becomes an issue

Unemployment gets moderate attention (about 1/20th of “security”). Congresspersons ignore inflation, while the NYT devotes lot of attention to both and clearly prefer talking more about inflation:

Appendix: Data and replication

The US Congress bill titles are available from two sources:

NYT-speak continued

The New York Times’ choice of words tells much about history and the media. As seen before, their Chronicle shows great snapshots of the newspaper’s wording evolution.

Here, a few more cases.

Information sourcing

As Robert Fisk once noted, the media now rely more on what officials said, rather than sourcing news by themselves. That’s a confirmation:

Money and knowledge in crises

Though in general money and knowledge move in the same directions, money moves in greater magnitudes. Also, notice that in the Great Depression, as well as in the Great Recession, the NYT mentioned money less frequently. And the opposite happened during stagflation in the 70s.

Inflation and unemployment

Mentions of unemployment and inflation went in different directions before the 70s: right until the economy happened to have both. But it was a short period and right now there’re no mutual relations (at least, in wording).

In- and equality

Inequality never was an issue for the NYT. Even in the late 20s, when inequality was extremely high. So, it’s a new topic. Meanwhile, previous mentions of equality are generally associated with civil rights movements, as in the 60s.

“Make war, not love”

At its peak, war themes took up to 30% of the newspaper materials. But local wars, like Iraq and Afghanistan, never draw so much attention.

Referring to minorities

A similar graph was in the previous post, but here changes in wording are clearer. Especially right after the Civil War, when politicians no longer needed support from the black population, and one hundred years later, when politicians and media had to update their vocabulary.

Sports becoming more popular

Changes in NYT-speak

The New York Times released a tool for tracking words in the newspaper’s historical issues. Google had done this for all books published after 1500, but NYT is a reputable source, and it’s interesting to compare the results.

Civil Rights Movement in the 60s

The African-American minority remains discriminated and after the 1960, but the media changed their policies in telling stories about it:

Democracy on War

Mentions of “democracy” hike during international conflicts to mobilize the population:

Ideological enemies

You have an instant peak as the enemy appears, but gradually the topic comes out of fashion. Also, Communism lasted a little longer, though it’s nothing compared to the mass media’s reaction to 9/11. That’s interesting because the Cuban Missile Crisis and other Cold War conflicts were far more dangerous than anything Bin Laden could do.
The Times started preferring different wording for Nazis before Hitler disclosed his plans in 1939:

National priorities

After being a marginal topic for almost a century, security took over 12.5% of the Times’ publications (while security in fact increased over the same period). Values like freedom remained at stable 2.5% for over 150 years: