by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
On April 5, two weeks after Georgia passed its controversial voting law, Vox published a provocative headline: “Study: Republican control of state government is bad for democracy.” The study, “Laboratories of Democratic Backsliding,” was conducted by the University of Washington’s Jake Grumbach and outlines a “comprehensive measure of democratic health” based on 61 different factors.
The best predictor of a low “democracy score,” Grumbach found, was Republican control of state legislatures, leading him to conclude that the GOP is the main driver of “democratic backsliding” in the United States. He’s hardly alone; plenty of political scientists reached the same conclusion, using similar methodology, throughout the Trump era.
But a closer look at Grumbach’s scoring system reveals a paradox: At least three of the factors that decrease a state’s democracy score—voter ID laws, high incarceration rates, and denying felons the right to vote—are things that large majorities of Americans support. According to Grumbach, maximizing democracy means defying the popular will.
Grumbach’s study and others like it have reverberated across the media in recent months. “[T]he Republican War on Democracy is Moving to the States,” New York Magazine said of Grumbach’s findings. …
… The studies are all part of a political science cottage industry that purports to “measure” democracy, often with support from government-funded NGOs. Freedom House and the Polity Project—funded by Congress and the CIA respectively—have both devised widely used indexes for quantifying democratic performance, as has the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute. Linking these indexes together is the idea that democracy is not just in the eye of the beholder; it’s something scholars can measure empirically.
But in practice, most political scientists just seem to be measuring their own biases, which are then passed off as impartial, statistical truths.