The Polity Project

The United States slipped towards dangerous anocracy, but has improved.

The Polity Project is an endeavor of the Center for Systemic Peace that is “engaged in innovative research on the problem of political violence within the structural context of the dynamic global system, that is, global systems analysis.”

One of its study areas covers democracies and autocracies and produces a score for each country for each year called the “Polity Score.” It ranges over the values -10 to +10, with the lowest score being hereditary monarchies, and the highest score, consolidated democracies. In more detail:

“The Polity conceptual scheme is unique in that it examines concomitant qualities of democratic and autocratic authority in governing institutions, rather than discreet and mutually exclusive forms of governance. This perspective envisions a spectrum of governing authority that spans from fully institutionalized autocracies through mixed, or incoherent, authority regimes (termed ‘anocracies’) to fully institutionalized democracies.”

In January, Barbara F. Walter explained the recent history of the United States from the perspective of the Polity Score:

Anocracies are neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic; their citizens enjoy some elements of democratic rule (e.g., elections), while other rights (e.g., due process or freedom of the press) suffer. In the last weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, the respected Center for Systemic Peace (CSP) calculated that, for the first time in more than two centuries, the United States no longer qualified as a democracy. It had, over the preceding five years, become an anocracy.

That rating improved to “democracy” just this month, but to put it in perspective, the current U.S. score is the same as Brazil’s 2018 rating (the most recent available for that country), which was two points below Switzerland’s.

Walter explains that in 2015 the U.S. scored +10, the highest, most democratic value. In 2016 it slipped and in 2019 fell again to a value of +5, which is in the range of an anocracy. This is dangerous, she writes:

But anocracy, not autocracy, is our most immediate threat. Anocracy is usually transitional — a repressive government allows reforms, or a democracy begins to unravel — and it is volatile. When a country moves into the anocracy zone, the risk of political violence reaches its peak; citizens feel uncertain about their government’s power and legitimacy. Compared with democracies, anocracies with more democratic than autocratic features are three times more likely to experience political instability or civil war.

“A democracy begins to unravel.” The good news is that in 2021 the U.S. score rose to +8. But we must not be complacent, she warns:

I find our complacency quite troubling. Over the course of 30 years, I have interviewed numerous people who have lived through civil wars in places such as Baghdad and Ethiopia, and none of them saw war coming. All were surprised.

If experts like those who prepared the CIA report on Yugoslavia had assessed the United States at the end of Trump’s term, they would almost certainly have deemed us at “high risk” of instability and political violence. The United States was an anocracy, the CSP found, with parties increasingly organized around identity-based grievances. These underlying forces are not going away. We could easily slip back into anocracy.

If experts like those who prepared the CIA report on Yugoslavia had assessed the United States at the end of Trump’s term, they would almost certainly have deemed us at “high risk” of instability and political violence. The United States was an anocracy, the CSP found, with parties increasingly organized around identity-based grievances. These underlying forces are not going away. We could easily slip back into anocracy.

Instability and political violence: We’ve seen that.

During the Biden Administration we have difficulties, primarily economic. It is important to overcome these and not diminish their importance. But none of them are as important as keeping our democracy, and we are moving back towards protecting that.

Following, a chart of the Polity Score for the United States. This is taken from my interactive visualization of data organized by presidency. You may use it here.

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