It is only within the past two centuries – and mostly within the past century – that genuinely democratic governments have flourished. What is democracy? Rueschemeyer et al. (1992) identify four main characteristics of the most fully developed democracies:

  • Parliamentary or congressional bodies with a power base independent of presidents or prime ministers.
  • The regular, free, and fair election of government officials, with the entire adult population having the right to vote.
  • Responsibility of other divisions of government to the parliament or legislature.
  • Individual rights and freedoms pertaining to the entire population and their general honoring.

It is important to distinguish between formal democracies, in which the formal apparatus of democracy exists but democratic principles are usually not upheld in practice, and substantive democracies, which have not only the formal machinery of democratic government, but generally consistently implement this machinery. Another important distinction is that between restricted democracies, or those in which the right to vote is limited to certain segments of the adult population (such as men, property owners, or whites), and unrestricted democracies, or those in which the entire adult population has the right to vote. Democracy is not an all-or-none process, but rather a matter of degree.

In an exceptionally detailed cross-national study of democracy using 172 countries and covering the entire period from1850 to the early 1990s, Vanhanen (1997) argues that democracy emerges when the large mass of the population acquires resources it can use to force autocratic states to open themselves up to mass suffrage and political rights. Vanhanen identifies six types of resources that contribute to democratization: size of the nonagricultural population, size of the urban population, the degree to which farms are owned by independent families, the literacy rate, the enrollment rate in higher education, and the deconcentration of nonagricultural economic resources.

Sanderson (2004) reanalyzed Vanhanen’s data by looking at his six subcomponents separately. He consistently found that the best predictor of the level of democratization was the literacy rate, with the deconcentration of nonagricultural resources an important secondary predictor. Size of the nonagricultural population and size of the urban population turned out to be essentially unpredictive.

These last findings seem to contradict the conclusions of the comparative-historical (nonquantitative) study of democracy undertaken by Rueschemeyer et al. (1992). They found that the factor most critical to democracy was the level of industrialization and thus the size of the working class, which became an organized political force that struggled to establish democratic institutions, especially the right to vote. Democracy developed earliest and most fully in those societies with the largest working classes and latest and least in those societies with the smallest working classes.



  1. Rueschemeyer, D., Stephens, E. H., & Stephens, J. D. (1992) Capitalist Development and Democracy. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
  2. Sanderson, S. K. (2004) World democratization, 1850-2000: a cross-national test of modernization and power resource theories. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, San Francisco, August.
  3. Vanhanen, T. (1997) Prospects of Democracy: A Study of 172 Countries. Routledge, London.


Stephen K. Sanderson