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  • The Meanings of Democracy:Introduction
  • Larry Diamond (bio)

Over the past two decades, public-opinion research has become increasingly prominent and widely used in efforts to assess and explain the progress of and prospects for democracy in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and most recently the Middle East. By posing standardized questions to representative samples of voting-age people in various countries within a cultural or geographic zone, regional "barometer" surveys have become sources of revealing cross-country comparisons that shed light on how people view and support democracy.

But how should one measure support for democracy? Early work on public opinion after democratic transitions in Europe presumed that one could measure such support merely by asking people questions such as the following (which has become one of the most widely used items in cross-national research):

Can you tell us which one of the following three statements you agree with: 1) "Democracy is always preferable to any other form of government"; 2) "Under some circumstances an authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one"; or 3) "For people like me it does not matter whether we have a democratic or a nondemocratic regime."

Similar items have been used across many countries to assess popular commitment to democracy as the best form of government. In the last fifteen years, adopting methods introduced by Doh C. Shin for the study of Korea, others have examined on a ten- or eleven-point scale the extent to which citizens say: 1) they desire democracy for their country; 2) they think that democracy is suitable for their country; 3) they think that democracy can work to solve the problems of their country; and 4) they [End Page 102] think that democracy is as important as or more important than other national goals, such as economic development.

Comparative analysis of responses to these questions would seem to be fairly straightforward—if, that is, respondents across countries possess a clear and broadly shared understanding of what democracy is. But what if they do not? What if expressions of support for democracy represent nothing more than some vague acknowledgement of democracy's social desirability—the global equivalent of "motherhood and apple pie"? For the past two decades, this possibility has increasingly preoccupied and troubled researchers. In order to assuage their worries, scholars have come up with new means to measure underlying support for democracy without using the "D-word." One of the most seminal innovations in this regard builds explicitly on the "Churchill hypothesis"—named for the British prime minister's famous quip that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others—by measuring the extent to which respondents in the postcommunist democracies reject such plausible authoritarian options as military rule, one-party rule, and one-man rule. The presumption is that rejection of all three alternatives represents robust evidence of support for democracy.1 Since Richard Rose, William Mishler, and Christian Haerpfer introduced this method of gauging "authoritarian detachment" some two decades ago, use of the measure has spread around the world. But statistical analysis has shown that it measures something rather different than support for democracy.

And so the search has continued on two fronts: first to assess what exactly people around the world understand by the word "democracy," and second to develop yet other ways of getting at people's understanding of and support for democracy that do not rely on the "D word." In developing new and innovative ways of meeting the second challenge (as the following articles do), we are also gaining more traction in addressing the first challenge as well.

The four essays in our cluster on the meanings of democracy emerge from a larger cooperative effort to understand how citizens of emerging democracies (and some transitional or authoritarian countries) understand the "D-word." The Global Barometer—drawing together regional barometers from postcommunist Eurasia as well as Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Arab world—is now trying to develop a common standardized approach to this and related questions. But because the effort is still young, we do not yet have a common, standardized set of questions—and data—that would, in Michael Bratton's useful...