The Democracy Definition of the Democracy Matrix

1. The Democracy Definition of the Democracy Matrix

There is no consensus in politics, scholarship and society about what democracy means in detail. Where does democracy begin and where does it end? Hence, various definitions and understandings of the concept of democracy are to be found in the discourses that for centuries, from Aristotle until today, have dealt with the subject. These can be similar, but they can also partially contradict each other.

In democracy theory, however, three different scopes within the conceptions have coalesced, which refer to different conceptual range (Bühlmann et al. 2012): minimal definitions, middle-range definitions and maximal definitions.

Minimal Definition

There is a large consensus about the minimal definition, which defines democracy by way of the repeated holding of elections with a minimum amount of competition between candidates and the participative inclusion of broad parts of the population (Dahl 1971); nonetheless, it has been pointed out that this definition is considerably too limited (Lauth 2004; Munck 2012). Thanks to its recourse to the concept of electoral democracy, it largely succeeds in identifying the key characteristics that distinguish between autocratic and democratic systems. On the other hand, it fails to provide a nuanced treatment of the differences within the grey area between autocracies and democracies, as well as within established democracies, in the case of which it is not so much the level of development of the characteristic “elections” that differs as rather the quality of the rule of law, of the media system, of the separation of powers, and of intermediation.

Maximal Definitions

Maximal definitions, like social democracy, which serves to orient the approach of O’Donnell et al. (2004), have likewise proven to be inappropriate, since, by including socio-economic factors and the welfare state, they overextend the concept of democracy in the sense of a “conceptual stretching” (Sartori 1970; Collier/Mahon 1993). When this understanding of democracy refers to the output side, it is also called a material conception of democracy. Nonetheless, this idea is not convincing, since it posits a definite policy achievement, which, however, has not been established by the sovereign itself, as norm. Hence, democracy cannot be materially defined by way of the production of certain policy achievements, but rather democracy is the procedural framework within which different policy solutions are first negotiated (Lauth 2004; Munck 2012).

Middle-range Definitions

Middle-range definitions are thus much more promising. Such definitions enrich the minimal democracy concept only to the extent necessary for a differentiated analysis, and they, thereby, remain within the boundaries of a narrow and procedural understanding of democracy. It is precisely this understanding of democracy that underlies the democracy matrix as standard. By analysing the debates in democracy theory, a conception of democracy can be obtained that, on the one hand, is based on the dimensions of political freedom, political equality, and political and legal control and, on the other, distinguishes between five essential institutions that cut across the dimensions (procedures of decision, regulation of the intermediate sphere, public communication, guarantee of rights, and rules settlement and implementation).

The democracy matrix thus defines democracy as “a legal form of rule”, which makes possible self-determination for all citizens, in the sense of popular sovereignty, by securing their significant participation in filling political decision-making positions (and/or in the decision itself) in free, competitive and fair processes (e.g. elections) and securing opportunities for continuously influencing the political process, and by, in general, guaranteeing political rule is subject to oversight. Democratic participation in political rule thus gets expressed in the dimensions of political freedom, political equality and political and legal control (Lauth 2004: 100).

2. The Three Dimensions of the Democracy Matrix

Political Freedom as Free Self-Government of Citizens

The dimension of freedom is anchored in the free self-government of citizens in a political community. Self-government involves the transfer of individual preferences by way of the choice of political decision-makers in free and fair elections and, furthermore, the possibility of continuous political participation, which is structured within the framework of the public sphere via competing intermediate organisations. The political participation of citizens is guaranteed by the existence of civil and political rights. Furthermore, popular sovereignty implies that the elected representatives are also in fact the possessors of political power and use the latter in such a way that individual rights are respected.

Political Equality as Legal Equality of Treatment and Fair Participation in Political Decisions

The dimension of equality is understood as political equality, which, on the one hand, includes a fair formal equality of treatment of citizens by the state (legal egalitarianism) and, on the other hand, facilitates the opportunity for all citizens to participate in the relevant formal democratic institutions in a fair and effective way (input egalitarianism). Whereas the dimension of freedom treats the possibility of free participation in the political system in an active sense, the dimension of equality deals with equal access to these rights. Do all citizens have the possibility to make use of their political and civil rights in a fair and effective way? Talk here is thus of equality in the sense of equal treatment as a passive component.

Political and Legal Control as Political and Legal Oversight of the Government

Whereas the dimension of freedom gives expression to the preferences of individual citizens and organised interests, in the dimension of political and legal control, the actions of these agents are now directed toward the monitoring of government activity. Such oversight applies to both the government and the elected officeholders. Vertical and horizontal accountability are to be included in the definition of the dimension of control. Control takes place by way of the political participation of citizens or intermediary organisations in the political sphere or the sphere of civil society or via media, which expose violations of the rule of law in the public sphere and, if necessary, undertake legal measures. It occurs, above all, by way of the official oversight instances within the network of governmental and para-governmental institutions. The sole standard of legal control is that government action respects the rule of law.

3. The Five Institutions of the Democracy Matrix

Procedures of Decision: Quality of Elections

In democracy, the participation of citizens in binding decisions primarily occurs by way of the election of representatives. Nonetheless, with the exception of legislative initiatives, which represent a form of direct democracy and which we take into consideration in trade-off measurement, hardly any oversight is exercised in the election itself; the latter rather is, in turn, subjected to oversight by non-governmental actors and instances. In democracies. as is shown by the discussion of its dimensions, the characterisation of an election is necessarily done using the following electoral principles, which apply for elections that take place regularly and at not too great intervals. According to these principles, elections must be universal, equal, free and secret.

Regulation of the Intermediate Sphere: Quality of Parties, Interest Groups and Civil Society

Intermediate organisations like political parties, associations and civil society should be structured in such a way that they are able to articulate, select and bundle social interests, in order to communicate them to governmental decision-making instances and, at the same time, to allow for a feedback effect. What is at stake is the most inclusive possible representation of citizens’ preferences. The sole binding of policy formation to the act of voting is insufficient for a democratic process. For, in addition, via the influence of organised interests, there has to be an ongoing debate on political decisions during the legislative period. A democratic system of mediation has to have sufficient openness, such that certain interests are not systematically filtered out, but rather have the opportunity to be made visible. Finally, we have to mention the oversight function that organised interests discharge vis-à-vis the government.

Public Communication: Quality of Media

The institution of the public Communication is to be seen as the key forum for opinion and will formation. Democratic communication thereby requires publicity and transparency. The public sphere constitutes the medium for information communication for the purposes of influence and oversight, and it is, hereby, open for different sorts of formal and informal participation, which together stamp the structure of the public sphere. The structure of the public sphere manages to secure them institutionally by way of the guarantee of freedom of opinion and freedom of information. A certain amount of freedom of information, in the sense of creating transparency of government action, is to be regarded as the presupposition for successful oversight of the government. The rights of the media themselves and the rights of those who want to use the public sphere as a forum are key units of analysis for determining the quality of democracy.

Guarantee of Rights: Quality of the Rule of Law

The institution of guarantee of rights is a reflexive institution, since it is tied to the guaranteeing of the other institutions and the rights on which they are based. The usual sort of this form of participation takes place by way of the courts, whereby individual citizens or a group of citizens (association, collective, party, etc.) assume the role of instigator of the proceedings and trial participants. This can facilitate a targeted and binding influence on political decisions or on their implementation. Thereby, certain actions are either prohibited, confirmed or initiated. The preservation of the fundamental rights that are relevant to the rule of law is the key aspect. What is at issue here is the legal review of decisions that have already been taken or carried out. The characteristic idea of this institution is the oversight of government action and decision-making by individual citizens or organisations via the legal route of the courts.

Rules Settlement and Implementation: Quality of Effective Power of Government and Horizontal Accountability

At the same time, we need to include the governmental institutions to which the sovereign assigns the task of exercising democratic rule. Two functions are of decisive importance here. On the one hand, within the framework of effective governmental power, state institutions must be able to take decisions and to implement the decisions that have been democratically taken.  This implies, in particular, the necessity of effectively free government, which can operate independently of potential veto players (e.g. the military) that have not been democratically legitimated. For a functional democracy is always effective political rule. In a larger sense, this also concerns statehood as maintenance of the state’s monopoly on the use of force, as well as the ability of the administration to work effectively.

On the other hand, all oversight aspects that are located in the political system itself (e.g. parliament, ombudsman, court of auditors) are to be considered in the sense of a horizontal accountability. For the functioning of democracy, it is of central importance whether these state institutions also possess the competencies that they require and whether they use these competencies within the legal framework provided and do not abuse them.

Overview of the Institutions of the Democracy Matrix



Key Question

Procedures of Decision

Decision-making function;

participation of citizens in binding decisions via elections

“Are elections and referenda free, are they equal, and is the holding and evaluation of elections and referenda subject to independent and transparent oversight?”

Regulation of the Intermediate Sphere

Function of interest aggregation and articulation;

communication to the political system (party →political power; association/civil society → political influence)

“Can all relevant interests be organised and are they all treated equally? Do the organised interests exercise oversight of government action?”


Public Communication

Function of reaching agreement (communication rights);

public sphere as a medium of political communication for exerting influence and oversight; presupposition for other institutions

“Do communicative rights exist and does everyone have the same opportunity to make use of them? Is communication used by the media themselves and other civil society actors as a forum for oversight?”

Guarantee of Rights

Function of guaranteeing the principles of the rule of law in the sense of legal oversight of governmental action;

guarantees the functioning of the other institutions (reflexive institution)

“Is the possibility of taking legal action via the courts open to all and the same for all? Are all subject to the law, can a decision be appealed, and is the abuse of political power effectively sanctioned?”

Rules Settlement and Implementation

Function of implementing democratic decisions (monopoly on the use of force, administration);

function of oversight in the political system (horizontal accountability)

“Does the government possess effective governing power? Is there a monopoly on the use of force and an effective administration? Is everyone treated equally by the parliament and by the public administration? Are there oversight rights (parliament, court of auditors) in the political system itself?”

4. The 15 Matrix Fields of the Democracy Matrix

By combining the three dimensions and the five institutions, we derive the democracy matrix’s 15 matrix fields, which demarcate the relevant areas of investigation for democracy quality. The dimensions constitute the horizontal pillars, whereas the institutions cut across them. A detailed description of the components and subcomponents of the individual matrix fields can be consulted here.

5. References

Bühlmann, Marc, Wolfgang Merkel, Lisa Müller, Heiko Giebler and Bernhard Weßels. 2012. Demokratiebarometer: ein neues Instrument zur Messung von Demokratiequalität. In: ZfVP 6, pp. 115-159.

Collier, David and James E. Mahon. 1993. Conceptual 'Stretching' Revisited: Adapting Categories in Comparative Analysis. In: American Political Science Review 87, pp. 845-855.

Dahl, Robert A. 1971. Polyarchy. Participation and Opposition. New Haven/London.

Lauth, Hans-Joachim. 2004. Demokratie und Demokratiemessung. Wiesbaden.

Lijphart, Arend. 2012. Patterns of democracy. Government forms and performance in thirty-six countries (2nd edition). New Haven, CT and London.

Munck, Gerardo L. 2012. Conceptualizing the Quality of Democracy: The Framing of a New Agenda for Comparative Politics. DISC Working Paper Series 23.

Munck, Gerardo I. and Jay Verkuilen. 2002. Conceptualizing and Measuring Democracy. Evaluating Alternative Indices. In: Comparative Political Studies 35, pp. 5-34.

O’Donnell, Guillermo, Cullell Jorge Vargas and Osvaldo M., Iazzetta (eds.). 2004. The Quality of Democracy. Notre Dame.

Sartori, Giovanni. 1970. Concept Misformation in Comparative Politics. In: American Political Science Review 6, pp. 1033-1053.