Political Equality as Measured by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem)

If we want to measure the power structure of society, we can examine the extent of political equality. For a quantitative measure, one can use the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem, as it is commonly referred to) dataset’s “political equality” measure (see also Cole 2018).

In this post, I examine and critique the “political equality” measure of V-Dem, with a focus on how they contend with the issue of intersectionality.

What is V-Dem?

V-Dem is a democracy-measuring project that created “a multidimensional and disaggregated dataset” that is designed to capture the many different strands of democracy. V-Dem is based on expert surveys. They argue that democracy has seven principles: electoral, liberal, majoritarian, consensual, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian.

The “egalitarian” dimension is where they situate the “political equality” measure. According to Coppedge et al (2015), the egalitarian dimension:

“…holds that material and immaterial inequalities inhibit the actual use formal political (electoral) rights and liberties. It therefore addresses the goal of political equality across social groups – as defined by income, wealth, education, ethnicity, religion, caste, race, language, region, gender, sexual identity, or other ascriptive characteristics. Ideally, all groups should enjoy equal de jure and de facto capabilities to participate; to serve in positions of political power; to put issues on the agenda; and to influence policymaking. (This does not entail equality of power between leaders and citizens, as leaders in all polities are by definition more powerful.) Following the literature in this tradition, gross inequalities of health, education, or income are understood to inhibit the exercise of political power and the de facto enjoyment of political rights. Hence, a more equal distribution of these resources across social groups may be needed in order to achieve political equality” (23).

V-Dem defines political equality in terms of capabilities and do not define it in terms of opportunities (they do not even mention outcomes). In the dictionary, “capable” can be defined as “having the ability, fitness, or quality necessary to do or achieve a specified thing.” Opportunity can be defined a set of circumstances that makes the thing possible. In opportunity, the focus is on the larger structures (including political regimes, policies and laws, institutions) that surround the group. Opportunities interact with capabilities in a similar way that a social structure influences a social group.

Thus, V-Dem’s focus is on the requisite characteristics that groups must possess – they must have within them the requisite characteristics to “participate,” to be in powerful positions, and to influence the agenda and policy.

The difference between capabilities and opportunities matters because, for V-Dem, the structures of power are found within the characteristics of groups rather than in the set of institutions and other circumstances where those social groups operate.

Defining Political Equality according to V-Dem

The project manager for the “political equality” measure is John Gerring who specializes in social science methodology and comparative politics. Gerring (V-Dem 2022 codebook v.12) does define political equality as “the extent to which members of a polity possess equal political power” (207). Gerring also argues that political equality is distributional: “It is … about the distribution of political power among identifiable groups within the population” (207). They make the well-known argument that political power cannot be directly observed.

Thus, power must be inferred from groups’ possession of power. According to V-Dem, the possession of power can be observed in: (a) Active participation, such as voting; (b) involvement in civil society organizations; (c) representation in government, which they say must be “secure”; (d) can set the agenda; (e) influence the decisions made by political decision-makers; and (f) influence how the decisions are implemented.

The V-Dem codebook v.12 defines the measure, “Political Equality” (pp. 207 – 209). V-Dem guides the experts attention to particular groups’ political equality: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation.

Let’s take them one at a time.

V-Dem: “Power distributed by socioeconomic position”

V-Dem tells the expert that all countries have economic inequality, whether wealth or income, to at least some degree. V-Dem is concerned here with the link, as Manza (2015) does, between economic inequality and the distribution of political power, or what they call the “political effects” of unequal economic distribution.

V-Dem posits three hypothetical groups – the wealthy, the average person, and the poor.

There are four possible responses: (0) Wealthy have a monopoly on power; (1) Wealthy are dominant, the average have little power, the poor none at all; (2) the wealthy have a “strong hold on power,” and the average and the poor have a little bit of power but only over the things that the wealthy do not bother to contest; (3) The wealthy and the average have about equal influence, and the poor has significant influence; (4) complete political equality between the three groups.

Links to the next measures:

Political Inequality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by social groups”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by gender”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by sexual orientation”