Earlier I wrote about exceptionalism in politics. The reverse of exceptionalism is typicality. Can we say what countries in the world are most typical politically, ie, by the standards that political scientists focus on? By one quick calculation I came up with Guyana as the world’s most typical place and by another Montenegro. Others at the top of the list aren’t exactly favorites of political scientists, which is to say that they aren’t studied much. This may be an important form of selection bias in how we think about politics.
Let me backtrack to how I came up with these rankings.
I first considered the main ways that political scientists tend to evaluate countries:
stateness (the degree to which the government has control over its territory)
regime type (basically whether it is a democracy or dictatorship)
liberal rights (fundamental rights like speech, press, religion, etc.)
For each, I chose the standard measure for this concept:
the Varieties of Democracy measures of Electoral and Liberal Democracy
the United Nations Human Development Index (which includes GDP/capita, education, and health).
I calculated country z-scores for each variable (the degree to which the country differed from the mean) and then I averaged the absolute value of these four z-scores (so that rankings at opposite extremes wouldn’t cancel - i.e., Saudi Arabia as an extreme on both democracy/rights and prosperity).1
The countries with the lowest average z-scores should show be the closest to the average - they are not fully democratic and liberal nor fully authoritarian and repressive; they have some problems with state strength but they are not completely failed states; and they have a middling rate of prosperity.
The current top twenty most typical countries on this measure are listed below:
Guyana (most typical)
Bosnia and Herzegovina
What stands out is the strong representation of the less successful parts of Latin America (Guyana, Paraguay, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, along with Mexico and Colombia) and more surprisingly Europe (Albania, Moldova, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Ukraine). Focusing on the larger countries that emerged as typical, we see Indonesia, Ukraine, Mexico, and India with the Philippines, South Africa, and Brazil not too far outside of the top twenty.
I tried an alternative conceptualization where I averaged the World Bank’s governance indicators. These include Voice and Accountability, Political Stability and Absence of Violence, Government Effectiveness, Rule of Law, and Control of Corruption (I left out Regulatory Quality, which seemed a little less fundamental). These measures are already constructed as z-scores, so I simply averaged the absolute values of the scores as before.
The top twenty isn’t exactly the same, but it does represent the same sort of countries.
Trinidad and Tobago
Again we see a strong showing for the less successful side of postcommunist Europe (Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia, Armenia, Albania, and Bulgaria) and then a hodgepodge of sub-Saharan Africa (Senegal, Ghana, South Africa), MENA (Kuwait, Tunisia, Jordan), Latin America (T&T, Argentina, Puerto Rico, Guyana, Peru), and Asia (Sri Lanka, India). The larger countries are Argentina, South Africa, and India (Indonesia and Brazil fell just outside of the top 20).
Perhaps these countries are what political scientists would imagine as typical. I’m not sure. They are quite different from the countries that we study according to Wilson and Knutsen (2020). Their list emphasizes Western Europe and North America (unrepresented here). India, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, however, do show up in the bottom half of the 15 most studied countries (though with relative low percentages of articles). Political scientists might want to keep the states from my lists in mind when they are thinking of what “typical” politics looks like.
To drive the point home, consider the countries that have the highest z-scores, ie, they are farthest from the mean on average. On my first set of indicators which include stateness, democracy, liberalism, and prosperity, we see a who’s who of successful European and antipodal states with a dash of failed states (Yemen, South Sudan, Eritrea).
Norway (most atypical)
The World Bank Governance Indicators give a bit more space to the failed states again alongside the successful European countries plus Singapore.
South Sudan (most atypical)
Democratic Republic of Congo
Central African Republic
The European outliers correspond to Henrich’s conception of WEIRDness, ie, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. They also form perhaps the most isolated group on the Inglehart-Welzel cultural map of the world (see below). Not surprisingly these countries are among the most studied in political science. One might argue that this is distorting our view of politics, though if we believe Inglehart and Welzel’s theory, more and more countries are heading to this quadrant as they modernize.
Does it matter how we imagine the typical state? I think it might. By focusing instead on the best and the worst, we might overemphasize the importance of factors like corruption that are the most visible differences between the top and bottom but may not have so much causal force. We might also misperceive what it means to live in a dictatorship and how much opposition this engenders. Tom Pepinsky is eloquent on how most authoritarian regimes allow people to lead normal lives.
One could do worse when thinking of typical politics to imagine a place like Indonesia or Albania, a place with many problems but where life goes on (of course, life goes on everywhere). Our eyes may be drawn to the successes like Scandinavia or to the basket cases like Yemen. But typical politics may not look like either.
Addendum: This isn’t the only way to think of typicality. I stumbled on this attempt to find similarities between countries using a wide range of variables, political and otherwise. A user on Reddit converted them to country uniqueness scores where uniqueness meant countries with the fewest similar countries. Here Asian countries tended to be the most unique and Western Europe tended to be the most alike (non-unique). A similar but more technical approach can be found in Muthukrishna et al. where they use World Values Survey data to calculate the culture distance between countries.
One could quibble with these choices. I also calculate an alternative below with data from the World Bank. Maybe the biggest lack in both of my measures is demographics, things like total population and ethnic fragmentation, but I think they are already reflected in outcomes and are not political in and of themselves.