The most typical country in politics

Is it Guyana? Or Montenegro?

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. Taking a closer look at them, however, may give us a better sense of what really matters and overturn some commonly held preconceptions.

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 state has control over its territory)

  • regime type

  • liberal rights

  • general prosperity 

For each, I chose the standard measure for this concept:

I then calculated z-scores for each country (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). 

(One could quibble with these choices. An alternative measure with data from World Bank is below. Maybe the biggest lack is demographics, things like population and ethnic fragmentation, but I think they are already reflected in outcomes.)

This should show us which countries are 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 failed states; and they have a middling rate of prosperity.

The current top twenty from this measure is listed below:

  1. Guyana

  1. Paraguay

  1. Maldives

  1. Indonesia

  1. El Salvador

  1. Ukraine

  1. Dominican Republic

  1. Albania

  1. Bhutan

  1. Moldova

  1. Bosnia and Herzegovina

  1. Mexico

  1. North Macedonia

  1. Botswana

  1. Fiji

  1. Guatemala

  1. Ecuador

  1. Colombia

  1. India

  1. Kyrgyz Republic

What stands out is that most countries here are 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). 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. 

  1. Montenegro

  1. Senegal

  1. Serbia

  1. North Macedonia

  1. Sri Lanka

  1. Armenia

  1. Ghana

  1. Trinidad and Tobago

  1. Kuwait

  1. Albania

  1. Argentina

  1. Maldives

  1. Tunisia

  1. Puerto Rico

  1. Jordan

  1. South Africa

  1. Guyana

  1. Peru

  1. India

  1. Bulgaria

Again we see a strong representation of 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, India, and just outside of the top 20 Indonesia and Brazil.

Perhaps this is what political scientists would imagine as a typical country in the world. I’m not sure. It is quite different from the countries that we study according to Wilson and Knutsen (2020). Their list tends to emphasize Western Europe and North America (unrepresented here). India, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina, however, do show up in the bottom half of the 15 most referenced countries (though with relative low percentages of articles). Nevertheless, political scientists might want to bear in mind these states when they are thinking of what “typical” politics looks like.

It may be worth contrasting this with 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).

  1. Norway (most atypical)

  1. Denmark

  1. Sweden

  1. Switzerland

  1. Finland

  1. New Zealand

  1. Yemen

  1. Ireland

  1. Germany

  1. Iceland

  1. Netherlands

  1. South Sudan

  1. Eritrea

  1. Australia

  1. Luxembourg

  1. Belgium

  1. Canada

  1. Chad

  1. Burundi

  1. Austria

The World Bank Governance Indicators give a bit more space to the failed states again alongside the successful European countries plus Singapore.

  1. South Sudan (most atypical)

  1. Somalia

  1. Yemen

  1. Syria

  1. Libya

  1. New Zealand

  1. Norway

  1. Switzerland

  1. Finland

  1. Denmark

  1. Luxembourg

  1. Sweden

  1. Venezuela

  1. Liechtenstein

  1. Afghanistan

  1. Democratic Republic of Congo

  1. Central African Republic

  1. Netherlands

  1. Iceland

  1. Singapore

The European outliers correspond to Henrich’s conception of WEIRDness, ie, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. They also form a group on the Inglehart-Welzel cultural map of the world (see below). These countries are typically the object of many studies in political science. One might argue that we should pay less attention to these successful European states because of their atypicality, though if we believe Inglehart and Welzel’s theory, countries are heading to this quadrant as they modernize.

Does it matter how we imagine the typical state? I think it might. By focusing 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.