The Deep Roots of Modern Democracy

By John Gerring (UT Austin), Brendan Apfeld (CVS Health), Tore Wig (University of Oslo), and Andreas Forø Tollefsen (University of Oslo and PRIO)

At present, the future of democracy seems more uncertain than perhaps any time since the interwar period. Threats are apparent everywhere. Even so, the vast majority of countries remain fairly stable. Most countries that were authoritarian at the turn of the twentieth century are still authoritarian; likewise, for democracies. Moreover, the first countries to democratize are all highly democratic today. Most of the variability we see in recent decades concerns countries with a short history of democracy.

This prompts us to think about the long-term causes of this distinctive regime-type. For all its richness and sophistication, the existing scholarship on the causes of democracy is often narrowly circumscribed in time. Most studies focus on the postwar era. A few peer into the nineteenth century. Prior to that, work is thin and tends to be focused on particular historical and regional contexts – especially Europe.

As a point of departure, we assert that patterns of democracy and dictatorship observable across the world today are not simply the product of recent history. In our recently published book, The Deep Roots of Modern Democracy, we explore those distal causes.

The book centers on two big arguments, one geographic and the other demographic.


The geographic argument centers on access to the sea. This is afforded by natural harbors, which may be located on the coast or on navigable rivers that flow, unimpeded, to the coast. Harbors enhance mobility – of people, goods, capital, and ideas. We argue that these connections provide fertile soil for the growth of democracy.

            Regional variation in geographic access to harbors is large. Harbor-rich regions such as southeast Asia and Europe may be contrasted with harbor-poor regions like inner Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and China. This map shows the locations of natural harbors around the world, as indicated by our geographic measure (described below).

We claim that harbors encourage democracy over the long term through several mechanisms. The extraordinary connectivity of harbor regions affects economic development (nurturing trade, urbanization, human capital, and economic growth), the structure of the military (away from standing armies and toward naval power), statebuilding (toward smaller states, confederations, or overseas empires with semi-autonomous colonies), and openness to the world (through trade, migration, tourism, religious pilgrimages, and conquest).

Each of these developments shifts the balance of power between rulers and citizens. As a result, areas situated close to harbors are more likely to evolve in a democratic direction than areas surrounded by large land masses or inaccessible coasts.

As is the case with most geographic arguments there is no identifiable point of onset. We surmise that the importance of harbors increased as shipping technology improved and ships displaced overland travel as the dominant mode of communication, travel, and trade. This was a long process, occurring at different speeds in different parts of the world. In Asia, it was well underway in the premodern era; in many parts of the New World it was a comparatively recent phenomenon. Accordingly, we expect that the influence of harbors on political institutions unfolded over a very long period of time in regions of the world where shipping has a long history and over a shorter period of time in regions where shipping is a more recent technological development. Everywhere, we expect some attenuation as other forms of transport, travel, and communications supplanted the primacy of shipping at the end of the twentieth century.

European Ancestry

Although there was considerable variety in political institutions throughout the premodern world, only one area developed systems of representation through parliaments. Defined in this fashion, democracy (i.e., representative democracy) was invented in Europe.

Beginning about 1500, with the advent of sailing vessels capable of circumnavigating the globe, Europeans began to populate the distant abroad, often in the shadow of colonial conquest. By 1900, they could be found virtually everywhere, in varying proportions. We argue that the resulting ratio of Europeans to non-Europeans – which we call European ancestry – structured the fate of regimes around the world.

Our argument linking European ancestry to democracy is complicated and must by no means be misinterpreted to imply any form of genetic or cultural superiority. Nor do we mean to imply that European colonizers “gifted” democracy to indigenous peoples. To the contrary, European colonization extinguished many existing forms of direct democracy in Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Australasia. The link between European ancestry and democracy did not primarily arise from the benign intentions of European settlers.

Rather, it reflected the incentives of Europeans in the places they settled. Where they were in the majority, Europeans were able to control political outcomes under democratic rules. Consequently, they had an incentive to invest in democratic institutions and were more likely to respond positively to claims by slaves and indigenes for inclusion, who posed little threat to European hegemony. Representative democracy in the first instance was exclusionary; it entailed representation for Europeans. It was thus not a democracy in the modern sense, with universal suffrage and equal rights for all.

Larger numbers of Europeans also meant greater exposure to the idea of representative democracy for non-Europeans, transmitted through schools, churches, newspapers, radio, direct contact with settlers, other settler societies, and the metropole. Larger numbers of Europeans brought additional features that we refer to as the infrastructure of democracy including education, advanced transport and communications, urbanization, a nation-state form of political organization, property rights, capitalism, and wealth.

Thus, we argue that where Europeans were numerous they established some form of representative government, usually with restrictions (de jure or de facto) limiting suffrage and office-holding to those of European descent. Where Europeans were in the minority, they were more reticent about popular rule and often actively resisted democratization. And where Europeans were entirely absent, the concept of representative democracy (as opposed to direct democracy and other forms of rule) was unfamiliar and the practice undeveloped. In this fashion, Europeans served as agents of diffusion as well as agents of constraint.

We expect that the impact of European ancestry on representative democracy applied with increasing force as European influence over the world grew, reaching its apogee sometime in the twentieth century – at which point most of the world was directly controlled by, or under the regional hegemony of, a European power or transplanted European settlers. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the influence of Europe and various “neo-Europes” across the world was declining and the concept of representative democracy no longer a European preserve. Thus, we conjecture that the impact of European demography on regimes increased monotonically across the early modern and modern eras with some attenuation in recent decades (and probably further attenuation in the future).


These two arguments are interconnected. That representative democracy developed on the European continent is, in part, a product of its aqueous geography. And that Europe discovered the world, rather than the reverse, was also a product of an aqueous geography. Harbors foster an outward orientation, as trade and seafaring come naturally to civilizations bordering the sea. From this perspective, it is not surprising that the age of globalization was led by Europeans. Finally, we must make allowances for how Europe traversed the world. It was of course through ships. And this means that areas (outside Europe) well-endowed with natural harbors were the first to be discovered, the most likely destinations for European migrants, and the areas most closely linked to Europe through trade and cultural exchange. Harbors connect.

To summarize, we argue that natural harbors serve as a prime mover of political institutions in the modern era, having a direct effect on the development of representative democracy as well as an indirect effect through the European diaspora. This historical model is illustrated schematically below.

Assessing the evidence

The evidence brought to bear on our twofold argument is diverse – enlisting qualitative and quantitative data, global and regional samples, modern and premodern eras, and various measures of democracy (including parliaments in the premodern era). We must restrict our discussion to a very brief presentation of the main results, with an emphasis on a few of the large-n analyses.

Evidence for Harbors

To gauge the long-term impact of natural harbors on democracy we begin with a global dataset on ports provided by the 1953 edition of the World Ports Index, which captures maritime activity near what might be regarded as its historical apex. Since the establishment of a port is endogenous to many factors that may also affect economic and political development, we needed to identify those areas of the coastline that were naturally suitable for ports (without a great deal of complex and expensive infrastructural investments). To do so, we measure the “squiggliness” of coastlines across the world – understood as the number of nodes required to fit a particular coastline as a ratio of total coastline distance within a coastal grid-cell. Squiggly coastlines are regarded as invitations to the construction of a working ports. We then extract an estimate of predicted ports, aka natural harbors, and calculate distance to nearest natural harbor for every terrestrial grid-cell in the world (excluding Antarctica).

The reduced-form causal effect of natural harbor distance on democracy is strong, accounting for roughly a third of the variability in democracy across grid-cells and countries in the modern era. To gauge how this impact varies over time, the graph below plots the coefficient from our benchmark model (flanked by the 95% confidence interval) in a moving three-decade window beginning in 1789-1838 and ending in 1990-2019. It will be seen that the effect strengthens over time, attenuating over the past few decades.

In robustness tests, we vary the size of grid-cells (to address concerns about non-independence of units and the modifiable areal root problem), the sample (excluding regions of the world seriatim), the measure of natural harbor distance (both the target variable and the modeling strategy), the measure of democracy (Polyarchy, Polity2, Lexical, et al.), and the specification (including other geographic predictors common to the literature on economic and political development).

Relative to these other geographic predictors, natural harbor distance proves to be especially strong and robust. Only one other geographic feature comes close. Distance from the equator also predicts democracy in the modern era; however, its effect appears to be entirely explained by the next feature of our causal model, European ancestry.

We also find support for the main mechanisms at work in our story, which are tested at different levels of analysis (grid-cells, cities, survey-respondents, and countries). These tests indicate that natural harbor distance affects urbanization (+), population density (+), gross cell product (+), state size (-), ethnic diversity (+), and democratic values (+).

Evidence for European Ancestry

The key concept of European ancestry is understood in a constructivist fashion. European heritage means what contemporaries – specifically, surveyors and enumerators – understood by the term. This understanding changed over time and was especially elastic in places with high rates of intermarriage such as Latin America and many parts of Asia.

However, categories were not entirely open-ended. The hierarchical nature of social status through the colonial era and much of the post-colonial era meant that boundaries were usually strictly policed and one could not blithely claim any identity one pleased. This lends our subject a degree of causal exogeneity (which we also address with instruments).

To measure this phenomenon a wide variety of survey and census estimates are brought together. After interpolating through time, we generate a dataset with annual estimates of European ancestry for virtually every sovereign and semisovereign polity from 1600 to the present.

Regression tests with this predictor indicate that European ancestry explains roughly two-fifths of the variability in democracy across the world in the modern era. To gauge how this impact varies over time, we again plot the coefficient from our benchmark model in a rolling regression. Again, the effect strengthens over time, while flattening out and perhaps attenuating in very recent years.

Robustness tests enlist a variety of instruments for European ancestry, alternate specifications, alternate samples (including sub-samples that focus on each region of the world), and different estimators (cross-sectional, fixed-effect, and varying lags). These tests render very stable estimates for the variable of theoretical interest.

Moreover, we find that European ancestry is a stronger predictor of democracy than other emanations of Europe such as colonial rule and Protestantism. The latter is also subject to doubts about measurement and causal endogeneity, explored in our work and elsewhere. We conclude that Europe’s impact on political institutions across the world worked primarily through a demographic mechanism. In places where Europeans were in the majority they were incentivized to introduce representative government as a sort of European club good, later expanded to include the broader population.


The impact of natural harbors and European ancestry on democracy probably peaked in the late twentieth century, as suggested by the previous figures. This fits with our theory and with apparent facts on the ground. Harbors no longer play a key role in travel (though their role in transport continues) and Europeans no longer rule the world. Nor do they enjoy a monopoly over democracy.

Yet, one might argue that these factors are part of a larger theoretical story extending forward and backward in time. We label this story connectedness (or connectivity). It refers to the ease with which people, goods, capital, and ideas pass back and forth to the rest of the world. A connected area has a high pass-through rate; an isolated area is largely self-contained.

Connectedness is an abstract feature of human societies that is contingently determined by physical geography. It is also a product of transport and communications technologies, which have served to enhance connectedness through every epoch of human history, with accelerating effects in the modern era. This, arguably, has implications for discussions about democracy’s current predicaments and future prospects.


  • John Gerring (PhD, University of California at Berkeley, 1993) is Professor of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches courses on methodology and comparative politics. He is the author of Party Ideologies in America, 1828-1996 (Cambridge University Press, 1998), Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework (Cambridge University Press, 2d. ed. 2012), Case Study Research: Principles and Practices (Cambridge University Press, 2d. ed. 2017), A Centripetal Theory of Democratic Governance (Cambridge University Press, 2008), Concepts and Method: Giovanni Sartori and His Legacy (Routledge, 2009; with David Collier), Applied Social Science Methodology: An Introductory Guide (Cambridge University Press, 2017; with Dino Christenson), The Production of Knowledge: Enhancing Progress in Social Science (Cambridge University Press, 2020; with Colin Elman & James Mahoney), Population and Politics: The Impact of Scale (Cambridge University Press, 2020; with Wouter Veenendaal), Varieties of Democracy: Measuring a Century of Political Change (Cambridge University Press, 2020; with Michael Coppedge, Adam Glynn, Carl Henrik Knutsen, Staffan I. Lindberg, Daniel Pemstein, Brigitte Seim, Svend-Erik Skaaning, Jan Teorell), along with numerous articles. He served as a fellow of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, NJ), as a member of The National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on the Evaluation of USAID Programs to Support the Development of Democracy, as President of the American Political Science Association’s Organized Section on Qualitative and Multi-Method Research, and as a fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, University of Notre Dame. He has received grants from the the National Science Foundation and the World Bank. He is co-editor of Strategies for Social Inquiry, a book series at Cambridge University Press. He also serves as co-PI of Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) and the Global Leadership Project (GLP).

  • Welcome! I am a data scientist at CVS Health. I also research questions related to democracy and the politics of education. I am interested in the forces that shape democracy, particularly education, and how democratic governments in turn shape their education systems. I hold a PhD in political science from the Government Department at the University of Texas at Austin. Please contact me with any questions or if you would like a copy of any of my work.

  • I am Professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Oslo. I am also an associated researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, PRIO. My research interests cover a wide range of topics in the study of political violence and political regimes. My work is published (or forthcoming) in American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, Comparative Political Studies, World Politics, Journal of Peace Research, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Research and Politics, and Political Geography. Some of my work has been featured in the Washington Post’s MonkeyCage column.

  • I am a Human Geographer and my research focuses on the causes and consequences of armed conflict, primarily at the sub-national level using quantitative geospatial data. I am currently leading the Young Researcher Talent project "Geographies of Conflict-Induced Migration (CONMIG)", where we use mixed-methods to understand how different forms of violence and levels of intensity affect forced migration, and to where individuals are likely to flee. I am also part of the TRUST project, where we research attitudinal impacts of refugees on host communities in the global south. I have also worked on the effect of aid on infant mortality rate, the effect of conflict on maternal health and child mortality, the impact of droughts on conflict and land ownership, and how conflict affects the local physical environment.

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