The majority of empirical theories of politics defines “democracy” simply as method of selecting a government. They highlight the process of choosing candidates by means of elections and the conformation of institutional arrangements which authorize and structure these choices. Elections are, in this system, almost the only form of controlling and punishing political agents and equality among citizens does not go beyond universal suffrage; one person, one vote, regardless of his or her social standing.
Given these premises, institutionalized democracy is a political regime which establishes an upper limit for participation, through the electoral vote, and for opposition. Democratic regimes are regimes that are broadly open to the public contestation of those who govern, regulated by legislation.
Robert Dahl listed the institutional guarantees that would, based on these ideas, make it possible to assess whether or not a given society is politically democratic. This list contains only eight items used in evaluating an institutionalized poliarchy: liberty of organization and association, liberty of expression, voting rights, eligibility rights, competition for public offices mediated through the vote, the existence of alternative sources of information, free and impartial elections, and governments capable of truly converting citizen preferences into decisions mediated by legitimately elected governments.
An evaluation of the Brazilian political system today according to these parameters would indicate (not without some controversy) that it sufficiently meets each one of them.
In addition to the issue of the diffusion of information and its sources, the fifth proposition, especially with regard to the social conditions which underline electoral competition, requires further testing. It would make it possible, for example, to determine the degree of inclusion of each different social group/class in the political elite.
This is an essential dimension of democracy which obviously, has no bearing on the formal criteria of eligibility (the legal definition of who can be elected and to which positions), but rather with the problem of can and who cannot accede to positions of powers: the informal interdictions, the social mechanisms of exclusions, the economic barriers, etc. Studies on the homogeneous or heterogeneous socio-professional profile of the elite groups are thus essential in order to discuss the political system per se, for instance, since they refer to the socially sanctioned structure of opportunities which filters those who participate in politics.
It is in this sense that researches on elites – and especially studies on the social origins of the political elites and their transformation in the course of time – become more important in characterizing the degree of democratization of the political system. This can be measured without necessarily referring, as usual, to more participative mechanisms in decision-making processes. This is an essential dimension in considering the quality of democracy.