This paper has two aims. First, we examine how relevant democracy is as a normative standard in academic textbook evaluations of international institutions and how the relevance of democracy-based evaluations has changed over time. Second, we are interested in what ‘democracy’ means when it is used in textbook evaluations of international institutions, and how the meaning of the term democracy in such evaluations has changed over time. An analysis of seventy-one academic textbooks on international security, environmental, and human rights politics leads us to several answers. Numerically, democracy is only one normative standard among others, and it does not seem to become more central in more recent decades. Qualitatively, we can observe slight changes in relation to three aspects. First, the range of legitimacy-relevant actors expands over time, most notably in relation to non-state actors as legitimate participants in (or even subjects of) international policy-making. Second, representational concerns become more relevant in justifying demands for greater participation in international institutions. Third, international organizations are increasingly discussed not only as subjects that enhance the transparency and accountability of the policies of their member states, but also as the objects of legitimate demands for transparency and accountability themselves.