Is the middle class bad for democracy?

The middle class makes democracies work, in conventional thinking. Middle class citizens use the power of their votes and their massed wealth to provide an effective counter to oligarchies of all sorts. But Joshua Kurlantzick argues that in Thailand and elsewhere in the developing world, a “democracy-hating middle class” now holds sway.

Kurlantzick thinks that the Thai middle-class, by driving Thaksin Shinawatra out of elected office, has broken with democratic process. Worse, he says the middle class in Mexico, Russia, Venezuala and other developing nations no longer believe they get fair representation, that the rural poor overwhelm their votes.

“Once the middle class realizes it cannot stop the elected tyrants, it also comes to another, shattering realization: If urban elites can no longer control elections, all of their privileges — social, economic, cultural — could be threatened. “

This shift in thinking by the middle class upends what we know about democracy, and calls its very existence in these nations into question, Kurlantzick says. He sees democracy in crisis, where the tyranny of the majority of voters overwhelms the rights of a society’s most successful members.

It sounds more like clever rhetoric to me. Protest, anger, fear about the rule of law, these things afflict young democracies. Why should we expect the Thais to behave differently than the English or the Americans on our own rocky roads to modern democratic society?

2 thoughts on “Is the middle class bad for democracy?

  1. Except that other democracies have committed suicide with the active help of their middle classes. Hitler had strong backing from the German middle class, which was perfectly happy to sell out the substance of democracy in exchange for “order” and the “rebirth of the fatherland.” (Watch Reifenstal’s Triumph of the Will, and pay careful attention to the way the rhetoric is aimed at middle class fears and values.) Similarly, the Spanish Republic was sold out by (among others) the more nascent middle class in Spain, who felt that Franco was a bulwark against communism.

    A classical marxist would argue that the goal of the oligarchs is to break the middle class (the petty bougousie) absorbing part into themselves and grinding the rest down into the working class. I think a more nuanced reading would be that the oligarchs want to co-opt the middle class in their struggle with the proletariat. As long as the middle class can be convinced that democracy favors their interests, they (the oligarchs) will allow it to continue. Once the proletariat begins to try to turn the rhetoric of democracy into reality, the tide will shift and the middle class will be convinced to abandon democracy in favor of protecting their other values.

  2. Lame of me to not respond for two months. I still haven’t managed to watch Reifenstal.

    I should note that I think the middle class barely exists in America today. Look at the way we define middle class incomes — an amorphous number but let’s peg it at $30,000 to $60,000 a year. That amount of income works well where we grew up, in midwestern factory towns. You could do all right on that, until your kids went to college (and 20 years ago both middle class incomes and college costs were much lower). It does not work so well in the vast coastal metropolises where we dwell. In fact, I think it makes much of the middle class part of the lower classes.

    So perhaps the Marxist split you describe is occurring here in the U.S. Grim.

Leave a Reply