The Middle Class and the War on Democracy

Recently at Foreign Policy, Joshua Kurlantzick wrote that in many developing countries, the middle class was staging a backlash against Democracy:

It wasn't so long ago -- just 17 years -- that many of these same activists also fought battles in the streets of the Thai capital: middle-class Bangkokians, students, and businesspeople, and other elites. Today's yellow-shirted protesters at first seem like the same crowd: shop owners and office workers, wielding expensive cellphones and the political power typically reserved for the most influential bloc of the electorate in any country.

But the difference is that the protesters in the 1990s were fighting for democracy against a coup that had toppled an elected government. Despite its name, the People's Alliance is explicitly antidemocratic. In its platform, the group seeks election reform measures that are basically meant to slash the power of the rural poor, who comprise the majority of Thais. In the minds of the Thai middle class, poor voters only vote for politicians like the populist Thaksin because they're offered incentives such as a few baht on voting day. One former U.S. ambassador to Thailand puts it bluntly: The middle class "disdain[s] the rural masses and see[s] them as willing pawns to the corrupt vote buyers." Instead of fighting for democratic rights, in other words, the People's Alliance is protesting against them.

I'm not sure why this is surprising.  This is pretty much exactly the story of the Progressive movement in the United States, which was a backlash against the corrupt hoi polloi.  Rent-seeking populists, backroom-dealing political machines--these were both inimical to classical liberalism, and also the voice of minority-majorities, who used favorable local demographics against members of the national elite.  Think of some of the signal accomplisments of the Progressives:  Planned Parenthood.  Immigration restrictions.  Civil service reform.  Massive campaigns against the corruption of the urban machines.  "Mental hygeine".  Spot a trend?

I would tend to agree with the Progressives that the machinations of the urban machines that sustained my irish ancestors were bad for the cities they worked in.  But the machines had undeniable popular support, which is why they were so hard to stamp out.  Immigrants might not like an individual bosses.  Nonetheless, the bosses were the only thing standing between them and a WASP elite that despised them.

The poor benefit from the capitalist system, probably more than the rich--compare Pharoah to Bill Gates, then compare a standard Egyptian peasant around 2000 BC to, say, a minimum wage worker in America.  But if you don't have the social capital to make it to the top, at any given time, it may look like it pays off to undermine or overthrow the system.  Naturally, the middle class, which preserves the system, will be averse to any system that gives them the power to do so.

And if you're sitting there, feeling all superior to those benighted bourgeois, consider all the things you want to take out of the hands of ordinary Americans because otherwise those amoral toads will do the wrong thing.  Gay marriage.  Or prayer in school.  Immigration.  Trade.  I've no doubt that you have some very compelling reason that these things are entirely different from support for the rule of law or a standard liberal economic order.  The point is, no one's really comfortable with letting the majority set all the standards.