Middle Class Rising?  

A popular interpretation of the ongoing protests in Brazil, Turkey and elsewhere, as well as of the Arab Spring, is through the prism of Martin Seymour Lipset’s modernization theory, which sees democracy automatically following prosperity.


There are many variants of the theory, but the one that seems to be the most popular claims that democracy is a luxury good that populations, particularly the middle classes, demand once they are sufficiently prosperous so as not to constantly worry about their survival and meager economic existence. So, the theory goes, pressure for democracy and democratization will arrive only when a prosperous middle class emerges.


This view is not only frequently expressed in the pages of The Economist or The New York Times (see, for example, here, here or here) but is now all over the Turkish media. This perhaps reflects the power, or at the very least the appeal, of modernization theory.


But there is another interpretation. This view also paints the whole affair in a somewhat more benign hue. After all, according to this perspective, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP are responsible for the Turkish economic boom and have thus sown the seeds of the current discontent against themselves as an inevitable byproduct of their surefooted stewardship of the economy.


Though the AKP and the prime minister do deserve some credit for the Turkish economic boom of the last 12 years (even if the picture is more complex and nuanced as we have argued here), this view is both incorrect and trivializes the protests.


This is for several reasons. 


First, despite its great intuitive appeal (especially to the well-educated middle classes already inclined to see themselves as the harbinger of all good things including democracy), Lipset’s modernization theory just doesn’t have empirical support.


Though early work by Lipset himself and others, in particular most notably by Robert Barro, did report support for this theory, this was based on cross-sectional regressions, mainly recovering the fact that democracies are more prosperous. 


More recently, our work joint with Simon Johnson and Pierre Yared looked at the relationship between changes in democracy and changes in income per capita (with or without instrumenting for changes in income per capita). The evidence was fairly conclusive: there is no positive impact of income per capita on democracy. This was true focusing on five-yearly, 10-yearly or longer changes, and both in the post-war sample and throughout the 20th century. We found the same thing in a follow-up article when we distinguished between transitions to democracy and transitions to talk or see, and more carefully modeled their co-dependence. 


Of course, this may not be the final word. But the evidence seems fairly clear that if there is going to be any empirical support for a causal impact of prosperity on democracy, it will have to be much more slowly acting, perhaps taking longer than 50 years. We argued that such interactions might exist and reflect not modernization-type forces, but the joint co-evolution of prosperity and democracy starting at critical junctures.


Bottom-line: a 10-year growth spurt will not bring democracy or create huge protests for more democratic politics in and of itself, be it in Brazil or Turkey. 


Second, not only in recent examples, but throughout history, democracy emerges and takes firmer root because of protests and demands from the previously disenfranchised or excluded —-or at least so we argued in our first book, The Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.


Though the middle class does play a role in the democratization process, it is often not the driver of the protests or even their main catalyst. Democracy arrived in high-growth authoritarian regimes such as South Korea and Taiwan not because of the wishes or the actions of the middle class, but because of the effective protests, in the face of repression and sometimes violence, organized by students and workers. In Britain, even the landmark First Reform Act of 1832, extending voting rights to the middle class, resulted not because of middle-class protests but because of the Captain Swing Riots organized all over the country by agricultural workers as we suggested in The Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, and a recent paper by Toke Aidt and Peter Jensen documents. 


Third, the parallels between Brazil and Turkey (and Bulgaria, Indonesia, India and the Arab Spring) should not be exaggerated. Sure we have seen protests in each case. It is also true that in each case they do reflect dashed hopes and disappointments with the government not being as representative of the population at large as it claimed. But fundamentally, they do have different sparks and different origins. They also triggered different reactions. 


In Brazil, they started because of bus fare increases, but more deeply reflect the general dissatisfaction because the social reform process started by Lula and continued by his successor Dilma Rousseff, though it reduced inequality and poverty, did not fulfill the aspirations it set in motion and did not change the fundamentally corrupt nature of politics.


In Turkey they began as protests to stop the destruction of one of the few remaining parks in Istanbul, but quickly turned into protests against the authoritarian style of government of Prime Minister Erdoğan, and perhaps his increasing erosion of certain secular freedoms many Turks cherish.


The reactions have been very different also. President Rousseff, perhaps reflecting her own background as a political activist at the other end of police brutality and torture, or her party’s base of support, has been much more accommodating to protests, even as they turned unruly at times. Prime Minister Erdoğan has taken a much more uncompromising, polarizing hardline stance against the protests.


The consequences are also likely to be different. Though there are already some concessions to protesters in Brazil, the protests are unlikely to change the political landscape there. In Turkey, we argued that they could be a coming-of-age moment for its fledgling democracy.


There are already signs that this might be going on. The mainstream media, which was previously cowed into unwavering support of the ruling AKP, is now filled with stories sympathetic to protesters and opinion pieces on how the prime minister’s hard line has unnecessarily polarize the situation. Perhaps things have already started changing….


(But caution: we also noted that things are likely to get worse before they improve, particularly because the protests and the authorities’ reaction to them will polarize society even further, and this is certainly going on, and will probably continue to intensify for a while yet).

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

« The Egyptian Paradox: Saving Democracy and Setting It Back | Main | Resource Curse and Institutions: Getting more specific »