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Democracy in Danger

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
May 26, 2010


For decades, political theorists have considered the growth of a middle class to be the key to successful democratisation. Yet, in the last ten years, middle classes across the developing world have begun to defy that claim. From Thailand, Russia and Ukraine to Venezuela, Honduras and the Philippines, as young democracies face new threats, their middle classes have bucked the trend. The causes of this retreat are varied--from elected leaders defying the rule of law to corruption and excessive redistribution of wealth. But as recent events in Thailand have shown, if the middle and poorer classes become divided over democratic rights, the political system itself can fall apart. And these democratic rollbacks can unleash damaging conflicts, especially between the middle classes and the poor.

The late political scientist Samuel Huntington was one of many academics to link class and democracy. He argued that economic growth in developing countries expands the middle class, which, as it becomes wealthier and more educated, demands social, political and economic rights, largely to protect its gains. Meanwhile, as that middle class grows, regimes become more dependent on its entrepreneurs to power economic growth and authoritarian leaders are forced to listen to their demands. Such influence opens up the political system, with political and property rights following.

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