Is the third-world middle class turning against democracy? by mattsteinglass
May 6, 2009, 12:39 pm
Filed under: democracy, Southeast Asia, United States

Joshua Kurlantzick had an interesting article recently in Foreign Policy trying to tie together all the middle-class opposition to populist elected leaders in various third-world countries (basically Thailand, Venezuela, Bolivia and sort-of the Philippines) to argue that third-world middle classes may no longer support one-man one-vote democracy. (He also kind of tosses in the Chinese middle class’s apparent indifference to democracy concerns.) Since the traditional explanation of the evolution of democracy runs through the bourgeoisie, this would mean that we no longer have any idea what the path to democracy is.

I think Kurlantzick’s got an interesting point, but that things are a lot more complicated than he’s making out. Fundamentally here’s what I would say: there are two separate kinds of situations in the third world. On the one hand, you have (quasi-)democratic countries like Thailand and the Philippines that have accepted the ideology of popularly elected government. There, an elite class is gradually discovering through the process of trial and error that while one-man one-vote democracy is a ridiculous mess of a political system, there is no realistic alternative and thus elites have to compromise with poor majorities. On the other hand, you have single-party non-democratic East Asian states like China, Vietnam, and to some extent Singapore, where political power is vested not in popular elections but in a professional political membership organization — the Communist Party or, in Singapore’s case, the PAP. There, it’s really not clear that one-man one-vote democracy is going to happen. It is possible that single-party professionalized managerial politics is a realistic alternative, in some states, to liberal democracy.

Megan McArdle meanwhile responds to Kurlantzick’s article by saying that the elitist opposition of third-world middle classes to mass democracy is the current form of what we in the West called “progressivism” in the early capitalist era.

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.

This seems to me an interesting, but basically misplaced analogy. Progressives never worked to restrict the franchise; they supported the extension of the vote to the propertyless hoi-polloi and, later, to women and Southern blacks. Philip Forbes and other progressives championed referendums and direct primaries. 1924 Progressive presidential candidate Bob LaFollette campaigned for direct elections to the Senate and for women’s suffrage. And so on.

In contrast, the anti-Thaksin PAD “yellow shirts” in Thailand, composed largely of Bangkok’s technocratic elites, with support from the monarchy, the Army, and the historically oppositional South, want to replace one-man one-vote parliamentary democracy with an anachronistic sort of Estates General (or fascist-style syndicalism?)  in which middle-class, royalist and Army institutions would elect most of the representatives. This would reduce the voting power of the poor, rural northern majority, who voted overwhelmingly for Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party and, after the PAD and the Army drove Thaksin out in a coup, supported the Thaksin-proxy Samrak Sundaravej government that won the post-coup elections.

In fact, the Thai Rak Thai Party looks very much like an early Progressive party in the West. It built a Thai government safety net, offering no-interest loans to farmers and small entrepreneurs (taxi drivers, notably) and a nearly-free national health insurance system that for the first time gave the poor health insurance. Thai Rak Thai was the instantiation of the Western New Deal-style political bargain: an elite-run party (albeit a different elite from the PAD, weighted towards Thaksin’s own groups of nouveau riche and ethnic Chinese-Thai) that creates a national welfare state in order to win the votes of the poor. Before Thai Rak Thai, Thai political parties had generally been fragile agglomerations of non-ideological cliques which shifted constantly, and this had long been the conventional explanation for the weakness of Thai democracy. Only the Democratic Party had resembled a real Western-style party, but its base in the South and among Bangkok technocrats left it as a permanent loser opposition. Thai Rak Thai changed all that. The reason Thaksin was eventually toppled was that his party looked so powerful that it threatened to wipe away every other clique in the country, and at the same time to make Thaksin personally unstoppable and rich as Croesus. The anti-Thai Rak Thai technocrats managed to get Thaksin kicked out via a coup and corruption convictions in absentia, then dismantled his party through constitutional court rulings, but those rulings were obviously contorted nit-picky selective prosecutions, transparently ordered up the by the monarchy and the Army, which discredited the PAD’s own claims of representing the war on corruption and the rule of law.

The street ralliers of the PAD are in the process of discovering that if they want to rule, they have to come to a compromise with the rural majority, and that will probably happen by way of redistributive taxes and social programs. PM Abhisit Vejjajiva has made some gestures in the right direction, but he’s going to have to go farther, faster if he wants to avoid another round of catastrophic street battles. There are some interesting parallels to be drawn with the Progressive era in the US, but they run in complicated directions: the straight-talking, mold-breaking Thaksin has a lot more in common with Teddy Roosevelt or Bob LaFollette (or Ross Perot, pretty clearly the most recent modern incarnation of third-way straight-talking progressivism in the US) than with their opponents in American politics, and there is simply no analogy for the crucial role played in Thailand by the King. It’s certainly no coincidence that opposition to universal franchise in Thailand, as in 19th-century France, Britain, or Prussia, comes from forces aligned with the monarchy. Meanwhile, it’s true that the PAD initially cast itself as defending Thailand’s 1998 Constitution against Thaksin’s corruption, but the PAD’s claims to constitutionalism went up in smoke when they welcomed the 2006 military coup. It’s just impossible to imagine any American Progressive politician from WJ Bryan to Henry Wallace backing a military coup to suppress the corrupt hoi-polloi.

Basically, it seems to me that when you misapply political categories in this fashion you pretty quickly wind up in the territory of “Liberal Fascism”, and it’s a tendency one should avoid.


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