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.


Sondhi Limthongkul, the Thai Roger Ailes, shot by mattsteinglass
April 17, 2009, 9:39 pm
Filed under: democracy, Southeast Asia, United States

Sondhi Limthongkul, the Thai media baron who brought down first the government of billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 and then that of the People’s Power Party widely viewed as Thaksin’s proxy in 2008, was shot Friday morning in Bangkok. I remember attending the rallies Sondhi’s PAD was organizing opposite the Royal Palace in mid-2006 and thinking they seemed entirely oblivious to the risks they were taking to the social order. The rallies were vast, highly stagecrafted affairs, heavily funded by Sondhi’s Manager Media, with a huge stage, folk singers, simultaneous TV broadcasts also playing on projection screens all around the field, booths representing various NGOs and Democrat Party chapters, and so on. At one point in the evening, Sondhi himself came through, surrounded by a phalanx of strapping bodyguards, and made a bunch of confident pronouncements to us reporters; he looked like Lenin on the barricades, buoyed along by devoted followers and sure of his victory.

I thought of those rallies while watching the Tea Parties in the US earlier this week. In both cases, you had a relatively wealthy minority staging protests to deny the legitimacy of an elected and broadly popular chief executive, and in both cases, the protests were chiefly driven by a media empire that openly renounced objectivity in favor of attempting to unseat the government — in favor, in both cases, of another party (in the Thai case, the Democrats) that had repeatedly failed to win at the ballot box. The threat to the constitutional order was clear. And in both cases, it made me worry that in an era of vast accumulations of wealth and unaccountable media power, legal and constitutional structures may simply be too weak to hold. We’ve seen over the past few months in Thailand what happens when a privileged and selfish elite blithely knocks out the props holding up the legitimacy of government. I have little confidence that those in the US (“teabaggers”, FOXNews, etc.) who are actively undermining popular faith in the legitimacy of the US government will take that lesson to heart.

Sawasdee kha, shall I destroy my country for you? by mattsteinglass
April 11, 2009, 6:13 pm
Filed under: Southeast Asia

For the second time in six months, Thailand is dismembering itself in public. For a country so intensely concerned with saving face, it doesn’t seem to be expending a lot of effort in that direction lately. But on each of the occasions I’ve visited Thailand during periods of political upheaval — first during the mass demonstrations in 2006 that led to Thaksin’s ouster, then last fall during the demos that ultimately ousted his proxy government — I’ve had the impression that the Thais were busy pretending everything was hunky dory to each other that they lost sight of just how risky the situation actually was and of what the international consequences would likely be.

In 2006 no one in the self-styled democratic popular opposition movement had the slightest concern that abrogating the constitution and unseating a popularly elected government might undermine the resilience of the country’s young democracy. In 2008 nobody seemed to care about long-term consequences to the country’s tourism industry if protestors shut down the country’s international airport. It wasn’t that they said “the hell with the tourists, this is democracy”; they just pretended that Bangkok’s desirability as a hub and transit airport wouldn’t be affected. (Five months later, my mother-in-law, who’s visiting from Holland, deliberately flew through Singapore to avoid Bangkok because of the lingering sense of political unreliability.)

The classic line on the Thais is that their culture lacks methods of intermediate conflict resolution: things stay exaggeratedly sweet and friendly, unperturbed, concealing the actual buildup of tension, until finally they explode. That certainly seems to be what’s happening today. In Southeast Asia, adherence to protocol is extremely important. The cancellation of the Thai-hosted ASEAN summit, for the second time, is something the Thais will not easily live down amongst their peers.