The Mechanisms of Middle-Class Democratic Discontent

Erik Kuhonta, McGill University

The role of the middle class in politics has long been a central focus of political sociology. Much of the literature, including the work of sociologists such as Barrington Moore and Seymour Martin Lipset, has posited that the middle class stands as a harbinger of democracy. Yet, evidence from many countries around the world – both developed and developing – and in different historical periods, suggest that an unconditionally positive view of middle class democratic proclivities is highly misplaced. Although a few studies have now shown that the middle class can also express strong illiberal tendencies, the literature so far has not identified the mechanisms that lie at the heart of middle class action against democracy. In this paper, I elucidate the mechanisms underpinning middle class movements to undermine democracy by examining three key cases in which democracy collapsed. Through a comparative-historical analysis of cases at different junctures in world history – 1930s Italy, 1970s Chile, and 2010s Thailand – I show that similar mechanisms have propelled the middle class against democracy. These mechanisms include: virulent nationalist discourse, violent protests and acts of intimidation, as well as institutional engineering. By identifying these mechanisms, the paper shows that threats to democracy have some crucial similarities across space and time that are deeply rooted in particular types of middle class action.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 34. Democratic Regression in Comparative-Historical Perspective