Democracy field notes

Democracy field notes

Can Democracy Survive a Shrinking Middle Class?

‘No bourgeois, no democracy’ is the racy formulation penned half a century ago by the American historian Barrington Moore Jr. It’s a well-known political maxim, one that’s often used in support of the view that to be middle class is to be solidly, instinctively on the side of parliamentary democracy. But what happens if a middle class shrinks in size, loses its bearings, or suffers outright social disintegration? Do such developments naturally spell trouble for the principles and practice of parliamentary democracy?

Middle Class Waiting. Girard Alexandre/flickr

Francis Fukuyama thinks they do. During a recent visit to Sydney, he explained to me during a radio dialogue and public debate that ‘globalized capitalism’ is today eroding the middle-class social base on which ‘liberal democracy’ rests. Whereas the unpredicted rise of a vibrant middle class spelled an end to Marxism, along with socialism and other inherited Left alternatives, we’re now witnessing the unpredicted end of middle class politics, the middle-of-the-road kind we’ve known during the past generation.

The gloomy fate of the United States is very much on Fukuyama’s troubled mind. We’re moving, he said, back into societies where extremes of wealth and poverty are fuelling ‘oligarchic domination’ and nasty forms of populism. So the global triumph of liberal democracy, the process he famously dubbed the ‘end of history’, contains a strange, unexpected and bitter-sweet twist: it turns out that the victory of liberal democratic ideals is threatened by the declining power of its prime social agent, the middle class. In a recent Foreign Affairs essay, Fukuyama summed up the thesis with a gloomy prediction: ‘some very troubling economic and social trends, if they continue, will both threaten the stability of contemporary liberal democracies and dethrone democratic ideology as it is now understood’.

Fukuyama’s generally right about the trends, at least for the Atlantic region. In settings otherwise as different as Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, Romania, Croatia and the United States, the middle class, however it is measured, is shrinking in size. Middle class earnings are declining, despite longer working hours and rocketing numbers of two-income households. Middle class optimism has waned. Few of its members now believe the old precept that rising tides raise all boats. Saving for a rainy day belongs to a past gilded age. The middle class owes more than its disposable income. Its retirement plans are often in disarray. The long-term solvency deficiency of some pension plans and the disappearance of pension schemes provided by private employers make matters worse. Only a minority of middle class people believes any longer that their children will live as well as them; they find, in fact, that for financial reasons their adult children move back home. The middle classes feel priced out of housing markets. They have trouble finding easy credit; and with median family income flat-lining through time, they feel squeezed from above by the growth of super-rich moneyed elites. Dinner parties at which nothing can be discussed except mortgages, education and children are a dying ritual, or so it is said.

Pressured by such trends, Fukuyama calls for a new middle class politics that rescues ‘liberal democracy’ from extinction. I find his overall thesis and proposed remedy unconvincing, as I’ll explain at greater length in a future post on the changing relationship between the middle classes and democracy. For the moment, readers might find interesting our differences of opinion on Late Night Live.