Most days, the scene around Democracy Monument, a set of giant statues in the center of the old part of Bangkok, seems almost like a carnival. Pushcart vendors hawk everything from dried squid to ripe mangoes, and backpackers haggle with tuk-tuk drivers for a ride in their tiny, three-wheeled taxis.
But over the past year, as public anger over the alleged corruption of a series of Thai governments has reached a crescendo, a different, angrier sort of crowd has been gathering there. Last fall, tens of thousands of Bangkokians dressed in the yellow symbolizing Thailand's monarchy descended to call for Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's resignation and for a transformation of the country's electoral system. Now that a series of protests have forced Thaksin into exile and installed a new prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, the yellow-shirts are facing protests of their own, from Thaksin's red-shirted working-class allies. But elite opinion in Thailand still views the yellow-shirted protesters, led by a group called the People's Alliance for Democracy, as reformers fighting for the rule of law, while the red shirts are seen as an unruly mob. Tactics aside, this is not a useful division: Abhisit's middle-class supporters are not reformers, but antidemocratic reactionaries. Their perceived status as progressives clouds the truth, and it also throws a veil over one of the most confusing evolutions in developing countries over the last decade: the rise of the democracy-hating middle class.
It wasn't so long ago -- just 17 years -- that many of these same activists also fought battles in the streets of the Thai capital: middle-class Bangkokians, students, and businesspeople, and other elites. Today's yellow-shirted protesters at first seem like the same crowd: shop owners and office workers, wielding expensive cellphones and the political power typically reserved for the most influential bloc of the electorate in any country.
But the difference is that the protesters in the 1990s were fighting for democracy against a coup that had toppled an elected government. Despite its name, the People's Alliance is explicitly antidemocratic. In its platform, the group seeks election reform measures that are basically meant to slash the power of the rural poor, who comprise the majority of Thais. In the minds of the Thai middle class, poor voters only vote for politicians like the populist Thaksin because they're offered incentives such as a few baht on voting day. One former U.S. ambassador to Thailand puts it bluntly: The middle class disdain[s] the rural masses and see[s] them as willing pawns to the corrupt vote buyers. Instead of fighting for democratic rights, in other words, the People's Alliance is protesting against them.
This shift from a reformist middle class to a
reactionary one over a mere two decades should be surprising. But,
unfortunately, Thailand is not alone. Across the developing world, from
Russia to Venezuela to Mexico, as democracy faces new threats --
elected leaders who disdain its institutions, rising corruption, and
nationalistic economic plans -- middle classes, once the vanguard of
democracy, have increasingly turned against it. For the first time in
decades, democracy activists are beginning to wonder whether building a
strong middle class solidifies or threatens freedom's global spread.
Yet because the middle-class-equals-democracy theory has become so
entrenched, if it is proven wrong, activists, democracy-promotion
groups, and world leaders will not know how to replace it. In other
words, they won't have a clue about how to actually build democracy.
For years, political theorists have argued that developing a healthy middle class is the key to any country's democratization. To paraphrase the late political scientist Samuel Huntington: Economic growth and industrialization usually lead to the creation of a middle class. As its members become wealthier and more educated, the middle class turns increasingly vocal, demanding more rights to protect its economic gains.
But over the past decade, the antidemocratic behavior of the middle class in many countries has threatened to undermine this conventional wisdom. Although many developing countries have created trappings of democracy, such as regular elections, they often failed to build strong institutions, including independent courts, impartial election monitoring, and a truly free press and civil society.
The middle class's newfound disdain for democracy is counterintuitive. After all, as political and economic freedoms increase, its members often prosper because they are allowed more freedom to do business. But, paradoxically, as democracy gets stronger and the middle class grows richer, it can realize it has more to lose than gain from a real enfranchisement of society.
Soon after acquiring democracy, urban middle classes often grasp the frustrating reality that political change costs them power. Outnumbered at the ballot box, the middle class cannot stop populists such as Thaksin or Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez. Once the middle class realizes it cannot stop the elected tyrants, it also comes to another, shattering realization: If urban elites can no longer control elections, all of their privileges -- social, economic, cultural -- could be threatened.