The Global Middle Class: A Force for Radicalism

CHENGDU, CHINA - JUNE 30:  Commuter traffic flows from a skyline of apartment buildings on  June 30, 2015 in Chengdu, China.
CHENGDU, CHINA - JUNE 30: Commuter traffic flows from a skyline of apartment buildings on June 30, 2015 in Chengdu, China. First inhabited more than 4 thousand years ago, Chengdu now has more than 14 million people living in its metropolitan area. It is China's 5th most populous city and the provincial capital of Sichuan Province in southwest China. The city is is struggling to maintain its ancient cultural identity, while becoming a modern major tech and industrial center. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The growing middle class in developing countries has been touted as one of the most promising demographic changes in recent decades. Millions around the globe have been lifted out of poverty and are now enjoying a better quality of life. The trend is projected to continue until at least 2030, particularly in emerging market behemoths China and India. However, middle class growth has a dark political side that analysts and policymakers have discounted. In several developing countries, middle class individuals are tolerating, supporting, or engaging in radical politics, including terrorism. Their extreme views and political behavior are at odds with conventional wisdom, democratic theory, and public statements made by some U.S. officials. Traditionally, the middle class has been viewed as a force for economic growth, democratization, and political moderation because it has a material stake in a stable society, a prosperous economy, and effective institutions that protect its property rights. Although advanced industrial democracies developed these attributes over time, the behavior of their middle classes during the long and rocky period of industrialization was hardly linear, democratic, or moderate. Indeed, the middle class historically has embraced fascist regimes, populist demagogues, military dictatorships, and revolutions, as well as the violence associated with them. It is misleading to ascribe to middle classes in different countries, regions, and historical eras a common set of political behaviors, whether moderate or radical. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence from the last decade suggests that U.S. officials need to consider the multiple ways in which the rising global middle class is fueling radical politics. The danger is that the following types of behavior may become more prevalent as the middle class continues to swell in developing countries over the next two decades, if projections prove accurate: • Pursuing "streetocracy." Protestors in weak and stable democracies have taken to the streets to denounce inept governance, corruption, poor delivery of services, and inadequate political and civil liberties. Unfulfilled expectations and feelings of relative deprivation, which are commonly found in the rising middle class, are frequent sources of radical political behavior. While popular protests are an important form of political expression in democracies, political activists recently have used street politics as a vehicle to try to oust political leaders. For example, some demonstrators in Ukraine, Brazil, and Venezuela since 2014 have openly sought to remove their presidents. Attempts to get rid of leaders using means other than the ballot box are decidedly radical, and they weaken democratic institutions, particularly in lower- and middle-income democracies that continue to struggle with democratic consolidation.

Opposing inclusive growth. Attempts by the secure middle class to block redistributive government policies may seem conservative because populist economic policies traditionally have been labeled as radical. In the context of lower- and middle-income countries that are struggling to develop, however, inclusive growth is widely viewed as a mainstream economic goal, and policies that are not inclusive are considered radical. Members of the established middle class in many countries have opposed cash transfer programs and other redistributive policies that narrowly target the poor and the vulnerable middle class because many in the better-off established middle class see themselves as being in competition with the lower middle class for access to state jobs and spending. Rising tensions within the middle class over economic policy are apparent in both China and India, where the rate of growth of the middle class is expected to far surpass other countries during the next 15 years.

Supporting coups. Among other causes, tension between the secure and lower middle classes over economic policy has led those in the established middle class, who often reside in cities, to support coups against populist political leaders who have focused on assisting rural and urban lower classes. Coups against two different Shinawatra Governments in Thailand in 2006 and 2014, for example, stemmed in part from social class tensions and the Thai Governments' divisive populist policies. Similarly, the Honduran military's forced removal of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009 marked a dramatic end to a political confrontation between the established urban middle class, which despised Zelaya's populism, and Zelaya's less affluent rural and urban constituents.

Enabling violent extremism. Only a minority of respondents to global surveys have openly supported violent extremism by Islamic or other religious or ideological zealots. Nonetheless, other surveys and anecdotal evidence suggest that the middle class in some cases has contributed to a sociopolitical environment that is conducive to violent extremism. Middle class individuals have enabled extremists by sharing their political goals, condoning terrorist activities, or helping to finance their groups. A survey of Pakistanis in 2011 revealed that poor Pakistanis disliked militant groups more than did respondents from the middle class. The process of social change also fuels violent extremism in a less direct way: It upends traditional cultures and relationships between youth and their elders, and it impels young people to search for a new social identity. That void increasingly is being filled by extremist ideologies communicated digitally by their radical peers from around the globe.

Committing acts of terrorism. Few experts dispute that a majority of terrorist leaders are college-educated and have middle and upper class backgrounds. Less well known and more controversial is other research that has shown no significant relationship between socioeconomic status and terrorism, including among foot soldiers, at the individual level. This finding suggests that members of the middle class are at least as likely to commit terrorist acts as individuals from other social classes. Two trends involving Islamic extremism are coinciding that are potentially worrisome: A majority of Muslims from around the world say that they want Islam to play a larger role in political life, and Muslims--the world's fastest-growing religious group--are projected to reach parity with Christians by around 2050. If a growing number of Muslims feel thwarted in their attempt to construct moderate Islamic regimes, for which there is no existing political template, then they may resort to militancy out of frustration.

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