In theory, as the middle class expands, men and women should become more educated and more demanding of greater economic, social, and ultimately political freedoms. And once a country reaches the per capita GDP of a middle-income country, it should rarely if ever return to authoritarian rule. “In virtually every country [that has democratized] the most active supporters of democratization came from the urban middle class,” Huntington wrote. Or consider the words of Russian economist Sergei Guriev, who declared just this past January that his country’s booming middle class has become “too well-educated and too determined to enjoy increases in their quality of life” not to force an end to President Vladimir Putin’s creeping authoritarianism. “They will demand that the Russian government is less corrupt and more accessible,” Guriev said.
But they’re not succeeding. Sure, it’s true that the middle class globally is exploding; the World Bank estimates that between 1990 and 2005, the middle class tripled in size in developing countries in Asia, and in Africa it grew by a third over the past decade, according to the African Development Bank Group. Today, roughly 70 million people worldwide each year begin to earn enough to join the middle class.
It seems, however, that this new global middle is choosing stability over all else. From Algeria to Zimbabwe, the rising middle class has often supported the military as a bulwark against popular democracy, fearing that it might empower the poor, the religious, and the less-educated. In research for my book, I studied every coup attempt in the past 10 years in the developing world and then analyzed a comprehensive range of local polls and media. I found that in 50 percent of cases, middle-class men and women either agitated in advance for coups or subsequently expressed their wholehearted support for the army takeover. This is a shockingly high percentage, given that in many of these countries, such as Pakistan and Thailand, the middle class had originally been at the forefront of trying to get the army out of politics.