The Rise of Autocrats—Democratic Backsliding and the Middle Class



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The euphoria of the 1990s–that the world had entered into a new era of democracy, and that the people’s power was bringing down brute authoritarianism– is long gone. Instead, when it comes to the global state of democracy, despair and gloom have become the order of the day. We are witnessing the erosion, decay, and in some instances, outright collapse of democracy like never before. Organizations that track the state of democracy all over the world, Freedom House, Varieties of Democracy, and the Economist Intelligence Unit inform us that in the past 15 years more countries have earned negative ratings on overall democracy scores compared to those that scored high in positive ratings. Net declines in scores have outnumbered net gains between 2006 and 2020. Less than half of the global population now lives under some sort of democracy. Countries that embarked on the democratic journey after the end of the Cold War have suffered the most. Citizens’ confidence in democracy is waning even in countries once considered “consolidated democracies.” Indications of deconsolidation of democracy in the United States and in European countries are discernible. This is the global phenomenon called democratic backsliding, defined by Nancy Bermeo (2016) as “the stateled debilitation or elimination of the political institutions sustaining an existing democracy.” Notwithstanding the particularities of the countries that experienced the process, scholars have pointed to the economy, particularly the decimation of the middle class, as the primary factor. This tentative conclusion, drawn from the experiences of the United States and Europe, is being projected as a universal lesson. The enduring political science theory that the middle class is the harbinger of democratic values is the basis of

such an argument. Barrington Moore’s (1996) oft-quoted pronouncement “no bourgeois, no democracy” engendered the notion, supported by others, that economic growth will help create and strengthen the middle class who will spearhead and protect democracy. This lecture challenges this conventional explanation drawing on data from six countries of Asia, Africa and Europe, namely Bangladesh, Kenya, the Philippines, Poland, Tanzania, and Turkey, from 2005 through 2019. In the past decades as these countries experienced significant economic growth, measured by gross domestic product growth rate, they have also seen democratic erosion and a gradual slide toward authoritarianism, measured by Freedom House aggregate scores, scores on press freedom, and voice and accountability in governance, and rule of law. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, this lecture will argue that the rising new middle class, a product of neoliberal policies and lopsided globalization, has become the primary supporter of the undemocratic regimes of various shades. Recent political developments in these countries demonstrate that institutional changes in these countries do not portend well for the future.

Publication Date



Political Science


5 p.m., Old Main Room, Bone Student Center

The Rise of Autocrats—Democratic Backsliding and the Middle Class