Turkey, Brazil, and the Middle-Class Revolutions

by Reihan Salam

Francis Fukuyama links recent political unrest in Turkey and Brazil:

In Turkey and Brazil, as in Tunisia and Egypt before them, political protest has been led not by the poor but by young people with higher-than-average levels of education and income. They are technology-savvy and use social media like Facebook and Twitter to broadcast information and organize demonstrations. Even when they live in countries that hold regular democratic elections, they feel alienated from the ruling political elite.

And their relative prosperity spurs them to political action:

Families who have durable assets like a house or apartment have a much greater stake in politics, since these are things that the government could take away from them. Since the middle classes tend to be the ones who pay taxes, they have a direct interest in making government accountable. Most importantly, newly arrived members of the middle class are more likely to be spurred to action by what the late political scientist Samuel Huntington called “the gap”: that is, the failure of society to meet their rapidly rising expectations for economic and social advancement. While the poor struggle to survive from day to day, disappointed middle-class people are much more likely to engage in political activism to get their way.

Fukuyama argues that while today’s middle class revolutions can be channeled in a reformist direction, dedicated to spreading the benefits of growth and prosperity, they might also dissipate as members of the urban middle class are bought off individually. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies have contributed to robust economic growth, yet they have alienated members of the urban middle class, many of whom are troubled by the dramatic expansion of their picturesque cities, and economic growth that brings with it large waves of rural migrants. Meeting the demands of the urban middle class might entail pursuing policies that tend to dampen economic growth in the name of other (admirable) goals, like environmental sustainability and historical preservation. This is one of the challenges involved in governing uneven societies, in which some swathes of the population live in affluent urban societies, which prize tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and novelty, while others live in poor rural societies, which prize stability, tradition, and cultural integrity. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.