Is Democracy Middle Class?

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Muesli, wholemeal bread, broadsheet newspapers, balsamic vinegar, humous, BBC 2, Amy Winehouse, vegetarianism, recycling, farmers’ markets, music festivals, cycling, goats’ cheese, Ian McEwan, Skiing holidays, poetry, preferring to take the train, grammatical pedantry, environmental hypocrisy, Bob Dylan, poking fun at others, thinking of dropping out of university, communism, The Clash, football, wha… woah, surely not!?

How about democracy? How bourgeois is the political system which should ensure government by and for the people? Well, consider that utopian paradigm: ancient Athenian democracy. Only about 10-20% of the population would have been eligible for participation in government, and these would all have been adult male citizens, themselves the sons of citizens, who had completed their military service. Although this might seem like a thoroughly aristocratic way of running a democracy, unlike other popular assembly-based city-state governments of the time (such as those in Sparta and Corinth), citizenship was not conditional on meeting certain property qualifications, such that it could not be termed an elite, aristocratic mode of government. Indeed, for many contemporary historians, the demos in democracy refers to the ‘people’ as distinct from the elite, rather than the more common modern understanding – that ‘the people’ means ‘everyone.’ It is also worth noting that the ‘working-class’ citizens – i.e., those waged labourers  or rural workers who would not have found it so easy to attend the ekklesia regularly – voted and participated far less, meaning that it was the moderately wealthy middle class who tended to dominate legislative proceedings.

Consider, too, our own parliamentary democracy. The Representation of the People Act of 1832 extended the vote to the middle class (males), expanding the franchise by over 50%. The move had long been campaigned for by the Whigs, (who would later become the Liberal Party, and subsequently the Liberal Democrats) and perennially resisted by the Tories, (the traditional party of the upper class landed aristocracy). Curiously, this reform which enfranchised still less than one in six adult males is often mooted as the beginning of democracy in the UK. Nick Clegg recently declared that his planned constitutional reforms would be the “biggest shakeup of our democracy since 1832” – an elected House of Lords, a referendum on the AV voting system, and tougher regulation of CCTV and DNA evidence presumably means more to him than universal and female suffrage, secret ballots, the outlawing of bribery and, more recently, devolution for Scotland and Wales.

What of our newly-formed Con-Dem government? It has been widely publicised that David Cameron’s first cabinet is comprised primarily of private school and Oxbridge graduates from rich families, but this is slightly misleading. Apart from the likes of George Osborne, Nick Clegg and a few others, the new cabinet do not come from exceptionally privileged or elite backgrounds, most having excelled at comprehensive or grammar schools, the children of moderately wealthy parents. Notably, many of the apparently ‘salt of the earth’ exceptions to the upper-crust hegemony, such as William Hague and Vince Cable, are from solid middle-class families. The only members of cabinet that could truly be described as having working class roots are Eric Pickles, who attended Leeds Metropolitan University and whose parents were Labour supporters in a small working class town in Yorkshire; Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin, who is from a coal-mining family; and Sayeeda Warsi, who talks candidly about her ‘extremely humble’ roots as ‘the daughter of an immigrant mill worker in a mill town in Yorkshire.’ (Baroness Warsi’s father now runs a profitable bed manufacturing company.) It is also interesting, if not entirely pertinent, that the traditional party of the middle class (and of democracy – the clue’s in the, um, name), the Liberal Democrats, have an entirely Caucasian parliamentary party.

Beyond the hopefully (but probably not actually) irrelevant persiflage of government ministers’ upbringings and demography, the democratic system by which we are governed does seem to act in a notably middle-class way. The increasingly unpopular first-past-the-post electoral system tends towards moderation, as extreme and marginal parties are underrepresented in favour of stable government. It is interesting that this majoritarian system is only just in serious danger of reform now that all three of the major parties claim to represent the interests of the moderate, middle-class, centre ground. The main battleground in elections is this fabled illusion of ‘middle England.’

How useful is it to examine democracy on an international scale? Well, by employing fuzzy logic and crude national stereotypes, plus the help of The Economist’s Democracy Index, we might be able to make some interesting generalisations. Aristocratic, landed-gentry-fallen-on-hard-times nations such as our own score moderately well; the UK gets a rating of 8.15 (10 being the most democratic). Other ageing superpowers such as Russia and the USA score similarly. Nouveau riche China gets a paltry 3.04. The ‘global poor’ score the worst – besides South Africa and Botswana, most African countries are categorised as having authoritarian or ‘hybrid’ governments. Meanwhile, the highest scorers are the moderately wealthy Northern European and Scandinavian countries, along with Australia, New Zealand and Canada (Sweden is the most democratic country with a rating of 9.88). Of course, one of the questions that relationships like this pose is whether democracy somehow begets moderate wealth and ‘middle-classness,’ or whether a middle-class society will naturally tend towards democracy. A 2004 UNDP survey found that 54.7% of Latin Americans would accept an authoritarian government if it could solve their economic problems. It should come as no great surprise that people will tend to think less warmly of liberal democracy if it cannot ensure stable jobs and good working conditions – almost half of the population of Latin America were living in poverty in the same period.

Of course before seeking to define democracy as ‘middle-class,’ a whole series of distinctions need to be made: between workers government and parliamentary government (see Jonny Keyworth’s article in this issue); between direct participatory democracy and representative democracy; a soviet-style ‘the government doing what the people should want’ democracy versus a liberal democracy with certain institutional checks and balances. It is clear that ‘democracy’ is not inherently middle-class; our representative parliamentary democracy may well be, however. It goes without saying that it should depend on the demographic make-up of a society – democratic nations with a large middle-class will probably have middle-class government. Perhaps the fact that middle class people have more time on their hands, and are likely to be educated to a relatively high level, means that they are more enthusiastic in their democratic participation. Perhaps, too, they are better placed to enjoy the benefits of a stable parliamentary democracy.

Article by Phil Dodds. Edited by Kate Banks.