Assessing the Impact of the New Middle Class on Politics and Democracy

By Zechmeister, Elizabeth J.; Sellers, Laura et al. | Americas Quarterly, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Assessing the Impact of the New Middle Class on Politics and Democracy


Zechmeister, Elizabeth J., Sellers, Laura, Seligson, Mitchell A., Americas Quarterly


Do the region's new middle classes think and behave in ways that will strengthen, or undermine, democracy?

Ever since Aristotle, conventional wisdom has been that a robust middle class is a sine qua non for stable democracy. Put simply: no middle class, no democracy.

For decades, modernization and democratization theorists believed the prospects for stable democracy were grim in Latin America since there was "no middle class to speak of."1 Conversely, others found evidence of a growing middle class, but warned about the potential for political destabilization in the face of middle-class mobilization2 and the breakdown of cross-class alliances.3 And more recently, multilateral banks and the media have hailed the growth of the middle class in Latin America, attributing it to a felicitous mix of economic stability, economic growth and innovative social programs.

These competing views raise two questions: 1) How large is the group of individuals who consider themselves to be middle class in Latin America and the Caribbean today? 2) Will this group be a force for democratic stability or political decay?

Our analyses below suggest that Aristotle was not always right. Using a preliminary dataset from the 2012 AmericasBarometer survey by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) at Vanderbilt University, which included over 41,000 interviews in 26 countries, we found that the self-defined middle class has become the largest class grouping in the Americas today. But their political and democratic attitudes and practices are not that different from those who identify with the lower classes, and, in one case, are even less democratic.

HOW LARGE? The data show that a plurality of citizens of the Americas (41.0%) perceive themselves as belonging to the middle class. When we combine that with those who identify themselves as lower-middle class (29.2%), we see that a large portion of Latin American societies (70.2%) consider themselves broadly in the middle class.

These figures are based on a question from the 2012 AmericasBarometer survey, which asked respondents to identify themselves as belonging to one of five class categories: lower class, lower-middle class, middle class, uppermiddle class, and upper class.4 This is the measurement of class used for the analyses that follow.

T he term "class" is often associated with economic circumstances. While there are many ways to measure middle class (including those discussed in this issue by Lopez-Calva, p.52), comparisons of our survey data with other research indicate that individuals across the Americas tend to qualify themselves as middle class at a greater rate than do objective measures such as income or possession of electronic consumer goods.

WHERE? Since John Johnson's 1958 work on the "middle sectors" in Latin America, most research has shown a link between urbanization and the middle class.5 Our results confirm that this connection still exists; those living in urban areas are more likely to identify themselves as middle class (45.2%) than those in rural areas (34.8%).

Our analyses also find support for another widely accepted conclusion of Johnson's study: those with higher levels of education tend to identify with the middle and upper classes.

ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVE

We find that the higher the class with which respondents identify, the more positive they are in their assessments of their personal economic situations (on a 0-100 scale). This positive relationship between class membership and positive outlook supports classic research attributing self-esteem, feeling in control and optimism to the middle and higher classes.7

MATERIAL GOODS

To measure how class self-identification compares to ownership of specific products and services in the Americas, we created an index of "consumer electronic goods.

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