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Liberal Democracy

Can the middle class really guarantee good governance?

Sina Odugbemi's picture
When social scientists and historians look back on the transformation in the quality of governance that took place in, first, Great Britain and, later, much of Europe in the course of the long 19th century, one explanatory factor often stands out: the rise of a large enough middle class.  What is large enough is, of course, a question of fact, and varies depending on the particular country context. This explanation is often contested, but it has stuck. People refer, for instance, to the revolts against monarchies that occurred across Europe around 1848 as the middle class revolutions. The sense that this explanation makes sense is so strong that when you attend seminars on improving governance in developing countries at some point or the other someone is bound to say: “Let’s be patient folks. Once these countries have a large enough middle class the pressure for improved governance will be unstoppable.”

I write about this now because I have just read an essay by Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development that restates the view with some sophistication. Please see: “Middle –Class Heroes: The Best Guarantee of Good Governance.” The essay is worth reading in full. I am going to focus only on her core case. Key quote:
Having a large middle class is also critical for fostering good governance. Middle-class citizens want the stability and predictability that come from a political system that promotes fair competition, in which the very rich cannot rely on insider privileges to accumulate unearned wealth. Middle-class people are less vulnerable than the poor to pressure to pay into patronage networks and are more likely to support governments that protect private property and encourage private investment. When the middle class reaches a certain size – perhaps 30 percent of the population is enough – its members can start to identify with one another and to use their collective power to demand that the state spend their taxes to finance public services, security, and other critical public goods. Finally, members of a prospering middle class are unlikely to be drawn into the kinds of ethnic and religious rivalries that spur political instability. (Italics mine.)
 

Quote of the week: Adam Gopnik

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"There are sins of omission but there are also virtues of patience. Many of the wisest things we do, in life and in politics, are the things we don’t. Affairs not started, advice not given, distant lands left uninvaded—the null class of non-events is often more blessed than the enumerated class of actions, though less dramatic."

-Adam Gopnik, writing in the The New Yorker August 29, 2016, "Learning from the Slaughter in Attica: What the 1971 uprising and massacre reveal about our prison system and the liberal democratic state." Gopnik is an American writer and essayist, best known as a staff writer for The New Yorker—to which he has contributed non-fiction, fiction, memoir and criticism since 1986.

The “voice of the people” is a fearsome thing

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The form of rule known as liberal constitutional democracy – the high achievement of the Enlightenment – is under attack almost everywhere these days by people claiming to represent that most fearsome of things: the voice of the people. This claim is made in a self-justificatory, there-is-no-arguing-with-that manner. All that opponents have to do is bow to the force, the power, and the majesty of, you guessed it, the voice of the people.

This is no ideological divide here. Populists on the right are making the claim as they push for the unchallenged sway of the genuine interests but also the grievances and prejudices of a portion of “the people” which they claim is “all the people”. Spot the slick rhetorical move. Populists on the left make the same claim as they agitate for the genuine interests but also the grievances and prejudices of another (but sometimes overlapping) portion of “the people” which they too claim is “all the people”. The same slick rhetorical move. What is left unsaid is a blunt claim: “The people I represent are the only ones that matter in this political community, and what they want takes priority over all else.”

There is a second rhetorical move that these populist leaders make, especially if, as often happens, they have acquired charismatic authority. It is the elegant dance from the “we” to the “I”. When these populist movements erupt the leaders say “we” a lot, but after a while they become the embodiment (or so they claim) of the “will of the people” and to oppose them is, they suggest, to oppose “the people”. The leaders of nationalist movements make this move easily. Once the “we” becomes the “I” these leaders become truly powerful and dangerous. If you oppose them they can unleash a mob on you, even if the mob is only online. And if they win power, to oppose them is treason. Mere criticism of the leader can land you in jail, and this is happening in some contexts as we speak.

#10 from 2015: Has the governance agenda lost its mojo globally?

Sina Odugbemi's picture
Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2015. This post was originally posted on October 29, 2015. 
 

Romanian RevolutionWhen I started work in international development in London in the late 1990s, a more experienced colleague gave me the following insight. At some point, she said, I would either catch the bug and stay in the field or I would not and leave it to go and do something else. And it is usually some agenda within the broad field that would get you hooked, she added. She was right. I caught the bug and stayed in the field, and the agenda that excited my passion was and remains governance: efforts to improve governance systems in developing countries in order to do real and permanent good. The reason was obvious. I had moved to London from Lagos, Nigeria, having participated actively in the public affairs of the country; and I had left thoroughly convinced that unless governance improved in Nigeria there was no way that the abundance in the country would lead to improved welfare for the vast majority of its citizens. That remains my conviction.

In those days working on governance issues was exciting; for, it was like joining an army on the march, one that appeared ready to sweep everything before it. There was definite intellectual energy in the field. Practitioners had poise and confidence. Initiatives were being dreamt up by different donor agencies. Funds were pouring into the field. And we began to see a new breed of development professional: the so-called ‘governance advisers’. But behind it all, I suppose, was a powerful zeitgeist: the Berlin Wall was down, communism was on the ropes, and liberal constitutional democracy appeared to have triumphed with resounding finality.

But now, in late 2015, it all feels very different globally. In the words of the B.B. King classic: ‘The thrill is gone’. Or so it seems. And I pen these reflections because in the last month or two I have had conversations with practitioners in the field of governance from around the world in the normal course of an intellectual engagement with the issues, and the news seems uniformly depressing. I have been asked again and again: What do you think is happening to the agenda these days? First, there is a feeling that the intellectual energy behind the field is not what it used to be. Second, the commitment of leaders in international development seems to have waned. Units are being closed, initiatives wound down, budgets cut and so on. And practitioners do not seem like a powerful army on the march any longer. The old swagger appears to have vanished. In other words, the field is no longer seen as ‘hot’. Young recruits are not queuing to be a part of the field by any means necessary. They are targeting the current set of ‘hot’ issues in development.

So, what went wrong? From the conversations I have had here is a partial list of challenges:

Has the governance agenda lost its mojo globally?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Romanian RevolutionWhen I started work in international development in London in the late 1990s, a more experienced colleague gave me the following insight. At some point, she said, I would either catch the bug and stay in the field or I would not and leave it to go and do something else. And it is usually some agenda within the broad field that would get you hooked, she added. She was right. I caught the bug and stayed in the field, and the agenda that excited my passion was and remains governance: efforts to improve governance systems in developing countries in order to do real and permanent good. The reason was obvious. I had moved to London from Lagos, Nigeria, having participated actively in the public affairs of the country; and I had left thoroughly convinced that unless governance improved in Nigeria there was no way that the abundance in the country would lead to improved welfare for the vast majority of its citizens. That remains my conviction.

In those days working on governance issues was exciting; for, it was like joining an army on the march, one that appeared ready to sweep everything before it. There was definite intellectual energy in the field. Practitioners had poise and confidence. Initiatives were being dreamt up by different donor agencies. Funds were pouring into the field. And we began to see a new breed of development professional: the so-called ‘governance advisers’. But behind it all, I suppose, was a powerful zeitgeist: the Berlin Wall was down, communism was on the ropes, and liberal constitutional democracy appeared to have triumphed with resounding finality.

But now, in late 2015, it all feels very different globally. In the words of the B.B. King classic: ‘The thrill is gone’.

‘Authoritarianism Goes Global’

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Policeman patrols 99% protestNorms, especially global norms, are exceedingly fragile things…like morning dew confronting the sun. As more players conform to a norm, it gets stronger. In the same way, as more players flout it, disregard it or loudly attack it, it begins to lose that ever so subtle effect on the mind that is the basis of its power.  When a norm is flouted and consequences do not follow the norm begins to die.

Looking back now, we clearly had a magical moment in global affairs a while back. Post 1989, as the Berlin wall fell, communism ended in most places, apartheid South Africa magically turned into democratic South Africa, and so on; it seemed like an especially blessed moment. The bells of freedom tolled so vigorously mountains echoed the joyous sound. It seemed as though anything was possible, that the form of governance known as liberal constitutional democracy would sweep imperiously into every cranny of the globe.

Just as important, there were precious few defenders of autocracy in those days. Almost every regime on earth claimed to be democratic, even if the evidence was discrepant. They could at least claim to be ‘democratic’ in some utterly singular if implausible way. Now, all that has changed. Despots and sundry autocrats strut the earth. They are not ashamed. They are not afraid. They are brazen. They are in your face. They say to anyone who asks: “Hey, I am a despot. I have my own League of Despots. Deal with it”.  And what is confronting the brazenness? The apparently exhausted ideals of liberal constitutionalism suddenly bereft of defenders.

The specific occasion for these reflections is the July 2015 issue of the Journal of Democracy (Volume 26, Number 3). It is a special issue focused on these matters, and I took my title from the lead essay: “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Countering Democratic Norms”, written by Alexander Cooley, Director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. His basic claim is as follows:

"Over the past decade, authoritarians have experimented with and refined a number of tools, practices, and institutions that are meant to shield their regimes from external criticism and to erode the norms that inform and underlie the liberal international political order." (Page 49)

Who Decides What is Acceptable Speech in the Global Public Sphere?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Is free speech a fundamental right and does it have appropriate limits? Pope Francis has provided the most memorable recent attempt at an answer. Yes, there is such a thing as a right to free speech but if you upset people you might have a punch travelling towards your face. But the Pope’s intervention is only one amongst many. In the wake of the recent terrorist outrages in Paris, and the massive responses to it globally, a debate has erupted about the nature of free speech and its appropriate boundaries. It is an intense and global debate, but, as often happens when human emotions are all aquiver, there has been more heat than light. In what follows, I will make an effort to untangle the issues before tackling the question I posed in the heading.

And in doing so, I am going to take two views of free speech. The first is what I call the internal view: free speech considered within the boundaries of specific countries and legal systems. The second is what I call the global view: free speech within the emerging global public sphere.  I begin with the internal view.

What a Difference Political Culture Makes

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

While democracy is developing and strengthening in more and more countries across the world, there may be some lessons to learn from older, established democracies. Democracy does not equal democracy – different forms and philosophical foundations shape different political cultures. Different political cultures favor different practices and outcomes. The political and civic leadership in evolving democracies may possibly have a chance to push things in one or another direction by looking at practices and outcomes in other countries.

Quote of the Week

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"Liberal democracy offers religious believers a bargain. Accept, as a price of citizenship, that you may never impose your convictions on your neighbor, or use state power to compel belief. In return, you will be free to practice your own faith as you see fit — and free, as well, to compete with other believers (and nonbelievers) in the marketplace of ideas."

-- Ross Douthat, Let’s Talk About Faith, New York Times, January 10, 2010