The Autocratic Middle Class: How State Dependency Reduces the Demand for Democracy, Bryn Rosenfeld

Reviewed by Natalie Wenzell Letsa


The most consequential works on democratization—theories from Barrington Moore, Seymour Martin Lipset, Carles Boix, and Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson—have all argued that democratization cannot be explained without first understanding the role of the middle class. Yet despite the immense influence that these theories have had on our understandings of the political economy of democratization, we have very little evidence testing their micro-level foundations. Bryn Rosenfeld's excellent book The Autocratic Middle Class offers a much-needed corrective by presenting exhaustive evidence on the beliefs, motivations, and behaviors of the middle classes in the autocratic countries of the former Soviet Union, while introducing a novel theory that bridges some of the contradictions of these classic theories of democratization.

The Autocratic Middle Class presents a very simple, intuitive theory that is nonetheless important for understanding autocratic politics. Simply put, the middle class is not homogenous; it is divided between those whose incomes and livelihoods are dependent on the state (the public sector middle class) and those whose jobs and economic prospects are independent of the state (the private sector middle class). The core premise of the argument is that only the private sector middle class is truly committed to democracy. Middle-class citizens who derive their incomes from public sector jobs are beholden to the autocratic regime, and therefore less likely to support democracy or democratization. Whether a country's middle class is the driver of democratization or a conservative bulwark of stability depends on the extent to which it is economically dependent on the state.

Though the argument is simple, it is meticulously tested with numerous rich data sets that provide compelling evidence in support of the theory. Rosenfeld convincingly shows that the public sector middle class is large and consequential in the autocracies of the former Soviet Union. According to nationally representative public opinion data, a whopping 67 percent of the middle class in this set of countries has been employed in the public sector for some period of time since 1991. Further, under a litany of specifications and robustness checks, Rosenfeld shows that the public sector middle class is definitively less committed to democracy than the private sector middle class; they are in fact closer to the working class in their political opinions about democracy. Further, using survey data collected from actual protestors during protests in Moscow from 2011 to 2013, Rosenfeld shows that the public sector middle class is also less likely to join protests than the private sector middle class—an important step linking middle class beliefs to their actual participation in the process of democratization.

The Autocratic Middle Class is a must-read for anyone interested in autocratic politics; its argument has critical implications for theories of not just democratization, but also public opinion and political economy. Further, the simplicity of the theory offers fertile ground for extensions and implications of this core contribution. For example, the empirical measure of the middle class looks specifically at white-collar workers with high levels of education. If the measure included the entrepreneurial middle class—small business owners—how might preferences be different? Further, despite the strong connection to the democratization literature, the macro-level implications of the theory remain untested—are autocracies with robust public sector middle classes actually more stable than autocracies with larger private sector middle classes? Does the overall size of the middle class matter, as many of the democratization theories contend—or is the breakdown of employment options sufficient to explain how beliefs about democracy sustain democratization? Taken together, The Autocratic Middle Class is a masterclass in the analysis of public opinion and an important contribution to the literature on autocratic politics and democratization.

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