One frequent criticism of the war in Iraq has been that it is impossible to impose democracy from above. The revolution in Egypt represents an attempt to achieve democracy from below, as it were. The jury is out on both nations--and on both paths. However, as many have noted, revolutions that brought democratic elections have often resulted in popularly elected governments that ended future free elections--Hamas in Gaza and Mullahs in Iran are relatively recent examples, eastern Europe in 1948.
There is a third alternative. Although some like to think of the American revolution as a bottom up movement, it began as a revolt against “taxation without representation.” It is the middle classes who bear the brunt of taxes. Even those who think of the American revolution as a populist revolt--I have in mind Charles Beard--concede that the authors of the constitution represented the commercial interest. The middle way to achieve democracy is through the middle class.
That the middle class is the best agent for democracy and best served by it was recognized by Aristotle. That this fact is not better known may be due to his calling the system that we call “democracy” by a different name, “polity.” He reserves “democracy” for something like mob rule. Aristotle thinks that the very best states require virtuous citizens and virtuous rulers. But even he knew that virtue is hard to come by. Hence, he substitutes for it a reasonable, if surprising imitation: belonging to the middle class. Because the poor have nothing to lose, they have little incentive to respect the rights of others. Because the wealthy have power, they have little to restrain them. It is the middle classes that are intent on respecting others in order to preserve their own property.
It is unclear how much the U.S. can do to promote lasting democracy in Egypt and elsewhere. However, the path to follow is clear. It’s the middle way. Promote the rights of the shopkeepers, small landowners, and professionals. These are the people who have a stake in continued stable government that respects the rights of all citizens. By some accounts it is some of these people, the tech savvy blogers, who are behind the Egyptian revolution. However, whether democracy can be sustained in Egypt will depend on the relative size of its middle class. That, at least, is what we can glean from Aristotle and the American experience. Here, I fear, Egypt may come up short. Iraq has a proportionately larger middle class and, thus, better prospects for sustaining democracy. In any case, we need to direct future efforts in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere to strengthening the commercial and agricultural interests that constitute the middle classes.
Edward Halper is professor of philosophy at the University of Georgia.