It is a longstanding puzzle that the middle classes rather than the poor typically cause political ferment and spearhead mass movements against the status quo in modern societies. After all, in most circumstances, it is the poor who should be more dissatisfied with the current regime – and their opportunity costs of taking action are lower than those of the middle classes.
Research by Heng Chen and Wing Suen, published in the August 2017 issue of the Economic Journal, demonstrates that, among other reasons, it is political pessimism that prevents the poor from participating, while the middle classes are more optimistic about the potential future after a change of regime.
In general, the new study shows, the political aspirations and involvement of individuals are directly influenced by their experiences and economic status in society.
The authors first confirm empirically the puzzling phenomena of the activism of the middle classes and the passivity of the poor. They analyse political participation data from the third, fourth and fifth waves of the World Values Survey, which cover 78 countries from 1994 to 2007.
The data suggest that the lower and upper classes are indeed significantly less likely to participate in demonstrations against governments than those in the middle social strata.
While the established view rationalises this phenomenon with education, the new study demonstrates that it is far from the complete story: once the authors tease out the effects of education empirically, the political aspirations of individuals are still significantly correlated with their economic status.
The new theory that these researchers propose shows that the economic circumstances or experiences of individuals in society may shape their attitudes towards the prospect of social movements.
Downtrodden individuals are pessimistic and reluctant: based on their own circumstances, they perceive the current regime as bad, rationally infer that all governments are bad and therefore believe mass movements are futile.
In contrast, the middle classes, who are better off in society, are more sanguine about the quality of governance in general and expect many fellow citizens to share the same view. Optimism of this sort underpins their active role in political activities, including protests and demonstrations.
The authors empirically test three key mechanisms of their theory:
• First, they show that the poorer are the respondents to the World Values Survey, the more likely they are to be politically pessimistic. This result is robust to various definitions of pessimism.
• Second, the data reveal that people who hold more pessimistic views about real changes in politics are less likely to participate in mass political action. More than a fifth of respondents in the least pessimistic group claim that they have ever participated in demonstrations against governments; while fewer than one in ten of the most pessimistic group report this.
• Third, the evidence indicates that poor people do not have sufficient knowledge about their actual status in society and tend to believe that they are closer to the median than they actually are. As a result, the poor wrongly believe that many more people would be as pessimistic as they are, which further prevents them from taking action.
One core message from this research is that the passivity of the poor and the activism of the middle classes are not necessarily behavioural or psychological traits; rather, they are a result of their contrasting experiences and economic circumstances.
The authors comment:
''The other side of the coin of our findings is that new information about how the world operates may change the pessimistic beliefs of the underclass and spur them into action.''
''That is actually one essential point made by Lenin in his influential political pamphlet What Is To Be Done?, published in 1902. He argues that to motivate the working class to take part in political action, their political consciousness “would have to be brought to them from without”.''
''It seems that the very same point has been understood well by the successful campaigner Donald Trump.''
''Aspiring for Change: A Theory of Middle Class Activism'' by Heng Chen and Wing Suen is published in the August 2017 issue of the Economic Journal. The authors are at the University of Hong Kong.