In the late 1980s and the early 1990s—with the fall of the Soviet Union and increased noise over the so-called Washington Consensus—the bet of political scientists such as the late Samuel Huntington vouching for the “modernization theory" was on a widespread proliferation of democracy. Economic liberalization that formed the gist of the consensus, coupled with a convincing rebuttal of central planning, was expected to create a new prosperous middle class with a liberal mindset upholding democratic values.

But with over two decades behind us, Joshua Kurlantzick contends that Huntington and others have been proven wrong. The world today is retreating from democracy. There has been a visible jolt in the progression of democracy in the past few decades. The primary reason the author cites for this retrogression is the revolt of the middle class across countries against democratic ways of governance. The experiences in a number of countries with different economic dynamics shaping their evolution are shown as proving this very interesting thesis.

The Philippines is probably the most interesting example in this respect: “It took 15 years for the urban middle class to move from leading the country’s battle for democracy to leading the battle against democracy." As Kurlantzick says, the implication of such a middle-class revolt against democracy not only entirely dismisses the “modernization theory" of scholars but also casts doubt on speculation by scholars who see economic progress in countries such as China gradually opening them up to liberal democracy.

The book involved a substantial amount of research and the author has done justice to the amount of facts in his grasp, although occasionally he derives conclusions from some faulty premises. For instance, he accepts without any criticism the definition of democracy as a governance system embracing liberal political and social values. But the basic premise of democracy being rule by the majority is almost completely ignored. This is important since it could easily imply that governments chosen by the majority may not necessarily embrace the values of liberal democracy. Egypt is probably the most relevant example, where after widespread protests leading to the ouster of a dictator, what followed was radical Islamist parties being elected to power by the majority.

A very important observation in the book, explained with a plethora of examples, is the tendency of the middle class to revolt either against governments controlled by the ultra-rich elitist minority, or against governments pursuing populist policies with support from a huge working class majority. The reason obviously is that the middle class is set to lose when the economy is dominated either by crony interests, or when governments pursue populism that threatens their economic position.

Kurlantzick rightly observes that for the middle class it seems that economic freedom matters more than political or social freedom. But, a liberal middle class may still prefer dictatorial rule over democracy at times. This is especially true of Egypt, where the middle class preferred the army’s control to prevent socially repressive Islamists from grasping power.

One drawback in this otherwise fine book is a mild vilification of the middle class as inherently opposed to liberal democratic values. However, even from the facts Kurlantzick presents, what is obvious is that the middle class is forced to support non-democratic ends in case its liberal economic and social interests are threatened by either the elite or the masses. Considering the fact that the interests of the middle class may not actually be against those of the masses—as is commonly perceived—the work could have been better had this been taken into account.