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But that’s wrong. The middle class is more than just an average of rich people and poor people. The group has unique attributes — such as high rates of investment in education, homeownership, and entrepreneurship — that help make it a key ingredient for healthy economic growth and, more importantly, a healthy democracy.
“We know that in developing countries the middle class has been a very important force in sustaining, you know, pushing for liberal democracy,” said Nancy Birdsall, economist and president emeritus of the Center for Global Development. “You need the middle class to provide a kind of ballast for a stable, open economy and good politics, healthy politics.”
In other words, if politics are like the weather, a big middle class acts like a large body of water, moderating the highs and lows of public opinion.
It’s an old idea. Aristotle argued that a large middle class was a cornerstone of democratic stability and that extreme poverty and wealth risked the rise of either a populist revolution or repressive regimes dominated by the rich. And for decades, the American middle class created by post–World War II prosperity was one of the deepest, broadest forces of stability in world politics.
But by 1980, the dominance of the U.S middle class began to fade.