Why are the Middle Class Misbehaving? Exploring Democratic Ambivalence and Authoritarian Nostalgia

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In the May 2016 elections, a significant number from among the Philippine urban middle class helped elect President Rodrigo Duterte, a candidate who seemed to pose a threat to democratic governance. The voting behavior of a Philippine middle class "who should know better" has caught the attention of many foreign observers, and raised the question: Why are the Filipino middle-class ambivalent about democracy? This article seeks to contribute to this discussion by pursuing three lines of inquiry: first, what is democratic ambivalence, what are the challenges it poses to existing theory, and why does it matter; second, how does ambivalence-simultaneously saying "yes" and "no" to democracy-manifest in Filipino middle-class evaluations of democracy; and third, what are its possible explanations. The article contends that ambivalence poses difficult questions for scholars of democracy, which call for a re-engagement with a contingent conception of middle-class democratic support. Through analysis of interview data, it suggests that a narrative of "in the Philippines, freedom needs restraint" is shared among a middle-class public; rather than being understood as a rejection of liberal democracy, the ambivalent narrative reflects a negotiated response to the experience and observation of how democracy "works." Finally, the article suggests that the search for the roots of this "authoritarian nostalgia" may need to consider the normative legacies of the American colonial period; in particular, the use of "democracy" as a discourse to justify the abuse of power and the imposition of a subjugating authority. Contemporary middle-class democratic imaginaries may still bear the weight of these founding contradictions. Yet while ambivalence may reflect the contradictions and compromises of democracy in the past, it also holds potential, since ambivalence signals a rejection of the status quo and the desire for change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)77-102
Number of pages26
JournalPhilippine Sociological Review
Issue numberSpecial Issue
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes


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